A true encounter with giving and receiving love took Fr. Peter Daly by surprise. The priest, a New Ways Ministry board member, recently shared his experience of caregiving for his dying friend, José Luis Sánchez, and the profound effect José Luis had on his understanding of life and love.
In the National Catholic Reporter, Daly chronicles their life together during José Luis’s final year-and-a half struggle with inoperable metastatic colon cancer. During this period, which Daly describes as “the most intense period of love and loss in my life,” he was caregiver, roommate, and complete support system for his dear friend as they shared life together.
Daly explains that although both men identify as gay, their relationship was not a sexual one, even as it was deeply intimate: “Our love was emotional and spiritual, not sexual. But nonetheless, it was real love.” Their 16 months together shed new light on the meaning of love for Daly, who was ordained in 1986. He explains:
“As a priest, I have often yearned for intimacy. We tell everyone that God is love. We tell people that the whole point of life is to love. But we seldom know the power and beauty and pain of love…my friendship with José Luis was the deepest and richest experience of love that I ever had in my life.”
A retired librarian in Washington D.C., José Luis was raised a Catholic in Puerto Rico and felt rejected by and wounded by the Catholic Church, like many gay men. He had attended a Unitarian church for the last 20 years, was involved with the local Dignity community, coordinating their lecture series. He “read more theology and Scripture than most priests,” according to Daly. The men met at a Dignity book club when Fr. Daly spoke to the group about his novel Strange Gods, a story of corruption and redemption in the church.
Importantly, Daly clarifies that José Luis was not a “Catholic in exile. He was not yearning for the church to take him back.” He expressed his faith in spirituality and social justice, serving the poor and giving generously, including offering translation services and owning very little. He found deep meaning in opera, having sung lead roles in Carmen and Pagliacci, expressing in a note Daly found after his death, “When I work, God respects me. When I sing, God loves me.”
As Daly describes their daily routines, he expresses tenderness about the meals, dishes, and ordinary life: “Sometimes I would lean on him. Sometimes, he would lean on me. At the end of the evening, we helped each other up the stairs.” With both men in failing health, José Luis with cancer and Daly with congestive heart failure, these small acts of mutual care carried profound intimacy:
“We usually would give each other a hug and kiss good night. Most nights we would remember to say, ‘I love you.’ For someone like me who had lived his adult life never hearing those words, it was an earthquake.”
Just two short weeks before José Luis’s death, Daly said his friend awoke one day confused and saying, “I’ve got to figure out how to get home.” Questioning him, Daly realized he was not speaking of his former apartment or even Puerto Rico. José Luiss simply pointed towards the sky and heaven. At his passing, Daly sang hymns by José Luis’s bedside, uttering the last “Alleluia” from “All Creatures of Our God and King” just before his final breath.
Daly’s reflection is primarily intended to honor the memory of his dear friend. But, as he also puts it, “I feel the need to be honest about myself. In my 72nd year I need to live with integrity. If not now, when?” He continues:
“I have lived the life the church has asked of me. I always endeavored to live a chaste life. I was not breaking my commitments behind the scenes. But I have changed in the last 40 years. So has the church. So has the world…I am not the only priest with these struggles.”
Daly is hopeful for change within the institutional church in its view on LGBTQ+ relationships, offering his own heartfelt story to continue to shift the narrative towards a focus on real people and relationships and away from doctrine alienated from the human experience:
“The 16 months with José Luis in my house were pure grace. They were the antidote to the loneliness and to the wound of celibacy. José gave me the great gift of saying, ‘I love you.’ I learned to say it back. Love is love.”
—Angela Howard McParland (she/her), New Ways Ministry, December 5, 2022