I cannot recall a time when I was not aware of God in my life.
While other little boys were planning to be firemen or police, I often said, even at age seven or eight, “I want to be the Pope!” I jumped at the chance to become an altar boy, having already had much practice as the family “priest” when we played Mass—complete, at times, with flattened “hosts” made of white bread and cut out with bottle caps. The idea of actually serving next to the priest at the real Mass was incredible to me, and I did so with joy for the next four years.
When I was 11, my mother, who had assisted in the Catholic conversion of my father when they were married, had a crisis of faith. It was the late 1960’s, and both the nation and some in the Church had become radical in many ways. The Church began to share more publicly some of the mistakes made in years past, and my mother’s faith in the one institution she trusted most was shaken deeply. She began visiting a number of local churches and eventually settled in at the local Assembly of God. I remember telling her that I was afraid for her soul—a bit bold for a 6th grader—but eventually found myself visiting services with her occasionally.
It did not escape my notice that these very kind people read and used the Bible at every service and seemed to know it well. Even those in the youth group tried seriously to live their faith on a daily basis. I was impressed. I found myself attending regularly, and the calling I had once sensed to possible priesthood became directed towards evangelical ministry.
Around this same time (I was 14 by then) I had my own faith crisis and began questioning all I had ever been taught, both Catholic and Protestant. One day I went to a quiet corner of the house to think and pray, and told God that I didn’t really care if I was Catholic, Protestant, or Buddhist for that matter, but just wanted to know who He was. A few weeks later, the pastor prayed with me to “accept Jesus,” and I did so eagerly. While no thunderbolts exploded in the sky, deep within me I knew that Christ was real, and that I wished to serve Him for the rest of my life.
A Lonely Secret
Having hit puberty and all of its accompanying hormones, I also realized I had some desires that most other boys my age didn’t seem to share: While they talked excitedly about girls and football, I found myself having “crushes” on some of the other young men in our church and school. I had noticed these feelings years earlier; however being raised in a home where sex was never once discussed, I did not know what they were called or why I had them. Only at age 11, after reading an issue of Look magazine, did I put a name to my desires—was I a “homosexual?” I did not know but suspected I was, and also knew it was something I could tell no one—period. It is lonely to have such a secret at that young age. Later, after my experience at the Assembly of God church, I came to understand that, from a biblical standpoint, this was quite apparently sinful behavior.
Growing up, I did not identify myself as “gay.” I finished high school and attended an Assemblies of God Bible college. I remained a virgin until I married a very sincere and caring Christian woman. But the feelings were there, and even after 12 years of licensed ministry and marriage they remained a strong and disturbing temptation.
At age 34 I decided to revisit all of the Scripture passages on homosexuality and see if there was something I had not understood. It was not my desire to go out and sin, but I sincerely wished to know if there was a possibility that I had missed theologically. Studying each passage, I used every tool at my disposal,such as Greek and Hebrew lexicons and books written with both traditional and pro-gay theology. I concluded, after months of study, prayer, and even fasting, that the Bible was very perhaps not as clear on the topic as I had once believed. Because I could not seem to find unambiguous answers in the Bible alone and rejected Sacred Tradition at that time, I based my subsequent conclusions on science, current thinking in psychology, and the lived experiences of others. All of these seemed to point towards accepting and embracing my “gayness” and that is what I did. My marriage ended in 1991, and for the next 15 years, though still loving God in my own way, I lived within what is commonly called the gay lifestyle or subculture.
Man with a Country
The long journey back to faith began when I started attending a local Methodist church that was both accepting and yet very evangelical. The congregants were certainly not pro-gay by any means but nevertheless loving and charitable. I found myself digging once again into the Scriptures on a regular basis, and I became celibate, at first not by choice but eventually with enthusiasm. On the other hand, I still held on for dear life to my “pro-gay” theology. Go figure.
In 2004, I saw The Passion of the Christ, and a hunger for the Jesus of my childhood was stirred within me in ways I cannot even yet describe. I was daily listening to Protestant talk radio, which often questioned the faith of people such as Jim Caviezel (the actor who played Jesus in the movie) simply because they were Roman Catholic. This incensed me, as I had all of my life known many Catholics who loved God with all of their hearts, and as a result I had never gotten caught up in an anti-Catholic attitude. Although I did not at that time fully espouse the Church’s theology, my memories of Catholicism were mostly fond ones, and I knew what I was hearing was simply not true or accurate.
Then, in 2005, while attending a “marriage equality” rally at the Minnesota State Capitol, I found myself walking away when the leader of a prominent LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) lobbying group began to rail against those who believed in the Bible. It tore me up inside to have to choose between two groups I was part of, “Bible believing” Christians and those who lived with homosexual inclinations. But at that moment the line was drawn in the sand. Even in my activist years I knew that this radicalism was not tolerance in its truest sense, and I had always known, if it ever came to choosing between God and a lifestyle that was for this world only, I would follow Him, no matter where He led me. I left the rally feeling like a “man without a country,” not fully on board with the Church or with the militants I had been listening to. I only knew I loved Christ and I loved homosexually inclined people too, and that the two seemed very nearly to hate each other. And it saddened me deeply.
Searching for answers, I found a book called Beyond Gay by David Morrison. In his story I found some amazing parallels with my own, as he too was a gay activist who came back to Christ through a very caring evangelical church, and who now believed in a concept I had never heard of: same sex attraction (SSA). He suggested rather than concentrating on being “cured,” our main goal should be holiness—which meant celibacy and lifelong chastity and not letting a set of feelings define who we were. Morrison had become Roman Catholic during his search for wholeness and was now working extensively with a Catholic-based ministry named Courage. Surprised and hopeful at his sane approach to this topic, I was finally, once again, a man with a country.
Christianity from the Top
That same summer, another seemingly unrelated series of events began to propel me towards the Church, at last pushing me through the door.
During the 1950s, some evangelical Protestant missionaries were in Ecuador, and 5 young men were killed by an obscure but very violent tribe they were trying to reach with the Gospel. The widow of Jim Elliott, one of the martyrs, later published his writings. This story had gripped me deeply as a teen. Now I found myself reading extensively about it once again, as the 50th anniversary of their deaths neared. Ms. Elliott and the sister of another of the martyrs, Nate Saint, had later lived side by side with the tribe who killed their husband and brother, and nearly the whole tribe was converted to Christ as a result.
With a new hunger to serve God and do whatever he wished for my life, I learned that Elisabeth Elliot’s brother, Dr. Thomas Howard (former chief editor of Christianity Today magazine) had too become a Catholic! Although at first somewhat disturbed by this conversion, I became curious as to why someone from such an amazing evangelical family would jump ship. I decided to find out more.
By this point in time I had obtained my fill of old school Christian talk radio, especially the anti-Catholic sentiments often expressed, and on occasion l found myself watching Catholic television such as EWTN instead. I was surprised to hear almost none of the bigotry I had been listening to and was amazed at the level of kindness and respect shown to everyone, friend or foe—all while maintaining traditional Catholic stances. I particularly loved a certain somewhat feisty nun and found myself hooked on Mother Angelica Live! I started watching the televised Mass, almost daily, and eventually discovered a program called The Journey Home, which interviewed former Protestants who had found their way to Catholicism. It was hosted by Marcus Grodi, a former Presbyterian minister, and I much later learned that Dr. Howard had been his very first guest! I learned too of Dr. Scott Hahn and numerous other Protestant ministers and laypeople who had come into the Church during the 35 years I had been away.
I also discovered that there was now a new Catechism of the Catholic Church and wasted no time obtaining a copy. Digging into Church teaching, Bible in one hand and Catechism in the other, it finally dawned on me that, unlike what I had been led to believe during my many years as a Protestant, the Catholic Church did indeed teach correct and proper Christianity from the “top,” so to speak. As earlier stated, I had always believed that there were Catholic Christians, but I assumed this was in spite of Rome, not because of her. Now I realized I had been wrong about this my entire adult life.
The final event that happened after this rapid-fire convergence of events was reading Scott and Kimberly Hahn’s book Rome Sweet Home, in which they chronicle their own struggles and journey from Protestant to Catholic. I ended up devouring it nearly in one sitting—and at one point found myself literally throwing it across the room as I wrestled inwardly within. At the end though I knew I needed to return to the Church of my youth—and soon.
In the early morning just a day or two later, I walked in the pouring rain to the daily Mass at a nearby parish and for the first time in 35 years went to the Sacraments of Reconciliation and the Holy Eucharist. This was on October 4, 2005 which, as afterwards I found out, was the memorial feast of St. Francis of Assisi (who had a hugely checkered past as well) and also Rosh Hashanah, which is the Jewish New Year. And it was definitely a new beginning for me. Many questions still remained, but (at age 50) on April 15, 2006 I ultimately was sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit through Confirmation within the “One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church,” taking the name Stephen Francis. Indeed I was home at last!
I originally wrote this article in 2008, nearly 3 years after my return to the Catholic Church. It is now fall of 2013, and 8 years later I am humbly and gladly still part of the Church of Rome. A few insights since that time, as well as the ever changing political climate, have caused me to add this short update regarding my own walk with God and the Church. When I first read the book by David Morrison, Beyond Gay, I had already come to a decision to remain celibate for life. What I was far less clear on was why. I believed then, as I do now, that it would open ministry doors for me that had previously been closed during my “out” years. I also knew that I needed, as mentioned in the main article, to be willing to surrender every area including my sexuality to God, and ironically had always tried to do so, even when I was actively LGBT. What David’s journey and book challenged me to do however was to look a little (or a lot!) deeper into the issue. I admittedly did not understand why it mattered so much to the Church other than the scandal and anger it seemed to cause among so many other fellow Christians.
As I read what he wrote so eloquently regarding his own experiences, much of that fog began to lift. The concept of “same-sex attraction” was neither pretending to no longer have such feelings nor, conversely, allowing them to control me or to be the center of my attentions. In short they did not make me who I was or am as a person. I had known of the “ex-gay” concept and seen it fail in so many people I had cared about through the years, including me. People often think that they are ready for marriage, as I did, simply because of being taught not to admit or acknowledge those attractions, even to oneself. Others I knew of with SSA had tried to become “macho” types with disastrous results and an eventual giving up on the healing process. What David talked about, and what Courage as well as the Roman Catholic Church teaches, is that there are no guarantees on how quickly or even if we will be healed during this life in that particular area. In other words those feelings may or may not always be with me. And it does not matter to God nor does he love me less as a result in any case. What does matter is what I do with them. Rather than being overly preoccupied with “changing” I need instead to give myself to God here and now, take up my cross daily, and make a firm commitment to walk with Him. As one priest wisely told me during Confession I am still “called to be a saint.” And I hopefully am striving in that direction.
As time went onward, and I went through the RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults) process in order to be confirmed, I began to study in more depth the teaching on sexuality from God and the Church’s perspective. I realized I could no longer support such causes as same gender “marriage” because of its overall effect on society. I recall seeing a huge billboard on a city bus which said something about bringing out the “inner gay” in all of us!!! I also realized young children and parents who taught their children that homosexuality was sinful were being literally accosted and harassed by this type of advertising and constant publicity, and that if same-sex unions became the law of the land this would only increase ad infinitum. And that would be just the tip of the iceberg. Around halfway through the RCIA process I finally came home one night and removed the Rainbow (LGBT) flag which had flown proudly from my window for many years. Obviously I could always and still do love my LGBT brothers and sisters. I stand in no judgment over them. But I could not do things which caused it to appear I was supporting all of their causes since I no longer was. And that flag was a sign of that support. So down it came.
Fast forward to today, 5 years after the original article and just over 8 years after my initial “return to Rome,” I find myself a daily Mass participant and communicant, a strong believer in the Sacrament of Reconciliation/Confession (at least once or twice a month) and I pray the Rosary and Divine Mercy Chaplet daily as well. In short my life is one of quiet spirituality and I would not have it otherwise. Do I still have struggles? Undeniably so. Have I lost all temptation for those of my gender? I have not, and my hunch is that, at this point in my life, I am not likely to ever do so. I even went through a few brief periods of rethinking my entire decision to remain Catholic, and, even after all of the above, attended briefly an “LGBT friendly” church that was “almost” Catholic but not quite. Bad idea I might add. But God knows me better than I know myself. After a few short months there and a couple additional backs and forths I reaffirmed my commitment to Rome and now I no longer choose to look back.
Since 2006 I have been utterly privileged to serve as an Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion, first at St Olaf and also at the Cathedral of St Paul, as well as sponsoring 2 young men who entered the Church through the RCIA process. I graduated in May of 2010 from the Harry J Flynn Catechetical Institute, which is a 2 year study program established and run by the Archdiocese of St Paul/Minneapolis and the St Paul Seminary. Most lately, in the spring of 2012, I completed a one-year Catholic Church History program called “Epic.” So the studies and growth continue. God is truly not done with me just yet, even as I walk through this later stage of middle age (I am 58 now). And Rome is still, at least for this pilgrim, the closest place I have found to “home” on this earth. That will not be changing again.