Review: New Book Tells of Gay Man’s Journey Towards Priesthood and Beyond

Today’s post is from guest contributor Dugan McGinley, who is an Assistant Teaching Professor in the Religion Department at Rutgers University. He is the author of Acts of Faith, Acts of Love: Gay Catholic Autobiographies as Sacred Texts (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2004).

It is always an interesting task to review an autobiography. After all, it is a person’s self-expression; who am I to pass judgment upon it? And as LGBTQI expression is facing a new round of challenges in our politically divided country, the more stories of gay lives we hear, the better.

Indeed, William Glenn’s I Came Here Seeking a Person: A Vital Story of Grace; One Gay Man’s Spiritual Journey (New York: Paulist Press, 2022), is both timely and invaluable for its long perspective, covering a period of time from before Stonewall to today. On that criterion alone, Glenn’s life story is an important work, representing the wisdom of a sage who has experienced gay Catholic life from a number of vantage points. He provides a long perspective that younger generations need to understand as part of our collective queer history.

Though the book is organized more or less chronologically, it reads more as a series of thematic essays than as a full-fledged, cohesive autobiography. Glenn takes the reader on his life journey by focusing on various things that preoccupied or defined him at particular points in time: family, schooling, the Jesuits, vocation, alcoholism, sobriety, political activism, relationships, AIDS, and prison ministry. The last seven chapters especially feel like explorations of deeply spiritual topics, such as grace, healing, dreams, sacred spaces, priesthood, darkness, and love, all through the lens of formative moments and events in his life. In this way, Glenn’s book follows one definition of autobiography I used in in my book examining gay life stories: “moments of lives enacted textually.” (In fact, Glenn’s earlier article about being gay in his Jesuit high school shows up in my book, and it was fun to read more background on that experience in this book.) While this way of organizing his life works well enough to emphasize his Spiritual Journey (one of the subtitles), the book also has the effect of compartmentalizing aspects of his life that are likely messier and more mixed than this structure conveys.

Some themes he covers are echoed in other gay Catholic autobiographies, such as his hyper-developed good-boy image and his desire to be a priest. In fact, I see his call to priesthood behind many of the roles he plays in his life. Even though he didn’t become ordained, it is clear that many people in his life see him as a kind of priest and he feels affirmed as one, through the voice of God he hears inside of him. I admire that he did not follow through with ordination. He seems aware that he could not live with integrity as both priest and openly gay in the Catholic system as it was constructed at that time (and still is in many ways). I sense his frustration about this impasse, yet in many ways he signals the virtuous, priestly things he does. The book is actually an indictment of a church that would sooner lose the gifts of gay priests (and even straight married priests and women) rather than allow them to operate in the ministry as fully realized human beings.

Dugan McGinley

I found the chapter called, “A Dark Wood,” the most compelling. In it, he details his disappointments and shares his dark night of the soul, when he found no consolation in his spiritual practice and resented that it was failing him. It felt real, and oddly affirming, to sit with him for a while in this dark night without it being easily “resolved.”

I was sometimes frustrated by Glenn’s apparent need to find positive outcomes and meanings from the various struggles he faced throughout his life. To be fair, I believe this is authentic to who he is, and my reaction is probably more a reflection of my own cynicism than anything else. But I often found myself comparing this book to other autobiographies, which is perhaps a hazard of my research in this area. Glenn’s autobiography is the polar opposite of one like Frank DeCaro’s A Boy Named Phyllis, which had me laughing out loud at times. I realize it’s hardly fair to compare these two. DeCaro is a natural comedian and his Catholicity hovers in the background of his story. Glenn is explicitly writing A Vital Story of Grace, as indicated by the other subtitle of the book. His Catholicism and spirituality are front and center.

I mention DeCaro because both he and Glenn are self-effacing in their stories, though in different ways. DeCaro uses humor to laugh at situations and own his shortcomings, while Glenn uses the language of self-help psychology to affirm his goodness and to characterize any feelings of unworthiness as shaming messages to be discarded. There’s certainly nothing wrong with this strategy; it reflects his training as a psychotherapist and spiritual director. It’s just that it feels pervasive. Every instance of self-doubt he expresses is soon squelched by a series of self-affirmations. I don’t know if this is just an indication of an ongoing struggle or a desire to always find the positive, but it doesn’t always feel as “real” as I was hoping. Still, I don’t doubt his sincerity and the value of this approach for readers who have experienced similar shame and trauma.

For all of my own issues with the self-help ethos of this book, Glenn does have a way with words. He writes poetically, adding a poignancy to the various struggles he narrates. Most importantly, he profoundly captures the feelings of being gay and Catholic before, during, and after Vatican II, with all of the attendant optimism, and then defeat, of the times from then until now. His story is an affirmation that gay people should trust their inner voices as God-given, no matter what official church teachings try to tell us.

–Dugan McGinley, August 3, 2023

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