A number of Catholic priests are gathering in Racine this week, not only to discuss religious matters, but also to reflect upon their experiences as gay men of the cloth.
When asked about gay priests, Pope Francis famously said in 2013, “who am I to judge?” But the Catholic Church still has a difficult relationship with gay priests and even parishioners who are gay.
Over the next few days, Racine’s Siena Center is hosting a national retreat for gay priests. The retreat is in its fourth year, and second year in Racine. While the retreat has received pushback from the local Archdiocese, it's celebrated as a step forward by priests who are attending.
One of the priests in Racine this week is Father Michael Shanahan. His home parish is Our Lady of Lourdes in Chicago, where he's been pastor for 11 years — and he’s gay. He revealed his orientation to his parish and the public two years ago.
“The experience has just been a wonderful journey — that a gay person need not hide and be isolated even in this role,” he says.
One reason it was important for him to come out, Shanahan says, is that it’s helped him move toward self-acceptance and away from any version of self-hatred.
“That in of itself allows you to be more genuine and compassionate with others. It’s one thing to talk about that publicly from the [Catholic pulpit] or in any setting, in the third person,” he says. “It’s a very different thing for you to talk about that when you, yourself, are identifying with that process.”
Shanahan also says the fact that he's gay and out helps him minister to families who may be struggling to accept their gay family members. Although, he says, they might not expect that at first.
“When they see a Roman collar, when they see me as a priest, they’re just assuming that this is going to be a harsh negative reaction,” he says. But when he lets them know that he is gay, it creates a safe space.
He says the retreats have provided him with resources and ideas for ministering to parishioners around LGBT issues. The retreat is organized by New Ways Ministry, a national organization that works to build bridges between the Catholic Church and the LGBT community.
Father Brian Massingale is directing and speaking at the event. He says gay priests who attend are living their call to serve people, within a community that can look upon their presence with suspicion, hostility and even disdain.
“Because of the church’s sexual teachings, there are many people who look upon a gay priest as being either a contradiction or that they’re somehow, by effect of being a gay priest, living a double life or a secret life or a hidden life,” he says.
However, Massingale says expressing that you're gay doesn't mean you're sexually active. But also, he adds, being celibate doesn't mean that you're asexual.
The theme of the retreat is “living in truth — the call to authenticity.” Massingale explains that the spiritual retreat addresses these matters with personal reflection, individual and group prayer and a few formal talks.
He says one of the key lessons for the priests attending the retreat is that God loves them. “And that’s the primary message that all of us who are Christians need to appropriate, but especially for those whose sexuality is marginalized and even disdained,” Massingale explains.
The Archdiocese of Milwaukee issued a statement about the retreat in August and said more recently that it was standing by that comment. Archbishop Jerome Listecki wrote that the event is not in line with Catholic Church teaching and is in no way connected to or endorsed by the archdiocese. Listecki also referenced an article by Father Nathan Reeseman of West Bend who stated that it’s never healthy or holy to act out on same sex desires, even in the realm of the merely emotional.
Much healthier and holier is the attitude that our sexual desires are simply one facet of who we are as persons, rather than making them our dominant marker of identity with a term such as “gay.”
People attending the retreat counter that being gay is not the dominant marker of their identity but just one part of a larger whole. They say it’s an important issue to discuss, though, because they are stigmatized because of it.
John Gehring, Catholic director of Faith in Public Life, an interfaith advocacy group based in Washington, says it’s critically important to support gay priests. He says estimates of how many priests are gay are all over the map, with no definitive numbers backed up by consistent research. But he indicates he’s heard assertions from 5 percent all the way up to 50 percent.
But as to how many priests are coming out, Gehring says, “I mean, my sense is priests are likely coming out to their friends and family more now because the broader culture is more supportive of LGBT rights now. But coming out to your parishioners or your bishop is another thing."
“And so, while there’ve been a few priests who’ve come out to their congregations — and I think they’ve been met, by and large, with strong support — I think it’s fair to say those who are publicly out tends to be a small number," he adds.
Father Greg Greiten is one of that small number. He’s pastor of St. Bernadette Church in Milwaukee and attended the retreat for the first time last year, when he was out to only a few people.
“And it was interesting because after I signed up, then I’m like ‘how do you put this on the calendar’? Not my personal calendar, but then it was on the church calendar,” he recounts.
He says he labeled them “priest meetings,” but suffered an awkward moment when he returned from the retreat, and staff asked him about the topics of his meetings. By the end of the staff meeting, Greiten says, he told his staff where he was. He says he was in the process of coming out before attending, but the retreat helped him do that.
He says he couldn’t live with any more deceit.
“I can tell you this, I have never felt more free, more alive, since I have shared my story and it’s been out there,” he says.