When Father Bernard Lynch and his husband Billy Desmond visited me during their recent trip to New York City for the release of Lynch's memoir If It Wasn't Love: Sex, Death and God (Circle Books, 2012), I greeted a man who has taken bullets that I have managed to dodge. I hoped his visit would help me understand how and why bishops and cardinals could be so threatened and angered by such a friendly, peaceful, gentle, patient and deeply spiritual man.
In his new memoir, Father Lynch recounts his extraordinary life, unique ministry, trials and loves, particularly for Billy. He says, "This is a book about love, sexuality, death and God...but most of all it is my story. I hasten to add that in no way is this a holy book. The words erection and Resurrection appear with equal authenticity, pain and celebration. It is no book for the pious or those seeking a quick fix."
While both of us are out and married priests, Father Lynch has been repeatedly and unjustly persecuted by the Roman Catholic hierarchy while I have been resoundingly ignored. Go figure. Reading his memoir gave me part of the answer and hearing him describe with honesty and simplicity his convictions about his priesthood filled in the rest.
While I had quietly left the active ministry, Father Lynch kept working as a priest despite repeated roadblocks to his ministry. He persisted because that is what his heart and soul told him to do. He remains a priest willing to administer the sacraments of his church despite the deliberate efforts of the bishops and cardinals who want to erase his priesthood and his membership in the church because he is gay, out and married. Despite the fact that he is a quiet, ruddy and slender Irishman rather than a large, black woman, I am reminded of Effie in Dream Girls, singing And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going. He is a priest in love with Jesus Christ and not about to leave the church in which he first discovered his true identity and authentic vocation.
To get a sense of his life, you should know that Father Lynch discovered his sexuality as a young man in an Irish seminary preparing for ordination as a missionary priest who was sent to Africa. He was then invited to work as a parish priest in the archdiocese of New York where, in the 1970s, Father Lynch started the earliest LGBT outreach and AIDS ministry in New York City. After the Cardinal Archbishop of New York forced his departure following a 1989 trial on trumped up charges of sex abuse (a trial in which Father Lynch's accuser came undone which led to the judge's proclamation of Father Lynch's total innocence) his friend Father Mychal Judge (the "Saint of 9/11") took over that ministry. Father Lynch was no longer welcomed in the archdiocese of New York and was sent back to his order's headquarters in Rome. For an astounding and heart-breaking account of that malicious trial and how it almost destroyed his life, watch the documentary entitled "Fr. Bernard Lynch - A Priest On Trial" [http://site.thelarkins.com/component/content/article/45-public/104-fr-bernard-lynch-a-priest-on-trial]
Under pressure from the current rabid and witch-hunting Vatican, his order, The Society of African Missions, gave Father Lynch the boot last December. He has continued his ministry and therapeutic work in London, and he now expects the drop of the other shoe, his excommunication from the Catholic Church. When he describes his separation from The Society of African Missions, he is kind. "I was suspended just before Christmas for being openly gay and openly married. The problem is that the church does not deal well with honesty. The problem is not celibacy but honesty, and any one who tells the truth is going to be crucified, but made free. I have had a wonderful and good relationship with my order. We parted as friends and lovers. I had to do what I had to do. I could not be a liar about my life. Why am I not permitted to say I am in love and that it is not at variance with my priesthood? The church should be more concerned with the huge number of priests who suffer from arrested sexual and social development. Unfortunately, the litmus test for priests and bishops is not maturity but blind obedience."
When I turned to Father Lynch's husband Billy Desmond and asked him what it is like to be married to such a priest, he said, ""When I look at Bernard, I see his priesthood as only one aspect of who he is. It's a way of being for him. It is part of his humanity. I was raised Catholic but through my relationship with Bernard I am able to see the church clearly. I see all these meaningless constraints and the great sense of pain felt by those who were giving their lives to the church, and their sense of isolation and loneliness. I never really understood how lonely the priesthood is until I met him. It felt really sad to learn that."
What does Father Lynch say to those who suggest that he shake the dust of Catholicism off his shoes and join a different church? "There is more than enough division in the seeking of Jesus. My church is Christ. When the Catholic Church is in tune with him, I am with it entirely. The most profound statement made by the Second Vatican Council was that the people are the church. That is the church I work for and belong to. Yes, there is supreme arrogance in my church toward women and minorities both existentially and historically, and the jury is out on its contribution to the world, but it's an imperfect journey to a good end. We don't live in the kingdom, we work toward it"
When I asked Father Lynch how it will feel to be laicized and defrocked, I knew how he would answer. "I have not chosen this path, this priesthood. It has been chosen for me by the Holy Spirit and at this point in my life, there is nothing more important than the truth. We are talking about my soul. I will wear my laicization as a badge of honor because it will mean that I am true to myself. I will keep working as I have always worked. In London, I continued my AIDS ministry. I am semi-retired at the moment. I do retreats. I marry people, do funerals, and that will continue irrespective of the Vatican. There is a huge congregation that does not want to be associated with the Vatican and will not recognize my laicization. I will continue to do what I have always done: be a priest to those who want a priest. I'm not going away."
[A version of this report appears on the August cover of 10ThousandCouples.com]