A new profile in The Revealer. an online religion publication, discusses the justice work of Fr. Bryan Massingale, a professor at Fordham University, New York, and one of the foremost Catholic social ethicists. Massingale, who is gay and Black, describes himself as a ‘scholar activist.’ He has been compared to a ‘prophet’ for his passionate work in areas of race, sexuality, and gender.
Interviewer Olga Marina Segura chronicles Massingale’s lifetime of passionate and intersectional advocacy. As a closeted young man in the 70s, Massingale entered St. Francis Seminary in Milwaukee because of a “deep down sense that being a priest would enable me to help people but also be a force for justice.” During his time at the seminary, he grappled with being the only Black student at the school, as well as feeling marginalized by his sexuality. He tells Segura of an experience during one spiritual retreat, during which he had an important revelation:
“I realized at some deep place that I wasn’t even consciously aware of that I didn’t see how God could be imaged as Black or gay, and certainly not both simultaneously…that’s when it first dawned on me: The problem is not from God’s side of the equation. The problem is with the church.”
When he was ordained at age 26, he had not shared information about his sexuality with anyone beyond a few close friends—and certainly not family or church hierarchy. During the time of ordination, however, he says that he found a moment of ‘radical self acceptance:’ “I realized that God was calling me. This was not a fluke. This was not an aberration. That God knew who I was and what I was, and called me anyway.”
Early in his work as a priest, Massingale spent time ministering to AIDS patients, and recalls the shame and fear that many parents felt after their sons had died, even then keeping their stories as gay men a secret. He tells Segura:
“I don’t think we understood the deep silence, the shameful silence and isolation in which many members of the LGBT community lived in then. That the silence impacted our Church and our Church was complicit in it.”
Since then, Massingale has been a prominent supporter of LGBTQ rights in the church. He publicly declared support for marriage equality in the early 2000s despite criticism from his bishop, and he spoke at DignityUSA’s 50th Anniversary conference. He has been lauded by Fr. James Martin, SJ, as giving ‘great hope’ to many LGBT Catholics. In 2018, he directed New Ways Ministry’s annual retreat for gay clergy. This last event was denounced by Milwaukee Archbishop Jerome Listecki, and Massingale received death threats, while attendees faced a group of protesters.
Massingale remembers how diocesan responses to the two groups, the gay churchmen and the people protesting them, gathering at that time felt ‘jarring:’
“On one hand you have this awesome, holy, sacred, powerful experience of leading people in prayer. Then there are people who gathered to conduct an exorcism because they saw our presence as defiling a sacred space…the local bishop spoke out against these priests who were praying, questioning the idea of a gay retreat, but said not a word about the violence and the vitriol to which a group of people who are committed to God’s service are being subjected to. It angers me that people who want to gather to pray are seen as the problem, whereas those who would incite and insult get a pass.” ‘
In 2017, Massingale addressed New Ways Ministry’s National Symposium, telling attendees that LGBTQ people “must refuse to be silenced,” and encouraging those present to “continue to speak our truth.” Previously, when serving as a professor at Marquette University, he celebrated monthly Masses for members of the LGBTQ communities on campus because, he says, it is important they “have a Mass where they feel welcome and that God does love them.” In 2013, he challenged the Pax Christi USA national conference attendees to increase the organization’s defense of LGBT rights, as both a human rights concern and a necessary part of attracting younger Catholics. Massingale also joined other Catholic theologians and officials in condemning proposed anti-gay legislation in Uganda. He has said the church cannot abandon transgender Catholics.
In addition to his outspoken and consistent advocacy for LGBTQ justice within the church, Massingale is one of the strongest voices for racial justice with a Catholic lens. His work is a necessary piece of both reforming the church, and the many spaces where Catholic leadership and advocacy can be so influential. He sums up his mission as this:
“My whole ministry, in some way, has been to help the Church catch up to God, to help the Church understand that God has already gifted people of color with dignity and value and worth, and God has already gifted LGBT people with dignity, value, and worth.”
Massingale is truly one of the key voices to witness and watch at this time in our church and national history. We hope that he will continue to be able to serve his communities, and that we all can learn from his work and example.
This coming Sunday, Bondings 2.0 will feature a reflection from Fr. Massingale based on how the day’s readings intersect with commemorating Pride while confronting racial injustice. To read that reflection, visit www.newwaysministry.org/blog or subscribe to Bondings 2.0 using the box in the upper right hand corner of this page.
—Catherine Buck, New Ways Ministry, June 12, 2020