An openly gay Jesuit priest has written about his spiritual journey as he wrestled with the harmonization of his religious vocation and sexual identity.
In an op-ed essay in the National Catholic Reporter, Fr. Jim McDermott, S.J., describes how for gay men, the priesthood can be both a foundation of joy as well as shame. He shares:
“For almost 30 years I’ve worked in the Catholic Church as a Jesuit seminarian and priest. It has been a tremendously rewarding life, filled with challenges to grow and inspiring people.
“At the same time, being a gay man in an institution where the only real conversation around homosexuality frames it either as a sin to be faced or a secret that must be kept has had costs. Over time, you can begin to lose track of the fact that who you are is actually OK, or even that you exist. It’s like you learn to hold your breath so well, you forget you still need to breathe.”
Despite a culture of secrecy that can pervade the priesthood, Fr. McDermott describes the compassionate love and support he received from his Jesuit community, which affirmed his sexuality:
“My whole life in the [Jesuit] order, . . . I have been surrounded by friends and mentors of every orientation who have accepted me, laughed with (and occasionally at) me and shown me through their lives so much about being generous, human and happy. I have lived with hilarious gay men who delight in being themselves and being Jesuits, and others who have quietly endured great suffering because of who they are. When my 13-year-old sister died suddenly in a car accident shortly before I entered, Jesuits cared for me with a tenderness and vulnerability that remains a touchstone of what our life can be.”
Fr. McDermott also discusses the consequences of hiding one’s sexuality, emphasizing the cumulative negative effects it can have, such as stifling an assertive stance against the widespread prejudice experienced by LGBTQ persons. He opines:
“As a gay priest, you tend to think of your silence as a required act of self-sacrifice. But in fact, our self-erasure also contributes to other people believing there is no place for them in the church or the world, just as we struggle at times to believe there is truly a place for us.
“Our reticence to share our stories within the church or to speak out when queer people are fired or mistreated likewise cedes the church’s narrative around homosexuality mostly to those who misunderstand or demonize us.”
He also suggests that the church will only be able to grow if more gay priests share their stories in whatever way they can:
“We dream of a church that will accept us. But realistically will our institution grow in its understanding of sexuality if we who have experience as both gay men and clergy won’t stand with other queer people and other Christian churches and share what God has shown us, that while we would love to not be afraid or ashamed anymore, to not feel in danger or like a burden, we would never choose to not be who we are?”
Bondings 2.0 has previously reported on a number of gay priests’ stories, which you can read more about by clicking here.
Fr. McDermott’s harmonization of his Catholic faith and sexual identity has reoriented his theological understanding of God:
“My image of God used to be Jesus the carpenter’s shaggy son who wanders around in what look like uncomfortably heavy garments — What is that, burlap? — offering a word of hope and welcome and staying faithful to his love for us even though it costs him everything.
“But these days, I find myself thinking of God more as mystery. It’s the experience of looking up into a night sky filled with stars and being overwhelmed by its infinite vastness.”
Fr. McDermott’s reflections underscore the hopeful promise of creating an inclusive spiritual space for all LGBTQ Catholics, including gay priests. He highlights Pope Francis’ recent reaffirmation of same-gender civil unions as an important component of that affirming vision.
Fr. McDermott’s candor, openness, and courage illustrate a beautiful narrative of spiritual truth and awakening. His vulnerability and honesty provide a foundation for other LGBTQ Catholics, and queer people more broadly, to cultivate an intimate, personal space that begins individually and extends outward towards the many institutions that influence and shape our lives, such as the institutional church and our wider society.
—Brian William Kaufman, New Ways Ministry, February 6, 2021