Priestly, but no longer a candidate for priesthood


As an openly gay man, I’ve spent the past 10 years pursuing the priesthood in the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits); I am full of gratitude for this time. I loved being a Jesuit, being a son of St. Ignatius of Loyola, collaborating with lay men and women in ministry as intense as sheltering women and children recovering from abusive relationships, and as fulfilling as running weeklong high school retreats in one of our prep schools.

Yet, this past July, I had enough. I left formation to become a Roman Catholic priest, and consequently, the same religious order that Pope Francis I belongs to.

Why? The closer I came to ordination, the more alienated I felt from my more traditional minded peers, the more betrayed I felt by my faith, the more confused I felt about my authentic place in the Church. With so many openly gay or closeted Jesuit priests and brothers I felt like a fringe character and a safe outsider — less of a neighbor and more of a hapless victim in an institution with a storied herstory.

Like the African-American Civil Rights activist Rosa Parks, I lamented discrimination and prejudice against members of the LGBTQ community, whether at home or in countries like Uganda and Russia. 

At home in the United States, I saw the Church’s firing of married gay and lesbian employees as a social sin and a structural evil, something I could not accept, something that, no matter how hard I prayed, was not stopping.

I lamented Pope Francis I’s uninspiring, yet still undefined comment: “Who am I to judge?” Almost a year later, I pray about his understanding of that question, and hope that some day he will publicly answer it. Until then, its meaning remains up for grabs. 

I lamented New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan’s bombastic reply, “Good for him. Bravo,” when prompted by David Gregory to answer a question about the coming out story of Michael Sam, the first openly gay professional football player.

A far sadder reality exists on the parish level, where the pastoral response to the needs of the people often contradicts the universally held “Truth” of the Roman Catholic Church, which is interpreted principally by the Vatican. 

In some ways such parishes become safer havens for the marginalized and the vulnerable only while being staffed by more liberal priests, and liberal religious orders. But what happens when the Jesuits, the Franciscans or the Paulists leave? This reminds me of the Italian, Polish and Eastern European immigrants that needed to integrate into the local American-English speaking parish after their ethnic parish closed. Then, language and custom and nationality were barriers to integration; today, it’s sexuality and gender and workplace discrimination issues, as well as the right of same-sex couples to marry and to adopt children, that divides the Church.

I am also much more fearful of the lone homophobe who might write his or her Bishop about any one of the married gay and lesbians that work at one of our Jesuit Prep Schools or Universities, like Fordham Prep and Fordham University, or about the gay or lesbian student group at one of our high schools or universities. 

All it takes is one homophobe to force an administration and its board of trustees to decide the fate of an employee or student group, perhaps even a coveted gay or lesbian athlete at a Roman Catholic university like Gonzaga or Georgetown.

Recently, I’ve watched this discrimination play out across the United States in cities like Seattle, Cincinnati, St. Louis, Fridley, Moorhead, Oceanside, Bensalem, Glendora and on and on.

Most recently, our Jesuit Parish in Kansas City fired Colleen Simon because she is a married lesbian. Why can’t members of the LGBTQ community, participants in a larger catholic communion, be loved for who they are whether at local parish like Riverdale’s St. Margaret of Cortona or Our Lady of Mount Carmel on Arthur Ave.? 

As a Cardinal in Argentina, Pope Francis I once told listeners that our Church has at times become too insular, leading to spiritual sickness; that we must avoid a “Church [that] remains closed in on itself, self-referential, [one that] gets old.”

The “Francis Effect” can and must affect the lives of the spiritually poor, lest the Church unintentionally romanticize the physically poor. At what cost? In firing married gays and lesbians from their gainful employment, the Church is intentionally bringing these talented men and women and their families closer to physical and material poverty.

Rosa Parks knew that in her time the world was divided into a black world and a white world. I know that the Roman Catholic Church is divided into a straight world and a gay world. Like Rosa Parks, I knew that accepting this custom was no longer an option for me. I, too, though some years younger than Rosa, was tired — not physically, but tired of giving in and abandoning the spiritual principles and virtues I worked so hard to implement.

Benjamin Brenkert is a Riverdale resident. Point of view is a column open to all.

priests, Society of Jesus, gay rights, Benjamin Brenkert