So, I'm supposed to see my second pope Friday. Me, an openly gay Latino Catholic — I’ll be in the same room— um, arena — as our church's vicar to Christ when he presides over Mass before thousands at Madison Square Garden. Imagine that: Pope Francis, a headlining act, and me, one of his many admirers.
Now, I said that he'll be my second pope, which in and of itself is an incredible statement considering a select few in this country have barely seen one. But 10 years ago, I was blessed to have had the opportunity to travel with my hometown youth group to Cologne, Germany, for World Youth Day. That's the global event coordinated by the Catholic Church every few years as a way to bring faithful young people together in celebration of their faith. Pope John Paul II's death just months before our trip led to my introduction to Benedict XVI, a.k.a. Pope 1.
At that point in my life, I was a closeted altar boy from Eagle Pass, Texas, along the culturally rich U.S.-Mexico border. To say that my hometown is predominantly Catholic would be an understatement. “Gracias a Dios,” or “Thanks to God,” is uttered more times in a conversation than any other phrase imaginable, and that’s really just from my grandmother. Being Mexican or Mexican-American or an American of Mexican heritage is usually a good indication of where an individual and his or her family worships. Here’s a hint: It’s typically at a church named after a saint or a title associated with the Virgin Mary. Ours is Our Lady of Refuge.
Now, considering my mother was the president of our parish’s altar society for several years, my father its chief decorator for religious occasions, and my sister a lector, I was essentially destined to become an altar boy. And honestly, I thought it was the coolest gig around for a kid my age. Not only would I be able to help the priest during Mass, but I’d be one of the most visible people there — how fabulous! Hmm, I guess the performance bug bit early. Whatever, I looked cute in my vestments.
I would say that of the 10 years I was an altar boy, I knew I was gay for roughly six of them. I don’t think I ever really asked God to take my feelings and desires away from me — I honestly just wanted him to help me understand them better. This is where you pick up the rosary beads you just dropped because, yes, I just admitted that I never tried praying the gay away. That, of course, didn’t keep my doubts at bay, though. I still asked myself the usual questions that LGBT Catholics pose at various points in their life: Would he send me to hell because of my so-called impure thoughts? Would he do that to me, especially since I was an altar boy? I mean, let’s be frank here: I served him. I loved him. I dedicated my life to him through prayer and vocation. What could I possibly be doing wrong aside from finding other boys attractive? Surely the God of love loved me as he created me, right? Right? We each hoped his voice would boomingly reassure us that we were perfectly normal in his eyes.
Most of this uncertainty plagued me as I boarded the plane to Germany with my straight contemporaries back in 2005, a few of whom either already knew or assumed I was gay. Though I had heard my local priest say during a youth retreat earlier that year that “it’s OK to be gay,” a statement I thought I’d never hear from a man of the cloth, I just wasn’t that convinced. And so I spent that week searching for answers that I recognized would never be definitively found. Instead, I quickly noticed the presence of God in literally millions of other Catholics and allowed myself to be washed over by the experience, which culminated in a mass led by Pope Benedict XVI in a vast field in the countryside. Hence, the first pope I saw.
But then I came home. I came back to the heavily Mexican-American community that defined homosexuality with slurs like maricón and joto. Clearly it was much easier to be Catholic there than gay, and so I took comfort within the church.
By the time I started attending college in Austin and coming into my sexuality, both my Catholic and gay identities were very much a part of me. I went to Mass every Sunday, oftentimes by myself, and thoroughly enjoyed it. I never felt unwelcome, because I felt that each of the parishioners shared a spiritual connection, one that didn’t require a sexual orientation or gender identity.
I still feel that now, having lived in New York City for the past five years. Up until this past February, though, I went to a conveniently located church that’s attended mostly by Dominicans, none of whom knew I was gay. I make that notation to emphasize the lingering hesitance among all types of Latino groups, not just Mexicans, to embrace homosexuality, particularly in a religious setting.
And then I got a phone call. A Paulist parish here in New York, which I now frequent, was creating a short documentary featuring several LGBT Catholics talking about their struggles in reconciling their sexuality and their faith: Would I be willing to share my story? I should add that I first learned about this from an OkCupid date, who also selected Catholicism as his religion, but I digress. Knowing that I could share the Latino perspective for this film, I immediately said yes. Oh, and then I called Mom, because I figure she’d want to know if I told the whole world about my life. She may be in her 60s, but she’s heard of “the YouTube” and most certainly Facebook.
It’s not like it was a surprise to my immediate family, who has supported me in ways that the word support itself can’t fully describe. They know I’ve been extremely vocal in talking about what it means to be a queer brown Jesus lover and have never stood in my way. Now, I’ll be the first to admit that’s rare among LGBT Latinos, which is why I’m so grateful.
I talk about this in depth in that short documentary called OwningOurFaith, which by the grace of God was presented to Pope Francis in March and has also been seen tens of thousands of times around the world. Upon receiving it, Pope Francis told my visiting Paulist priest, in Spanish, to have “the gays” pray for him. This coming from the pontiff who asked “Who I am to judge?” in regard to gay priests and who said both that the Vatican was becoming too obsessed with the idea of same-sex marriage and that LGBT people are gifts to the church. And just this summer, we learned that he may have actually watched our film. In other words, Francis has seen my gay face.
And he’ll hopefully see it again at Madison Square Garden, where I’ll be gathered with thousands of Catholics who feel he’s taking the church in a direction that’s refreshing, if not progressive. Most of the LGBT Catholics I’ve spoken with say they’re optimistic about his papacy, which has primarily been devoted to addressing poverty. Yet others, particularly those who have left the church, aren’t quite convinced that “all are welcome” because of hard-line rhetoric within the church. I get that, I really do. If Catholicism weren’t so ingrained in my being, I’d be cynical too. And to some extent I am, especially when I hear the church’s hierarchy refusing to acknowledge the existence of devout LGBT people, which is unacceptable in 2015.
But I believe in the power of numbers — the Catholic Church will only see us if we allow ourselves to be seen, as difficult as that may be for some depending on where they are in their journey. And so, either way, Pope Francis will definitely see me again on Friday. I’ll be the brown gay in pink.