When I decided at the beginning of the year to finally return to the Catholic Church, I had no idea what a momentous year it would be—not only for myself, but for all Catholics. I had been working for Believe Out Loud for a year and realized it was not only important for me to "believe out loud" at work, but in my own personal life as well.
But in order to do that, I needed to go back to the church that I left nearly three decades ago.
On the first Sunday of February 2013, I took my first steps back into the Catholic Church. I was happy to see and hear everything was pretty much the same as when I had left. I had been inside many Catholic Churches over the years, most are too beautiful not to go into, but attending mass was a whole different thing. It only took that first Sunday for me to know with confidence that I was back, and back for good.
Just three weeks after my return to the church, Catholics from around the world sat stunned. Not because I had returned to church, of course, but because Pope Benedict suddenly announced his resignation—this was unheard of. Clearly it didn’t go unnoticed to me that the Pope’s exit coincided with my re-entrance, and while I know the two were unrelated, I do think it was rather symbolic.
After the Pope’s resignation I was a little worried that I had returned to a church that was going to elect a new more conservative Pope that would truly test my decision to return. But nothing could be further from the truth.
St. Francis of Assisi was about to not only change my life, but the lives of Catholics everywhere as Pope Francis was elected as the 266th Pope.
Once the new Pope was in place I knew I needed to take my next step, which was confession. Honestly that was the scary part. Back when I used to go to confession you had it in a private little ‘closet’ and you and the priest didn’t even see each other. Now I’d have to confess 30 years of sin face to face…with a priest! It was a bit intimidating, but it was something I wanted and needed to do.
A colleague recommended a priest named Father Paul at St. Francis of Assisi Church here in New York City. I had been to this beautiful church several times to pray, and knew of its history with Father Mychal Judge. I was confident that if the church was good enough for The Saint of 9/11 it would be good enough for me.
I made my appointment to meet with Fr. Paul on a warm Tuesday afternoon in April. I had given Fr. Paul a little bit of background about me in my initial email to him. Part of me had hoped I would be meeting with a priest who wouldn’t be welcoming—someone who would embody the type of clergy person I had always feared. This would provide me with the opportunity to literally "believe out loud" and fight for my place in the Catholic Church, which is something I was finally willing and eager to do.
But Fr. Paul didn’t give me that chance to fight for my place in the church.
Instead he welcomed me with an open ear, an open heart, open arms and an open seat in the pew. I will be forever grateful for his gracious and loving spirit. I do wish I could share all the details about my confession, but since Fr. Paul must keep my confession confidential, so should I.
The friars at St. Francis have been so very welcoming, making my return to church a joy. I can’t help but almost tear up when I go to communion. Not only am I not refused communion like many other LGBTQ folks, but Fr. Paul says, “The Body of Christ, James” before he places the communion in my hands.
“The Body of Christ” is something all priests say before you take communion, but he even says my name! It’s these little moments that feel so big to me and make me feel so loved and welcomed.
This feeling of being loved, as Jesus loves us, is something everyone deserves to experience when they walk into a church.
I attended mass at St. Francis of Assisi Church the evening before NYC’s Pride March and experienced one of the most powerful moments of my life.
The pews and the aisles were packed with LGBTQ people everywhere—worshipping together and celebrating our love for God. There was so much happiness in the church that evening you would have thought it was Christmas morning.
I managed to hold back the tears when Fr. Paul gave me communion and said my name, but sharing mass with so many of my LGBTQ brothers and sisters in an actual Catholic Church was too much to hold back. From the opening song to the final procession, years of pain and hurt that I felt from the church I loved began to finally wash away as tears continued to fall down my face. It was at that moment that I finally began to feel whole again.
The healing I have searched for and found would not have been possible without the courage and inspiration I have received thanks to the Believe Out Loud community.
From our partners and bloggers to those who leave words of affirmation on our Facebook page, you continue to remind me that I am never alone when I walk through a church door.
And to Fr. Paul and all the Friars at St. Francis of Assisi Church who have welcomed me with a kind smile, a warm hug and sometimes even a gentle kiss, may you forever be a living example of God’s true unconditional and healing love for everyone.
Photo via James Rowe