by Chuck Colbert
A priest in the St. Louis Archdiocese has come out, grabbing headlines and generating considerable buzz within Catholic circles and beyond. While many LGBT laypersons struggle to reconcile their sexuality with anti-gay church teaching, the Rev. Gary M. Meier faced another difficulty – remaining invisible, silent and part of an increasingly hostile hierarchy.
"My struggle isn't with being gay," he writes in his book "Hidden Voices: Reflections of a Gay, Catholic Priest." "It's with the Church's teaching on homosexuality and the way in which the hierarchy is interpreting that teaching regarding the homosexual person, the ordination of gay men, gay marriage, gay parenting, and especially the impact that this teaching has on gay youth growing up in the Church. That's what I struggle with."
During a telephone interview, Father Meier, who is celebrating his 15th anniversary as a priest, elaborated further on his decision to come out. "There just came a point for me, I think, to be a man of integrity and to move and breathe and be whom God called me to be, that I had to do this," he said. "I feared that at the end of my life, and I stand before God, and God's saying, 'Why haven't you spoken the truth that I have given you? Why have you remained silent all this time?'"
In speaking out, moreover, Meier has no quarrel with priestly celibacy. "I am not partnered, not dating and have been faithful to my vows and commitment as a priest," he said. "I make a point of clarifying that because it seems to be such a big thing with some people. I didn't know people would care."
Asked about the timing now to come out publicly, Meier replied, "Why not now!"
Still, his decision to be openly gay comes at the same time as the second-edition release of Meier's book, first published anonymously in 2011 but now with his name as author.
His decision also comes as some LGBT Catholic laypersons — even non-gay people — have been denied communion, fired from teaching positions, and removed from parish and music ministry, primarily for being in same-sex relationships or supporting gay marriage.
Openly gay priests are a rarity in the Catholic Church. In fact, there are only two or three in the U.S. who have said they are gay publicly, according to the Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest and editor-at-large for America magazine.
Nonetheless, he told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, "There are hundreds, if not thousands, of celibate gay priests working in the Catholic Church today who are beloved by their parishioners. And there are a number of reasons why almost all of them feel unable to be honest. They are either uncomfortable themselves, or they're told specifically by their superiors not to talk about it."
Meier did not consult with his superior, Archbishop Robert J. Carlson of St. Louis, before coming out.
For its part, the archdiocese issued a short, measured, statement, noting Fr. Meier's past one-year leave "for reasons of vocational discernment."
The statement continues, "As a man who experiences same-sex attraction, Fr. Meier has before him an opportunity to be an example and mentor to Catholics in the archdiocese who struggle with the same feelings.
"Whether he will seize this opportunity to proclaim the Gospel of Life which offers the truth about the beauty and sanctity of human sexuality, is entirely within his control."
But hierarchical truth is one thing. Meier's truth telling is another.
"I want the truth about homosexuality to be out," he wrote on May 21 for Huffington Post. "Homosexuality is not a cross, it's not a curse, it's not an intrinsic disorder; it is a gift, created by love for love."
Meier's post has gone viral, he said, with an outpouring of support voiced on Huffington's Web site, Facebook and through private e-mails.
"The shame that we've created in our church is deeper and bigger than I thought," he said over the telephone. "There is no other way to explain why this would be viral."
Meier hopes to stay in active ministry. "As a priest, people have given me access to their lives in very profound ways that you can't obtain in any other way," he said. "We are with people in some of the most difficult periods in their lives. It's an incredible privilege to be able to do that."
Meier recalled one letter from a gay youth who told him he had been rejected several times from his church for being gay. "His first correspondence to me said, 'I beg you to pray for me,'" Meier explained. "How desperate can you be to say that. It just breaks my heart.
"I get choked up because here is a kid who is trying to make peace with himself as a gay man and has these hierarchical voices in his head saying he is flawed."
Whether Maier returns to pastoral ministry remains an open question.
"Whatever I do, it will be advocacy for the LGBT community," he said. "If I can do that as a priest in active ministry, so be it. I can't imagine how that would happen."
Meanwhile, reaction from LGBT Catholics has been positive.
"Father Gary Meier's decision to come out as a gay man is a great gift to the entire church, to LGBT Catholics, and particularly to other gay priests, many of whom struggle in secrecy and shame," Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, said in e-mail correspondence.
He added, "The fact that he is a priest, a Catholic authority figure, will help so many Catholics, particularly younger ones, know that they do not have to live lives of desperation.
"I hope that Fr. Gary's decision will inspire other priests to emulate him. So much of the problem with institutional Catholicism's inability to deal with homosexuality comes from the fact that priests are not allowed to lead honest and authentic lives or to discuss their sexuality with others. Fr. Gary's declaration breaks the ice and shatters the myth that open discussion of sexuality will harm the church.
Far from harming it, his decision helps to heal the church.