Sunday, October 26, 2008

Coming Out at the Pulpit

Fr. Geoff Farrow was recently removed from his ministry by the bishop of the Fresno diocese after the 50-year-old priest announced during a Sunday Mass that he was gay. Outraged parishioners left the service; many expressed shock. I don't know where Catholics in Central California have been blithering if they're threatened when a priest confesses he's gay. Farrow dared to point out the human face-- his own-- as one that in the Prop. 8 state campaign against same-sex marriage has been denigrated. (As an aside in today's paper, Jonathan Rauch in "Prop. 8's Ads' Invisible Gays" discusses the lack of explicitly mentioning or showing gays and lesbians in their TV campaigns-- pro or con.) Now, as one of the few younger clergyman-- if fifty counts as such in a Church that has during my generation eroded enormously-- he faces disbarring from practicing publicly his calling, and it looks like Catholics will lose yet another sincere, intelligent, and devoted cleric.

There's an excellent interview of Fr. Geoff Farrow with Steve López (soon to be played by Robert Downey, Jr. on screen) in today's Los Angeles Times. Fr. Farrow speaks with clarity and wisdom. The Church should be lucky to have such a man devoted to its welfare.

Here's a few excerpts. Coming to Florida from Cuba as a child, Farrow grew up Catholic but then, seeing the war in Vietnam reported, lost his faith before regaining it in college. He entered the seminary after he moved to California.
“I have a hunger for the transcendent,” Farrow said. “This is too precise,” he said of man and the universe, “to be a coincidence.” And so he became a believer, once more, in the church he had been “carried to in diapers.”

When I told Farrow that as an agnostic, I don’t understand that leap, he described God as love and faith as trust.

“Trust is fundamental of all human relationships,” he said. “Part of the attraction of the relationship with that person is that you’re always familiar with them and yet always discovering them.”

I love and trust my wife, I said, but she’s real and doesn’t need to prove that she exists.

“Precisely,” Farrow said with a smile, as if I’d described his relationship with God.

As with what I will expound upon from my own observations after these excerpts, he in the seminary faced challenges when dealing with what was a closeted sexual identity.

Is it possible, I asked, that becoming a priest was a way of avoiding coming to terms with his sexuality? Farrow had, after all, once prayed to God to “please make me normal, please make me normal.”

“That’s a valid question,” he said, but he believes he was addressing his spiritual rather than sexual identity in becoming a priest.

Wasn’t it a suffocating compromise? I asked. He had given himself over to a church that has, despite moderating its views in recent decades, condemned homosexuality and marginalized gays, even though in Farrow’s opinion a sizable percentage of priests are gay. Farrow conceded that he has considered church teachings “monstrous,” especially given the history of violence and suicide victimizing gays. But he said he has always believed in the church, if not in the men who led it. It’s like loving a family member despite a falling out, or loving your country even as you doubt its leaders.

“I’m not happy with the current administration,” Farrow said, “but I haven’t shredded my passport.”
To me, Fr. Farrow's a priest I can admire. He's a true voice of the kind of clergyman I can respect. This, of course, presents problems when you're charged with defending thousands of years of literalism, a half-literate understanding from a desert faith and a pre-scientific worldview, and centuries of persecution and fear.

“I am morally compelled to vote no on Proposition 8,” he told his congregation, saying he had to break “a numbing silence” about church prejudice against homosexuals.

Among the critics in his own parish and beyond, there are those who quote the Bible to condemn homosexuality and gay marriage.

“The bible is not a book, it’s a library written over 15 centuries,” Farrow told me, suggesting that Christianity has and should continue to evolve. “People who approach scripture in a literal fashion are attempting to manipulate God himself.”

To Farrow, condemning gay and lesbian marriage is as offensive as the condemnations of interracial marriage not too many decades ago.

” ‘Think about the children,’ they said, and they’re doing the same with this,” Farrow said indignantly. “If a child is raised in a home where he’s loved, that’s a good home.”

So why not just quit his job rather than wait to get fired?

Farrow said he still sees the church as home, and believes his new mission is to force this issue whether he’s wearing a collar or not.

“They said I’ve caused scandal to the church,” he said. “I think the real scandal is the thousands of gay and lesbian children who feel abandoned by the church of their baptism.”

When he was in seminary, Farrow interned as deacon at St. Vincent’s Medical Center and worked with terminally ill patients. As the end nears, Farrow told me, people say the things they never could utter. They are “more alive than ever … because they realize the futility of fear.” He found them all contemplating the same questions.

“Were you true to your conscience? Did you do what you felt was right?”

And one more.

“What do you have in the end but the love you gave away?"
I write with a mixture of insight and detachment about this issue. A husband and father, I'm only three years younger than Farrow; many of my classmates from the archdiocesan high school (now defunct, as is the whole set-up in which I was one of the last cadre of dwindling "prep" graduates; the seminary college itself for Los Angeles has closed to pay off the sex scandal debts and now only those with bachelor's degrees are accepted for priestly formation) where I graduated went on to study with Farrow, as my school was founded for those teenagers considering a vocation. (Paul Hendrickson wrote a memoir, "Seminary," about his experience in a 1960s rural Southern version of the school I attended; I reviewed on Amazon the English writer John Cornwell's "Seminary Boy" [not original titles, these] about his 1950s stint at one in Derbyshire. Although my tenure spanned the latter half of the '70s, fifteen relaxed years after Vatican II, there was much I recognized, if only echoed.)

I never discuss this. My parents never got over my leaving, likely. I dimly recall even my dear wife did not know about my high school years until she found out from my long-time friend where I'd been boarding for school, Monday-Friday, between fourteen through seventeen. Very few people, of the faith or outside of it, will understand the intensity that bonded nineteen of us disparate but idealistic post-adolescents together over four years. Some of us wanted merely to get away from barrio, ghetto, or suburb. All angled an excellent education. Many came thinking they'd fulfill their childhood dream of the priesthood. The odds were against us. Most left, four stayed, three persevere.

Disco and punk, flares and pop-rocks; the Ford Administration's final year and three of Carter's overlapped our stay as we came of age in a place half-Angeleno, half-medieval, that now has utterly vanished. I feel lucky to have toughened it out. I learned self-reliance, a distrust of authority, and the joys of seclusion and study. There, I began to bloom, and without this sheltering yet supervised passage, I doubt I'd have had the emotional stamina to pursue a life of the mind balanced with at least minimal social skills!

My emergence there into becoming a grown-up left a lasting imprint on my soul, for better and worse, but I finished my four years with memories of spiritual care and intellectual attention that balance and, I'd argue, ameliorate the sexual and emotional difficulties I faced. I refuse to attack the Church in the puerile manner many indulge in. Part of me wanted to stay, to go along, to give in. Yet, I emerged with a sad realization that I could not in good conscience-- despite my leanings temperamentally, culturally, and devotionally-- continue towards a career that demanded the surrender of my will in the service of a selfless, dogmatic, and loyal obedience to precepts I could not vow to uphold. I could not live such a sacrilege.

I entered thanks to scholarships and work-study to a local Jesuit-run (in spirit but all but secularized in fact) university. A good man from my parish, a seminarian (I learned sadly he too left not many years after ordination), told me about the school; he'd attended when hundreds filled its dorms in the heyday after Vatican II, but that same spirit would soon lead to emptier halls by the time I arrived. Out of our surviving class of nineteen "prep" graduates, about ten moved up to college seminary; four were ordained after eight more years of study. One-- the only "lifer" in his class who entered at fourteen and was anointed a priest at twenty-four-- died suddenly (no cause given) last year.

Naturally, I wondered the reason for his death. This brings me, with a bit of unspoken suggestion, to the place where Farrow preceded my classmates by three years. That college-level seminary had been later implicated in the abuse uncovered in this as so many archdioceses. I sensed, even as an eighteen-year-old, a sinister atmosphere there when I visited. Rumors abounded about the gay subculture that predominated, and the liaisons among the students and between professors. One of my classmates, who was handsome and never in the closet, testified against the abuse he witnessed there; we heard later that he had been seen in gay porn and was hustling in San Francisco.

One of my closer friends struggled with being gay. I was close to him, but he never told me about his difficulties in this regard. He went in and out of the seminary. I later learned indirectly that he'd been referred to a psychologist near his home who specialized in trying to treat homosexuality by turning young men back to a celibate, or at least straight, path in line with Catholic moral teaching.

He was sent to this therapist by our former religion teacher. As sophomores, we learned from him about "Humanae Vitae" and heard his eloquent defense for the Church's teachings on human sexuality. He was one of the best priests I've ever known. In his early thirties, a scion of an old Pasadena family, he was destined for leadership. He combined people skills with book smarts; he could charm any crowd and captivated each congregant. Soon after, he became a bishop, first overseeing the toniest, resort city vicarage of our hometown, the largest American archdiocese. Then, charged with repairing a diocese in the north of this state after its previous prelate had become entangled in covering up sexual abuse by a priest at a summer camp for boys, he took over as bishop.

Under suspicious circumstances, he ordained a young immigrant without proper credentials. This new priest testified later that this new bishop had blackmailed him into a sexual relationship. The bishop was investigated; he had embezzled and lied in perpetrating his own scandal. His own double life, exposed, collapsed. Now, he's exiled to an Arizona monastery {2012 update: he died a few years later of cancer. A month before, I sent him a respectful note. One classmate, a year ahead, lambasted me for this but many others on FB appeared of like mind.} I pray for him, if with my skeptic spirit.

Others I once heard snoring in the same dorm went on to various forms of unhappiness or fulfillment. One who shares my birthdate and first name and last initial, so parallel are we (he even got his own Ph.D., albeit fifteen years after me--on the dissonance within gay priests between what they will do and what they must preach), used to hang out with a rich patron only a mile or two up the slope from where I live. He now resides as a psychiatrist in Hawai'i happily. I admit I'm a bit baffled. I remember him 15, gawky, pimpled. I cannot match this memory that persists with him now at some balmy lanai.

But I also think of yet one more classmate, troubled in his teens when he transferred in for the last two years at our school. He never really blended with those of us who'd forged ties over the years. He always kept furtive company with effete boys the year ahead of us. He dropped out of the same college I attended after our first semester. He silenced his own sexual frustrations, his own exclusion as a misfit. That winter of 1980, Goths may have been barely invented as a youth clubbing option, but he channeled the earlier descent of Huysmans rather than his later resurrection towards Rome. Pale, tousled, epicene, and half-mad, he too wound up in San Francisco, tormented by dates and demons not all of his own imagination.

Still another classmate went into a religious order and studied in the Bay Area. He had affairs with men while in the seminary there in the 80s. He contracted AIDS. Longing for a theatrical career, always the class cut-up, he left his order before ordination. My parents, the most blue-collar lunchpail Catholics you'd caricature, accompanied me to his funeral at a christological age of 33. I was moved as much by their presence as by the memorial. Of his former confreres, only one friar attended.

John Macallan Swan. (1847-1910) Tate Gallery. "The Prodigal Son" (1888)

1 comment:

Layne said...

I told you about the Robert Downey Jr. playing Steve Lopez although you saw the trailer yourself when we saw Appaloosa. It’s the one about the schizophrenic cello playing guy. You were probably still rendered too apoplectic by the price of the tickets to concentrate. That would be about the only thing I contributed to this piece that took my breath away. All I can add is how grateful I am that you gravitated away from the place, which would have, in its way, guaranteed a certain peace, and ended up here, struggling and seeking and at my side.