Last June, during commemorations for the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, Fr. James Alison gave a talk at the Church of St. Francis Xavier, New York City. Entitled “Facing Down the Wolf,” Alison’s talk used the metaphor of sheep, shepherds, and wolves to explain how he works to address the problem of institutionalized homophobia in the church, as well as to recall his own personal experiences as a gay priest and his support of other LGBTQ Catholics.
This month, Commonweal published an adaptation of Alison’s talk, just in time for this year’s Pride month. Fr. Alison uses the ‘wolves’ metaphor of his title to describe his experience as a gay man ordained to minister as a priest in the church:
“When I read Jesus’ words about the Good Shepherd, I know that in the task for which I have been commissioned, the wolf from which, as a hireling, I am most tempted to run away is the mortal violence and hatred that fleck from the teeth of the vehemently righteous in any culture—a violence unleashed whenever there is a suggestion that maybe after all LGBT people are loved just as we are, and that our flourishing takes the path of learning to humanize our love starting from where we are. Of course, one of the places where this hatred and this violence have a favored embassy on earth is the Catholic clerical closet.
“So, for me, learning to ‘feed my sheep’ involves not running away from the wolf. Running the risk of being killed by it, losing legitimacy, good standing, employability at its claws, yes; but also sidestepping its too-obvious charges, never baiting it to grab too cheap a shot of rebel righteousness. Rather, gradually facing it down so that it loses transcendence, its wiles and deceptions ever better understood, and in that way, finding myself brought to life as a genuine shepherd, as son of God.”
Alison observes that arriving at this place of ‘true being’ was a long and challenging process, with many pitfalls, but notes that “failure is one of grace’s preferred building sites.” He describes a childhood that normalized homophobia, even as his family held hidden ties to prominent figures in historical struggles for LGBT liberation, including England’s Lord Montagu of Beaulieu and Home Secretary Roy Jenkins. He writes that he discovered ‘a word for people like me’ when he was nine years old, a sensation that was ‘thrilling’ in validation that he was not alone, yet also left him “lost and abandoned in a world in which I would never be accepted.”
In a particularly heartbreaking passage, he shares his reasoning behind an early commitment to good works:
“I worked out that the very best thing I could do, knowing that I would forever be deprived of reward or approval, was to be as good, in all ways possible, as the person I could never be, while aware that I would have to become this person as from nothing, with no support or company. In a nutshell: that I should be in every outward respect as good a follower of Jesus as possible, despite Jesus not wanting me.”
Still, one grace that he recalls from his early childhood was of an experience of love:
“When I was a boy, I had fallen in love with a nine-year-old contemporary at school, without of course having any of the words to describe something so wonderful and so terrifying, I knew that love was something other than the banalities of my religious education. Because this happened so long before puberty, I was always protected from those who later attempted to talk about homosexuality as something primarily to do with sexual acts, rather than with love. I knew it was about love long before I knew there were such thinks as sexual acts.”
Using his own experience as a foundation, Fr. Alison tells audiences that he imagines his own stories are not unique, and that he believes sharing such testimony is essential to advance an “enfleshed imagining of families and their different future forms.”
Fr. Alison has been involved with LGBTQ theology for several decades. Most recently, New Ways Ministry profiled his work in creating a website, Praying Eucharistically, for LGBTQ-inclusive liturgy during the COVID-19 pandemic. Over the years, he has challenged church teaching and been blacklisted for it, but in 2019 was personally called by Pope Francis and restored to ministry. You can find our full coverage of his work here.
Father Alison’s essay, available here, is well worth reading in full. We are grateful for his sharing of the experiences that have carried him into ministry and the essential work of LGBTQ advocacy in the Catholic Church. Especially during Pride month, it is important to remember that personal stories such as Alison’s–and our own–are vital in all ongoing struggles for justice.
New Ways Ministry will be hosting two retreats this fall led by Fr. James Alison if allowed by public health guidelines and conditions related to the coronavirus pandemic. The retreats and links for more information are listed below:
- “For Freedom Christ Has Set Us Free”: A Retreat for Gay Priests, Deacons, and Brothers. For more information, click here.
- “A Reasoned Hope”: A Retreat for LGBTQ People, Family, Friends, and Pastoral Ministers. For more information, click here.
—Catherine Buck, New Ways Ministry, June 9, 2020