This I Believe: Created in God’s Image
Apr 17 2015 | Damian Torres-Botello (America: Jesuit Magazine)
In a five-part series released the week of March 16th from the National Catholic Reporter, “God’s Community in the Castro,” a parishioner from San Francisco’s Most Holy Redeemer parish had this to say about his spiritual home: “We don’t see ourselves as a gay community, but rather as a community that’s open to gays…. It’s an acceptance and a realization that people feel O.K. to be who they are that makes this place different.”
For many LGBTQ men and women, The Castro District of San Francisco has been their home where life can be lived with dignity. As NCR reporter Thomas C. Fox points out in this series, Most Holy Redeemer has been the spiritual center for LGBTQ Catholics living in and around this neighborhood. Much of its current history started in the 1980s, when AIDS was taking so many lives. Since then this parish has been the sanctuary for an often neglected and shunned community.
As Catholics, we have a sense of the church being a truly universal home, a place where all are welcome, as the name Catholic would indicate. Yet within that sense of universality there are many who feel the church is not a welcoming home for them. Teachers have been terminated from jobs, children with disabilities have been refused sacraments, and many divorced men and women continue to feel unwanted. You don’t have to look hard to find similar stories from African-American Catholics, Latino Catholics, Catholic women, and former Catholics alike. And all of this tension has caused people to leave the church and in some cases, lose their faith.
Yet here’s the truth I know and believe: I am created in God’s image and likeness, just as God creates us all. It is actually that simple. But sometimes we take that image and likeness and complicate it. That complication created concern for my loved ones as I discerned religious life in 2011 at the age of 33. Some were troubled that I’d find difficulty as a man of color in an ostensibly all-white male order. Others feared I would be forced into the closet after 17 years of accepting myself as gay. A few friends expressed worry I would not encounter common ground in an order filled with the privileged when I only knew disadvantage. All of their observations and concerns were valid because they not only came from a place of love but through their own experiences as Catholics.
I am more than my skin color, my sexual orientation, and my economic class. I am more than my skin color, my sexual orientation, and my economic class. It restricts God’s image and likeness if I only see myself as those three aspects. Defining myself purely on what I am limits who I am and how I can be of service. Even allowing these characteristics to dictate my life would prevent me from engaging the world as a wholly integrated human being. Besides, I prayed, and discerned, and made a choice. I made a commitment to live the vows of consecrated chastity, poverty and obedience because of my belief in Christ, the mission of the church, and the people of God. I share my struggles openly just as I share my joys. As my parents did with each other, transparency helps me live my vows honestly so that I am always available to live out my calling as a Jesuit.
That’s the truth that sits within each of us: God made us all in his image and likeness. St. Francis de Sales said, “Be who you are and be that well.” To embrace all that we are—and to embrace each other with that love—is to embrace that image and likeness; it is to embrace God. Thirty-six years of life and my short time as a Jesuit have confirmed that truth. And so I pray that as a church we discover tender compassion for each other to love the God that dwells in us all.
Damian Torres-Botello, S.J., entered the Society of Jesus in August 2012. He is currently a philosophy student at Loyola University Chicago. This article was approved for publication by his Jesuit superiors. It also appears in The Jesuit Post.
On Speaking Out as a Jesuit
I’m so proud of my brother Jesuit, Damian Torres-Botello, SJ, for speaking out on an important issue in our church: the welcome of LGBT men and women. I’m also proud of him for openly admitting that he himself is gay. While such an admission is commonplace in some circles, Damian’s public statement—in this case online—is rare. Why? Not because of any aversion to honesty in the religious orders and the priesthood. Many priests and members of religious orders who are gay (and celibate) are honest about this part of their lives with friends and family. Rather, the vast majority of religious superiors and bishops will not allow seminarians, scholastics or priests to publicly declare that they are gay.
So there is another reason to take note of this article: Damian’s religious superiors explicitly approved his publishing it. Most crucially, his provincial superior approved his openly discussing his homosexuality.
A little background: Jesuits, like members of other religious orders, take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. For most Jesuits, obedience is often the easiest of the vows: basically, carry out the job to which you have been missioned. But in some cases obedience is brought to bear on more sensitive topics. And over the last few decades no Jesuit, as far as I know, has been permitted by his superiors to “self-identify” as gay in a public way.
The reasons are not hard to understand. Provincials may fear that the Jesuit will be less “available” for different ministerial assignments (say, in countries where homophobia is a stronger barrier to acceptance among Catholics). Provincials may feel that a Jesuit will be unfairly identified mainly as a gay man, rather than as a Jesuit. That is, there is a perceived danger that some people will conclude that the man’s identity centers on his homosexuality, rather than in membership in the Society of Jesus. Finally, provincials may fear that the man might be the subject of hatred and contempt.
Provincials in general want to protect the men in their care, as well as to ensure that they are “missionable.” Thus, there has been–until now—universal reluctance to grant permission to men who have asked for permission to “self-identify.” And in such sensitive matters, Jesuits must seek such permission. Again, this is part of our vow of obedience. Indeed, everything a Jesuit publishes (whether in articles or books), especially on sensitive or controversial matters, must be approved by superiors. This is even more the case with a Jesuit in training, or “formation,” as Damian is.
So the decision of Damian’s superiors to grant him permission is notable. It is the first time that I can think of that a Jesuit has been permitted to do write about being gay. So I’m proud of two things today: Damian’s courage and honesty, and that of his superiors.
An American friend of mine, now living in New Zealand, who was brought up by the Jesuits on the USA, is my most valued source of information about that Religious Community in North America. Their openness to the marginalised and vulnerable in society is nothing short of remarkable – as this testimony gives evidence.
The really remarkable point about this article, and the commentator, is their honesty and willingness to share the vulnerability of people in the religious Life of the Roman Catholic Church. This is no recitation of a sensitive point of view of ‘US’ about ‘THEM’, but rather, an open and very candid account of the experience of an intrinsically Gay person, who just happens to be a member of the Church and a Celibate Religious.
One of the problems of the current discussion about human sexuality in the Churches – both Protestant and Catholic, traditional and reformed – is that the conversations are often between people who have no experience, themselves, of being saddled with a Gay orientation, without any personal recourse to the experience of those who know the reality of the situation in their own lives. Here we have the honest story of a self-confessed Catholic Jesuit Religious, living a celibate life in an admittedly ‘Gay’ area in San Francisco’s Castro District, where many of the local people are managing to live out their lives without having to submit to the often contemptuous and abusive regard to which the heterosexual world is often prone to subject them. This is where the Church really belongs – in the social context of a community within which Jesus might have chosen to minister to and with its inhabitants!
It is well noted that Pope Francis is a Jesuit. He also has something else going for him; he has chosen to be named after Saint Francis of Assisi, God’s Little Apostle to The Poor. May God bless him! He himself once declared when asked of his opinion of Gay people: “Who am I to judge them?”
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand