Last week I had the joy of sitting down to dinner with some of my favorite people in the world: two Latin American seminarians who I look up to tremendously, and some of their peers. The conversation at the table turned to Pope Francis, and whether people agreed with all of his groundbreaking statements–a conversation I was excited to see taking place. Unsurprisingly, this led to a discussion of his famous “Who am I to judge?” remark–which he made in response to the idea of gay men serving the Church in the priesthood (which, as chance would have it, I firmly believe is my vocation).
Pope Francis’ news-making comment pulled me between joy and a simultaneous sensation of underwhelm. I know that there are plenty of gay priests and seminarians from both statistical and anecdotal evidence. I also know that many or most bishops and religious superiors have ignored or liberally interpreted the Vatican’s confusing directive about denying men with “deeply seated homosexual tendencies” admission to priestly formation for decades. For me, the pope was simply acknowledging something that was profoundly obvious to most thoughtful people, and deserved to come to light already–that both gay and straight men can be wonderful priests.
However for my companions at that table, this statement by the pope was a disorienting revelation. They spoke about allowing gay men to be priests as though (1) this wasn’t already happening, (2) such people are more likely to cause scandal to the Church through sexual sins and crimes, (3) such people would probably have problems with celibacy, and (4) such people would upset the single-sex religious communities where they would be members.
Each of these sentiments drove a small stake in my heart, and I realized how differently we had been brought up about this issue. I concluded that it stemmed from the fact that in this conversation, the hypothetical gay person was a complete alien. There was no awareness that there were certainly gay people at this dinner (and in fact that table). No recognition of the statistical reality that gay men are no more likely to perpetrate sexual abuse than straight men. No consideration of the fact that gay people exist as constructive members of both society and the church, and are equally capable of celibacy in comparison to straight men. No witness to the already-existing, healthy communities of gay and straight people who respect and cherish one another. And I sat there fully appreciating the irony that my own existence is a sample case of every one of those realities which directly contradicted the statements floating about the table.
Which of those truths could I appropriately witness in that conversation? In what manner? In an additional irony, he language barrier was not even the slightest part of my inability to speak. Anything I could have or should have said was well within my Spanish vocabulary, and Spanish-language responses for problematic conclusions 1-4 raced through my head. But I choked. I didn’t know which one(s) to address or what tone to strike, despite many possibilities. In that moment I sat silent: frustrated and paralyzed by uncertainty and surprise.
My biggest takeaway as I left that night was the shocking realization that these guys don’t actually KNOW any gay people (as gay people…obviously they know gay people). Every misunderstanding would be automatically disrupted if there were openly gay people sharing their world. Which makes it perhaps even more damning that I am not out to them… but at that table I got a reminder that being that first person is scary. By the time I started to come out in the US, I was never the first one. TV characters, classmates, and my dad’s own business partner showed my family and friends that being gay was not akin to being a pathological drain to their communities. Perhaps my family members and best friends suffered from a few stereotypes or assumptions that frustrated me and I worked to undo, but these were nothing in comparison to the wall of them I encountered at last week’s dinner table. In a sense it was stepping back in time–to my high school swim team, or my boy scout troop. These were groups that I loved, and had a lot of love for me–yet they suggested no space for an openly gay person, and coming out seemed like a fast track to rejection.
Since I haven’t posted since before Thanksgiving, I’ll conclude that I am so thankful for the people who had come before me in my native country and communities and found the courage to raise their hand and say “I’m gay. I’m one of those people. Points 1, 2, 3, and 4 aren’t true, and my life helps show it.” I’m also so thankful for allies who who help unsettle those false assumptions and stereotypes by speaking up in those moments where I was intimidated. I’m also thankful that we have a Pope and dedicated young seminarians having these conversations openly, because sooner or later human experience (whether mine or someone’s braver than me) will catch up to them and the truth will out.