Nearly two years ago, a small town Catholic priest decided that it was time to talk openly with his parishioners about the fact that he is gay. But the Rev. Raymond Schafer's pulpit confession divided a congregation, and sent him on a sabbatical from which he has yet to return.
"It was horrible," recalls parishioner Celina Acosta-Taylor. "People called for his resignation. People stopped going to mass. They threatened, 'I'm not going to give any money to the church.'"
To some, Schafer was a hero. "Father Raymond needs to speak out on this issue just as Rosa Parks needed to sit at the front of the bus," says parishioner Monica Graf.
To others, Schafer's announcement culminated an unnecessarily divisive campaign to push an agenda they consider irrelevant to most parishioners. Failing to consider the impact his announcement would have on the community he served, Schafer "has hurt people," says former parish council member Kevin Rogers.
"There is no right way to tell your congregation that you're gay. No matter how he would have done it, in a public way, people would have said he was wrong," parishioner Scott Meyer adds. "As Jesus tells us, if everyone agrees with you, you're not doing your job."
Into the Cloth
Schaffer arrived in Jeffersonville — a small southern Indiana town home to the Sacred Heart parish and its largely white, working class congregation — in 1998, fresh from a posting in nearby Aurora.
"My first impressions were so positive," recalls Barbara Williams, who worshipped at Sacred Heart for 32 years.
According to Graf, Shafer is "probably one of the most spiritually authentic people I have ever known. He is just what you see. He doesn't put on any airs."
Ordained at age 33 after a career in social work, Schafer had agonized for years over whether to become a priest. "I came to a point in saying, 'OK, God, I'm willing to do it,'" he recounts. "Obviously, God made it happen."
According to Schafer, a disproportionate number of gay men choose the priesthood over other professions — he says their personal struggles with identity and prejudice help them be more empathic and accepting of a struggling flock — but they are neither trained nor given the chance to come to terms with what their homosexuality means.
"There are many gay priests; I know them across the country," Schafer says. Yet at seminary, "you basically knew that there was supposed to be celibacy. But as far as I'm concerned, you were never really given the chance to even ask yourself, 'Well, what is your orientation?' Or, 'What are your sexual attractions?' Or, 'How do you deal with those feelings?' "
Out of the Closet
Schafer, however, had resolved those questions, and even as a priest, preferred not to hide that he was gay. When occasional parishioners broached the subject, he discussed it with them, one-on-one.
"It doesn't matter to me who knows, and it's no secret to me," he explains. "People just kind of learned, I guess, and accepted it."
His orientation became an issue, he says, only when he decided to speak out, first on the need for parents to accept their gay and lesbian children — defying hints from his bishop to leave the topic alone. "I really didn't make it 'an issue' as far as I'm concerned," Shaefer recalls. "It's part of your person. To me, that's how I see being gay: it's just who I am."
And so Schafer says he gave it little thought when he published his vacation plans in a July 2001 church bulletin, telling of a weeklong trip to wilderness school, followed by a retreat with other gay priests.
"I thought, 'Well, what if I just leave that piece, that little couple of words off?' And I felt that [if I did that], I'm not honest. I'm thinking, "Why should I be afraid to say that?" he recounts. "I never expected a whole lot. I knew some people would probably make a fuss about it, but people fuss about things all the time."
On his return from the retreat, Schafer decided to go from the incidental to the headlong: he announced his identity in a message delivered at every mass that August weekend:
"It's the truth about who I am. How can I stand in front of you and speak the Gospel, call you to speak truthfully and to live your life if I can't do it? If I run from my life, how can I call anybody else to face theirs?"
Uproar was immediate. "I could see people who were very uneasy," Schafer recalls. "But I also saw other faces that were comfortable and appreciative.... Which ones do you follow, or let tell you and guide you? You've got to address all of them."
But parishioner Williams remembers parents outraged that they'd been denied the option of keeping Schafer's sexual orientation from their children, who instead heard everything in Mass that day. "I do think that you need to use a little common sense in picking your venue and knowing your audience," she says.
Shafer replies that "the liturgy in the middle of Mass, to me, is an appropriate place to speak about justice. That's what we are called to do."
But according to Williams, "His attitude was, 'I didn't think it was going to be such a big deal.' I said, 'That's very naive of you.' I don't think you can afford to be that naïve as a pastor of all of us."
Homosexuality and Celibacy
Some observers wonder how a priest's sexual orientation can be at issue, when Schafer and his brethren have all taken vows of celibacy.
But celibacy is beside the point, says Schafer, who has refused to answer parishioners who wonder whether he's kept his vows. "For most part, people want to know if I'm sexually active, and that's not the issue. If that's their issue, then they're off track to where I am. I'm not worried about activity, I'm worried about identity."
Such a steadfast position has led opponents to cast Shafer's actions as selfish, suggesting he chose to grind an activist axe in a community largely free from hate crime and overt discrimination.
"It wasn't like he was trying to address an issue on our parish, or a problem in our parish, where we weren't accepting people," says Kevin Rogers, a former member of the parish council. "It was like his mission that we had to fix the whole world. He was going to start here, and it was his calling to take the homosexual issue out there."
Many, Shafer among them, argue that it's precisely the job of a priest to pose difficult and profound questions, even — and perhaps especially — if people aren't ready to hear them.
Longtime parishioner Phil Macauley admits that Schafer's sexuality did become an issue for him, — but only because Schafer wouldn't stop talking about it.
"One time I came home from a meeting with him and I told [my wife], 'If he tells me he's a homosexual one more time, I'm not going to believe him anymore,'" Macauley explains. "When he says, 'I can identify with your pain,' or 'I know your suffering,' you immediately get the feeling that it's the prejudice he has experienced that he's identifying with, and he's bringing that up instead of what I'm trying to say."
"He listens but he doesn't hear," Macauley says.
From Sabbath to Sabbatical
Last summer, Schafer left Jeffersonville for a year-long sabbatical — a break he claimed was unrelated to his public coming out, although it still remains unclear whether he will return. Sacred Heart has lost parishioners like Barbara Williams — who after three decades, no longer felt comfortable there — but a new priest has helped families like Phil Macauley's put past controversy behind them.
For his part, Schafer says he still feels called to the priesthood, though he's as unlikely as ever to broker a 'Don't ask, Don't tell' concession. Given a new parish, "I don't know that it will be that much different," Schafer says. "I will still be who I am."
Being gay is "very much as a gift to priesthood," Shafer says. "There've been a lot of insights and experiences that I think have been given me, and have been very good for me in walking with other people."
Could coming out be his calling? "I hope that's what this all does, is give, especially gay priests, the courage and the support to say who they are, and to at least take a step farther in speaking and being open," Shafer says. "I looked, and say, 'Do the math.' There are many gay priests."