A leading theologian scheduled to lead a retreat for gay priests this fall has responded to criticism from the archbishop in whose diocese the retreat is being held.
In an essay in the National Catholic Reporter, Fr. Bryan Massingale responded to Milwaukee Archbishop Jerome Listecki’s letter criticizing the retreat and to others who have objected to the program. At issue is an upcoming program of New Ways Ministry, “Living in Truth: The Call to Authenticity,” which is a three-day retreat for gay priests, deacons, and religious. Massingale countered Listecki with five points.
To the archbishop’s statement that “no permission was requested no permission was requested for such a retreat to be held in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee (not that my permission is needed, nor would I have given it),” Massingale, who is a priest of the Archdiocese but now teaches at Fordham University, New York, replied:
“This year I marked my 35th anniversary as a priest. Over the years, I have led retreats for all kinds of groups. . .Never was there a suggestion that advance notification was needed to act as a spiritual guide for the people of God.
“Thus, it would never occur to me that a unique communication or permission would be expected in order to lead priests, deacons and brothers in prayer. These are my brothers, men with whom I share bonds of ministry, sacrament and life commitment. Frankly, I’m amazed, and sad, that there is such deep concern over a retreat for people who have pledged their lives in service to the church.”
Second, he objected to the archbishop’s claims that the retreat opposed Church teaching, noting, “I cannot see how anyone can read this [the retreat description about living authentically] and conclude that this retreat is ‘not in line with church teaching.’ Such an assertion, even before it happens, is at best unfounded — and perhaps even a sin of rash judgement.” To the charge by other critics that this retreat was “clandestine,” Massingale noted that it had been widely publicized.
Massingale also addressed the underlying reason for Listecki and others’ criticisms, namely the connection homosexuality and the priesthood. Listecki had recommended a column by an Archdiocese of Milwaukee priest, Fr. Nathan Reesman, who said people should not make sexual desires “our dominant marker of identity with a term such as ‘gay.'” Massingale responded:
“Let’s name the prejudice: There is a conviction among some that where two or more gay Christians are gathered, you don’t find Jesus but a branch office of Sodom. A gay retreat, then, signifies nothing but an orgy with prayers. . .Stated bluntly, gay clergy and religious are an embarrassment for some in the church. ‘Gay’ forces an uncomfortable public acknowledgment of what many already know, namely, that there are same-sex oriented priests, brothers, deacons — and bishops — who not only are members of the church but also serve it honorably as spiritual leaders.”
Massingale continued saying this prejudice and the “toxic culture of secrecy” it fosters are linked to the sexual abuse crisis now being revealed in a new way. He wrote, “Silence feeds shame; and these breed sexual immaturity, abusive pathology and systemic dishonesty.” This unhealthy reality proves the need for a retreat aimed at supporting gay ministers:
“I believe that this retreat, which prayerfully considers the joys and challenges of ‘living in truth and authenticity,’ is one way of creating a ‘healthier and holier’ climate in our church and a safer environment for all of God’s people.
“In conclusion, it is sad that a group of people who want to pray arouses such concern and even hysteria. Especially a prayerful assembly of ministers who serve Christ’s church.
“I am honored to lead this retreat. I believe it will be an occasion of grace, not only for those who attend, but also for the church we serve and love.”
Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, said the retreat for gay priests, deacons, and religious had been held in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee last year without any comment from Listecki. DeBernardo continued in a statement:
“New Ways Ministry has sponsored retreats and other programs for gay priests, brothers, and deacons for many years. One of the primary goals of these programs is to help men who have made a promise or vow of celibacy to live out that commitment in healthy and holy ways. Few programs such as these exist in our church. We encourage church leaders to provide programs to help these men avoid frustrated lives, deal with their sexual feelings in a healthy way, and integrate their sexuality with their spirituality.
“New Ways Ministry invites Archbishop Listecki to dialogue with us and with the gay priests who live and serve in his Archdiocese, so that he can learn more about the pressures these men experience and about the blessings that they bring to the community through their priesthood.”
The Racine Dominicans, at whose retreat center the retreat will be held, told the National Catholic Reporter that “all are welcome as long as their purpose is not contrary to the uplifting mission and vision the retreat,” and affirmed a retreat of this kind was certainly aligned with that mission.
Living in Truth: The Call to Authenticity will be held Tuesday-Thursday, October 2-4, 2018 at the Siena Retreat Center in Racine, WI. The cost is $275. For more information, click here, call (301) 277-5674, or email [email protected].