Today’s post is from guest blogger Father Steve Wolf, pastor of Immaculate Conception parish, Nashville, Tennessee.
Fr. Wolf will be the facilitator of New Ways Ministry’s upcoming retreat for gay priests, religious brothers, deacons, and for anyone who serves as a diocesan clergy personnel director, a religious community leader, or as someone involved in vocation and formation ministries.
The retreat is entitled “Following Jesus in Holy Honesty,” and will be held at the Siena Retreat Center, Racine, Wisconsin (near Milwaukee), on Monday-Thursday, November 11-13, 2017. For more information, click here.
Three of my brothers were making music at a pub, and a crowd of family and friends were dancing as couples. Except me. And the world suddenly felt like a party to which I was not invited. But grace was about to come in a conversion.
I had found myself in a terrible depression, unable to admit even to myself that I am gay. But God brought me out of this depression by the grace of accepting God’s complete love for me and simple acceptance of being gay. In the letting go that happens in conversion, the long abandoned call to go to seminary this time moved into a new “yes,” which could now be an honest “yes” as both gay and celibate.
A few knew all of this: my father, some other family and friends, the vocation director, the seminary rector, the spiritual director, and as time went by a handful of seminarian friends. I did not see a problem with being out as gay and celibate. I was counseled in the seminary to see this as part of the sacred truth of who I am and no one else’s business. This approach felt a bit dishonest, but concerns about it always dissipated in prayer. So I came to trust that being gay did not matter anyway since I am celibate. I was ordained in 1997.
In 2005, the Vatican issued a document challenging whether gay men could be considered for seminary. I have my sainted mother’s temper, and it flared wildly. My anger was with the institutional Church, so I came out to my bishop (who has recently died). From the first, he affirmed me as a good priest. When I later told him of my decision to come out, our discussions were animated by mutual fear and apprehension.
Then a day came when he assured me that he did not feel challenged by my coming out, but felt he could peaceably say to anyone, “Yes, I know that Fr. Wolf is gay, and that he is celibate. He is a good priest. Anything else?” When I thanked him for walking this “uncharted territory” with me, he responded, “That, Steve, is an apt description, because neither you nor I know what the response will be.” I am so grateful for his pastoral care.
Now in the twentieth year of this priestly vocation, I have received much healing especially as, during a brief leave of absence, I came out as gay to all my family and friends, brother diocesan priests, religious order priests and deacons who know me, and staff co-workers in the parishes where I have served.
The response from all but one was: Really! Ok… well… good for you… Now get back to work! One of my seven brothers had asked a direct question: “So, why do you want to be known as gay? You’re celibate; you’re not in a relationship; you’re not going to be in a relationship; so what difference does it make?” My response was and is :“Exactly; what difference does it make?”
One elder member of the parish Finance Board said, “Father, you need to finish unpackin’ ’cause you’re gonna be here a long time.” Deep healing has come from acceptance and encouragement from the good people of God and the grace of holy honesty.
Three particular antidotes have worked God’s healing on me. First is the pastoral compassion of Pope Francis, with his famous quote: “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will who am I to judge?”
Second is the insight of theologian James Alison that the world is undergoing a discovery that there is “a regularly occurring non-pathological minority variant in the human condition…which we currently call ‘being gay.’ “
The third is the Catechism, of all things, where the Church teaches in paragraph 1782 that the human being “has the right to act in conscience and in freedom so as personally to make moral decisions,” and then quoting Vatican II, We “must not be forced to act contrary to our conscience. Nor must we be prevented from acting according to our conscience, especially in religious matters.”
I carry these three quotations with me to share with Catholics who discover that part of their truth is being lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer and for their families and friends, as well. Before I part from them, I want them to hear God’s love letter: My Beloved, I made you, I know you, and I love you.
One’s sexual and gender identity is a sacred discovery revealed by our Maker, sometimes in a moment of clarity and sometimes quite gradually. The dignity of the human person demands that each be given safe time and space to let the truth be revealed. God will guide us each in our inmost being.
I am still a bit haunted by the suspicion that my “security” in the closet generated signals that I was not really a safe person for someone discerning LGBTQ realities, so I feel the deep need to apologize for how my Church has failed to humbly listen to the stories of gay members of the Body of Christ.
I have learned that expecting others to respect my conscience demands learning to respect the conscience of others. When I feel persecuted, the ones doing the persecuting are very likely acting out of some kind of pain.
Thomas Merton challenged some civil rights folks on a retreat in 1964 with the question: By what right do we protest? Is there a way to protest without being angry and bitter? The unnecessary suffering that comes from injustice can shut us down, it can cause us to lash out, or it can lead us to the third way of Jesus. Praying with Merton’s question sends me into the call of Jesus to pray for persecutors, love enemies, and forgive. The latter two of these actions are so dependent on God’s grace that I cannot do them on my own. But I can always choose to pray for persecutors. And this sets me free to speak up with compassion.
Although I’ve been accepted as gay and celibate by God, myself, family, friends, my bishop, brother priests, and parish leaders, I also grieve with Catholics who have not yet known this kind of acceptance. Every human moment of frustration or anger can be another invitation to pray for those who persecute, even when they do not know that they do so. This is one way Jesus Christ our Risen Lord keeps pulling me back into his dance of the alive.
–Fr. Steve Wolf, September 27, 2017