Last October Abbot Richard Antonucci of Daylesford Abbey in Paoli requested a meeting with me, though he declined to tell me his purpose in advance. I have worshiped there since 1981 and since 2003 served as a lector. The abbot started our conversation by saying that he'd heard I had married my partner of 12 years, Jim Anderson. "I want you to believe this," he said: "I sincerely wish you both many, many years of happiness together."
Then he passed me a copy of a directive from Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia stating that members of same-sex couples should "not hold positions of responsibility in a parish, nor should they carry out any liturgical ministry or function." The abbot said that, with reluctance, he must enforce the directive.
Our talk was frank but friendly. I reminded him that an abbey is not a parish, nor is the archbishop his superior. True enough, he told me, but all Catholic lay people within the archdiocese are subject to his power. I argued that I knew of local pastors choosing not to enforce the directive because of its injustice. He said he was unwilling to take the risk.
"You're the spiritual leader of the place I've been part of for 35 years," I said. "How do you counsel me?"
He said he hoped I might find it in my heart to remain part of the abbey community.
We talked about my long relationship with the place. When I first came to Daylesford in 1981, I had just undergone what I later learned is called a conversion. Raised Catholic, educated in a parish school and at Saint Joseph's Prep, I'd become disaffected with the church in college. Then, at 30, I was knocked off my horse and struck blind, so to speak: I returned to a church much different from the one I'd known as a kid. My discovery of the abbey, with its enlightened preaching and inspiring liturgy, was a revelation within the revelation. I felt welcomed there and at home.
In those early days, the abbey's liturgical director befriended me and put me to work as a professional writer on special projects: revising a hymnal; arranging a psalter. We likewise collaborated on liturgical events — a children's Mass for Christmas morning and, most notably, the solemn liturgy of Good Friday, a service that has since become Daylesford's signature. So, even before I started lectoring, words were my ministry.
I kept close to Daylesford even when I lived in other parts of the country; often visited, always spent Holy Week on retreat there. The literary connection also endured. The Norbertines commissioned me to write a three-year cycle of penitential rites for Sunday Mass based on scriptural readings. Lectoring had been a passion for me since my conversion. I would prepare carefully, to good effect, it seems. While dismissing me, the abbot praised me as one of the best lectors he ever heard. A congregant wrote me afterward to say that when she heard me read, she could hear the author's voice across the centuries.
Forgive me if this sounds like a resume. Here's my point: the archbishop knows none of this. The abbot himself, who came to Daylesford in 2000, did not know how very long had been my history there. Nor did he know that the man who is now my spouse decided to be confirmed a Catholic after attending Pentecost mass at Daylesford. He did remember Jim's voice, though — a splendid baritone. Like me, Jim took his place in the Daylesford pulpit, where he chanted the entire Passion, solo and unaccompanied, on Palm Sundays and Good Friday.
Some weeks before my dismissal, I had read about the archbishop's directive. It's very offensive. The archbishop calls my sexual nature a "lifestyle" and asserts that same-sex couples "offer a serious counter-witness to Catholic belief, which can only produce moral confusion in the community. Such a relationship cannot be accepted into the life of the parish without undermining the faith of the community, most notably the children."
The hypocrisy of the last phrase, concerning children, is so transparent it seems rhetorical suicide, because it calls to mind the sexual abuse of children by priests that has plagued the Catholic Church for decades.
Here's the truth: my sexual nature, like that of all human beings, is holy; my marriage is a sacrament where I encounter the love of God every day in the love of my spouse and bestow it likewise on him. The archbishop has done us and all the church a great wrong.