The clarity and courage of the protesting students and families of Kennedy Catholic High School have pulled this old uncle off the bench. I’ve followed their impassioned appeals for kindness on behalf of their gay teachers, not only because my niece is a senior there — but because they echo quieter, unexpectedly kind and similarly courageous words spoken in my behalf when I came out as a gay priest of the Archdiocese of Seattle in 1988, in a parish not far from Kennedy.
I, too, “resigned” soon after my revelation was delivered to my parishioners in the Sunday edition of this paper — but only because the institutionally-defined terms under which I could remain would require the renunciation of my very being. Though I took no issue with my vow of celibacy, and loved my work and my flock, my assertion that my sexuality in its pain and puzzlement was both gift and grace put me at odds with Catholicism’s assertion of my “disorder.” After years of therapy and struggle, too many had loved me too long and too well for me to surrender that newfound confidence to a Vatican investigator.
Those summer weeks are a blur even now, but the kindness of my startled church community sustains me to this day. Many struggled with the dissonance and pain prompted by my coming out, as “gay” went from abstract to concrete in their familiar Associate Pastor. There was collateral damage as I exited — leaving despite their kindness, given no opportunity to say goodbye or explain my abrupt departure. We were forced to do our healing separately, to find God apart, in a forced exile. I’m still “unfinished” on that front these many years later.
Grace and good fortune carried me on from there to the profoundly spiritual community of those facing an emerging AIDS epidemic, from which seminary had kept me safe. The investment made in me by my gracious, loving Catholic tribe was not wasted, but redirected. AIDS put me again on familiar ground, that horrific holy place where parents had to choose between their orthodox beliefs and their children, where life’s ultimate questions were posed with little time to ponder or negotiate. Caring for the sick, comforting the dying, keeping company with those who mourn — all tribal reflexes of a Catholic. Often enough, love won out over orthodoxy.
And now, Kennedy — this passage certain to be a defining moment for the students and their community. Good that the kids know now, if they didn’t already, that a church and the Sacred are not one and the same, though they often enough touch. Such is the first adult step in a spiritual journey.
I would say to the students, forever carry with you the passion and clarity and militant love that fill you like breath in these days. Whether in or out of a church from here, hold fast to those gifts of your Catholic tribe.
The Archdiocese has the absolute right to “resign” these teachers. But might it find the kindness, humility and wisdom to question whether there’s a better way? Now more than ever, we hunger for leaders who can heal and unite us. Can’t we disagree, together, without casting out? With the institutional church’s profound failures to protect children laid bare, isn’t it time for the hierarchy to listen to the kids?
Archbishop Paul Etienne seems to attribute the “resistance” to “the much broader community” being served by Catholic schools these days. He is unwise to think the faithful aren’t at the front of the protests. If, as he asserts, the schools’ primary mission is “to form people with the mind and heart of Jesus,” I would hope he’d personally greet the students where they stand and applaud them and their teachers’ success with that very goal.
I met the face of an unconditionally loving God in the gaze of my own mother, to whom I came out to as a young priest. That amazing day, without hesitation or a tear, she held my face in her hands and reassured me that I — like my three straight brothers — was a gift direct from God, each of us entirely as God intended, and beloved without question. Nothing disordered whatsoever. Any church that claims the title “Mother” should do no less.