What It's Like To Be A Gay Priest

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On the eve of the Roman Catholic holy day of All Saints Day, which this year falls on a Sunday, the TV network Al Jazeera America produced a report examining the lives of gay Catholics titled “What It’s Like To Be Queer In the Church.”

The report cited a report that’s more than a decade old by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, which claimed that anywhere from 15 to 58 percent of priests and seminarians are gay. The report came out in 2004, the same year the Rev. Fred Daley, now the pastor at All Saints Parish in Syracuse, N.Y., came out. 

Daley, who has been a priest more than 40 years, says he was inspired by what he called the “scapegoating” of gay priests during the church sex abuse scandal. He had previously been removed as a speaker at a September 11th observance in 2002.

In March 2004, he was awarded the “Real Hero” of the year by the United Way for his volunteer work in Utica, N.Y.

Daley said he decided he was ready for his community to know he was gay, and came out to a reporter interviewing him about the award, as a means to defend other gay priests.

“To be honest,” he told Al Jazeera, “growing up as a kid in high school, I had no inkling of being gay.” It wasn’t until three or four years after being ordained into the priesthood that he says he realized his truth. 

“I became in touch with a sort of ache within me that was really my sexuality sort of bubbling forth, and I began to be in touch with sexual attractions, and I was horrified. I thought this was terrible and I’m going to go to hell.”

A Jesuit spiritual adviser helped Daley, he said, begin “a journey of recognizing my orientation, accepting it and ultimately rejoicing in who God created me to be.” 

That journey ultimately took a decade before he could admit to himself his true nature. 

“I was freely able to choose celibacy, because I really continued to feel the strong call to ordained ministry. But I discovered that I had the capacity for intimacy.”

Daley’s revelation did not end his priesthood, and the Sunday after he came out, his congregants gave him a standing ovation at mass. Four years later he established a new parish in Syracuse, All Saints, where he says the goal is to show everyone they are welcome. 

He has not always found himself welcome, however. In 2006, he was not allowed to participate in a Catholic mission to Africa to spread HIV awareness, and he said it was because he's gay.

Pope Francis famously addressed the issue of gay priests in 2013, telling reporters: “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has goodwill, who am I to judge?” That statement — which earned Francis the Person of the Year cover from The Advocate — is nothing like what his predecessor Benedict XVI, believed. In 2005, Benedict signed a document that said men with “strong gay tendencies” should not be priests and, as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in 1986, authored a letter, approved by Pope John Paul II, calling homosexuality “intrinsically disordered.”

This month’s synod of bishops encapsulated the battle between Pope Francis and the church’s conservative bishops, 60 percent of whom are said to oppose his views, according to a report in The Tablet, a Catholic newspaper. 

“I would say a considerable number of the clergy have not updated themselves on what is the contemporary understanding of what is sexual orientation,” Daley told Al Jazeera. “They’re mouthing what they learned 30 or 40 years ago, which is a real problem.”

At the conclusion of the synod, Francis said he saw some bishops had ‘closed hearts.’ Daley remains hopeful.

“What Francis has done, which I think has affected gay people as well as everyone else, is he has a different sense of priorities. Doctrine is important, but it’s not No. 1. Mercy, compassion, understanding come before doctrine. And he also makes it clear that, ultimately, we have to follow our consciences.”

Read the full report from Al Jazeera, here.

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