Fr. James Alison, a gay theologian, has penned an astoundingly beautiful personal essay for The Christian Century’s series that focuses on the prompt, “How my mind has changed.”Alison reflects on moments and relationships throughout his life as a gay man that shaped his relationship with God and his studies of theology.
As a young boy, Alison simultaneously realized his sexuality and the beauty of the Gospel:
“At this boys’ school, at age nine, I discovered the struggle of my life. I fell in love with a classmate of, to my eyes, astounding beauty. It was an utterly wrenching experience because, although it was in no way reciprocated and I had no language to match the feelings, I knew it was real. Here for the first time, reading the Bible after lights out (for we were sent to bed at 7 pm, but in the summer darkness fell only after ten) I realized that there was something true about the gospel, that it had something to do with what I was experiencing, and that this was surely not the same thing as my parents’ religion.”
In 1969, he “was told by a slightly older contemporary what a queer was” and “instantly […] knew that [he] was one— with relief that there was a word to match [his] experience.” But with this realization came all-too-familiar shame.
As Alison grew, a classmate introduced him to Catholicism. Alison writes of his response to the introduction of this new way of thinking:
“The difference lay in the realm of original sin. In the fallen world of total depravity which my father taught, where only the Bible’s words give light for salvation, there was perfectly clearly none for me. But maybe in a world in which God seemed more relaxed about creation, I would find some space?”
Alison became a Dominican priest at the same time as the AIDS pandemic, which “became the constant crucible for [his] learning.” He writes:
“Never had I been so alive as in the face of this emergency. The utter privilege of being a priest accompanying people with AIDS, while learning theology at graced hands, was what allowed Jesus finally to apply balm to the drasticity that had so precociously ripped through the heart of a nine-year-old boy.”
Alison’s shame continued, though. He went through three “ex-gay” programs, emerging “every bit as gay” as he had entered, but he does not necessarily regret the experience.
However, he did not fully accept himself until the sudden death in Brazil of “the man [he] had loved for several years, Laercio.” Laercio’s “parting gift” to Alison was “the awareness that our love had been real. From God. Not silly, hedonistic, or distorted.”
Furthermore, he noted: “To pretend otherwise was to kick God in the teeth. The teaching which had bound my conscience, as it has that of so many others, was simply untrue.”
Laercio’s death ignited a change in Alison which can only be called a conversion. “[Alison’s] false persona was able finally, and very painfully, to die,” he writes, continuing:
“Its death was possible because the gift of faith had been stretched into giving me a taste, already now, of eternal life. This sense, that death is mysteriously behind me, has not left me since. I had finally died and was beginning to become alive in Christ.”
Alison’s essay is a testament to the relationship between experiences of gay love and the discovery of the beauty of the Gospel. His story offers a personal view into how loving particular people at particular times can convert one’s heart to God. His descriptions of his shame and profound losses are honest and vulnerable. This essay is an important gift to the whole LGBTQ community, LGBTQ Catholics, and all Catholics, from a good and faithful priest who has spent much of his life devoted to helping the LGBTQ community.
—Madeline Foley, New Ways Ministry, September 7, 2020