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."