I think I'm experiencing my own second coming on some level (biblical reference is intended). The most difficult thing I ever had to do was to leave the priesthood. It was difficult because I faced loss of my family's support, love of the parishioners who genuinely seemed to enjoy me as their spiritual guide. In 1998 I had to make a decision about how authentic was my life and if I was genuinely realizing the person that I was in my own eyes, not the person I was in the eyes of the world around me. I allowed myself to become a paper-doll of sorts by becoming a priest. I was clothed in the paper thin faith of others, changed by my own indifference, dressed in those fiber clothes by my own fear. That fear was that I would have to admit to the world that the ministry I was involved in was being preached by a man of God who was not of God, who did not acknowledge God, who held the very mysteries he prayed with fervor as nothing more than nonsensical prose. Now, this point, 43 years into my walk on the earth, I am letting the world know that I am a non believer. I have been a non believer, dare I say it, an atheist, since before I was ordained a priest.
Now non Catholics respond to this information generally with a shrug or a a quizzical look, a shrug that says okay, followed by, so you were a priest? Did you know the pope? For Catholics however, it is another matter. Remember this faith, Catholicism, doesn't allow divorce even. So imagine for myself, I was raised in a world that you simply power through. You stick with it, even if it isn't right, joyful, or life affirming. I was raised and then educated by the Church itself, to work towards acceptance of the faith, even if I felt there wasn't any. To proclaim now, all these years later, that the elements of faith in the Catholic Church were never a belief for me generally causes breast clutching, gasp inducing reactions. I hear a lot, "I'll pray for you." I see a lot of looks of disappointment, occasionally looks of extreme disapproval from Catholics. Most Catholics hiss with their eyes, "how could you lie to us-how could you lie to yourself?"
I question myself in this regard too. I often reflect back on my youth spent in prayer, service to poor, visiting the sick and dying, time spent reading ancient texts, studying a dead language, learning Greek so as to better understand the gospels, and I wonder how could I? Was I so selfish that I, by my staying in this world of the faithful, surrounded by the flickering candles in churches that represented prayers of those faithful to their god, took away the sacred from those prayers, their symbols faith by my own selfish disbelief? I still don't have a solid answer, partly because after I left the ministry in October of 1998 I shoved the life of ministry, prayer, god, aside; I buried those memories deep, I hide from my own past, ashamed that I hadn't had courage to step away from this world sooner in my life. Indeed, how could I have lied to myself?
For a long time I told people that I didn't share that I was a former priest because I didn't want to connected in anyway to the abuse scandals that rocked the church, especially in the 1990's. While this was partly true, the reality I was never involved in any scandals. I did struggle with celibacy, but my struggle was with consenting adults. My soul hurt(s) whenever I read about a priest violating the trust of children. My opinion was and is that those priests and their bishops and the men and women who managed their ministry should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. If there is not enough law to punish them, new laws should be written. This betrayal by those in power is such a gross abuse of power that I still cannot believe the faithful continue to tolerate priests in their lives. We all know that child abuse, sexual or physical or emotional is absolutely wrong, it has no place. Any adult in a position of power who dare to violate that trust, to steal the innocence of these child must be punished, and I can't think of a punishment too harsh. So I wasn't connected with any scandal, and this could be easily proven. But this why I told people, told myself, that I wouldn't share my life as a priest so as to avoid this association with those bad priests. This reason was another mis-truth in my life.
I hesitated to share my leaving life as a priest, and I hesitated to share my life as priest after leaving because I would have to reveal to the world that my entire ordination, ministry, faith, were false. I became an atheist priest, and after finally drawing the courage to leave, I was ashamed and hid. So hence my second coming, but perhaps I should call it my second coming out. Coming out as a gay man after leaving the priest was sticky, but it gave lots of people a reason why I left, and yes, my inability to be a good celibate was part of why I left, but it wasn't the driving reason. I knew many priests who were faithful to their beliefs, but struggled with celibacy, or just simply weren't celibate. Celibacy, being gay were issues, but they were very common issues in the priesthood. Lots of gay priests (such a cliche), lots of priests not celibate. However, there aren't, or at least to my knowledge weren't, lots of priests who were atheists.
I know that people are still just shaking their heads at these revelations. Many people still must say, "How? What? An atheist priest? Why? Why would you do that? How could you do that?" I ran from these questions for almost 20 years myself, I avoided asking them and answering them too. I just couldn't in my own life comprehend what the hell I was thinking. How could a man who seemed so close to god have been so far? I was a good priest, I gave powerful sermons. I understood the theology of the church extraordinarily well. I knew how to encourage the faithful to realize faith in their everyday life, how to live a life that was Christ like. I breathed my breathe into the chalice with passion, hic est enim calix Sanguinis mei, this cup is my blood, hoc est enim Corpus meum, this is my body. I would hold each word in my mouth like for the first time, every time I was telling someone that I loved them. I would savor each word thoroughly, pause in the phrase so as to draw anticipation, make the faithful want me to speak more quickly whilst at the same time wishing I would never stop the consecration prayers.
My own personal disbelief whist I was a priest fueled in me a fervor. I relished challenging the faithful to be MORE faithful in their beliefs. In my own disbelief I could be free of doubts or lack of courage in faith because I had neither, doubt nor courage. I had no faith, I never questioned my own atheism. At a certain point, not long after I arrived in Rome in 1992 I challenged myself with the ultimate challenge. I prayed that if God were real he would show himself, manifest. If not, then I would know he was not real. Then not discovering a revealed God I challenged the Christian notion of Satan should he should show himself manifest and thus I actually prayed to him. I hesitate to tell this story because I am aware that fundamentalists will leap upon my desperation in wanting to believe so much I would invoke even the Prince of Darkness to prove god's existence. They would leap and shake a finger saying of me, "see he is of evil, he prayed to the Devil." I am no longer hesitating. I heard no answer from God, I heard no answer from Satan, anymore than I will receive a letter from the North Pole from Santa Claus. I also in my youth have prayer to Thor, Odin, Zeus, angels and archangels, and not once have I experienced divinity, the miraculous. The only prayers that have ever been answered are the ones I have answered myself. My disbelief in the faith allowed me to take faith chances that a true believer would never dream of. My disbelief allowed me to challenge believers, hoping that they would at least accept their faith in a genuine and critical fashion.
Today I do not wish to enter into challenging the faithful to be more faithful, nor do I wish them to be less so. My journey has matured me in such a way that I value what faith did for me. I value even what it did to me. I traveled the world because of faith. I have met the most wonderful people who were mystics, artists, lovers, saints, sinners, singers and dancers in life. I don't want, I don't need people to believe as I do. What I do desire is for the world and its faithful to acknowledge that there is room here for believers and non believers alike. I have found inspiration in other people's stories, Chris Stedman in his marvelous book "Faitheist" and Mary Johnson in her personal moving story "An Unquenchable Thirst: a Memoir". I have my own story to tell though, my own journey to live. I pull wisdom from these bright leaders' work, but I have got to be able to speak in my own voice, to do my own good.
I do believe I am a good person, a just person, a loving person. I do believe I can do more, I can be a better person, a more just person, a more loving person. I do believe that humanity is capable of so much wisdom, power, beauty. We are a capable of so much hurt, destruction, ugliness. When I experience with the faithful their amazing good works, their art, their love, I experience their goodness. For me I think it even more remarkable because so many faithful believe their good works are fueled by a divine spirit. However, as an atheist I can look at them and recognize that their goodness comes to realization even in the absence of God. I know this is true because it is true in me. My motivation to be better comes from a desire to see justice, love and goodness act as the forces that move all mankind towards growth and fulfillment of life.
I have been extraordinarily restless these last few months. It's a spring awakening I think.