A Gay Episcopalian Goes on a Catholic Spiritual Retreat


This is my official statement of reconciliation with the Catholic Church. OK, not really, but it is my account of an experience worth sharing, one in which this gay former Catholic, now a gay Episcopalian, spent a week on silent retreat at a Jesuit retreat center in Southern Maryland.

Leaving behind the green-paint vandalism at Washington National Cathedral, which kept innumerable members of the media on "green-paint patrol" (as a reporter for The New York Times called it), I made my way from D.C. to Loyola on the Potomac, a 55-year-old retreat house that stands on the most breathtaking bluff overlooking the Potomac River and encompasses 235 acres of rolling woodlands and hiking paths.

I wanted my time on retreat to be an opportunity to surrender my life to God -- no wrong or right choices, no agenda, no list of tasks to accomplish, simply the good use of leisure and being open to God's voice.

Quickly, however, what bubbled up for me upon my arrival was the whole issue of being a gay former Catholic among nothing but Catholics. I told myself that this wouldn't be an issue here, that I'm mature enough, spiritually formed enough, and that Jesuits are open-minded. Just before I left for the retreat, Huffington Post Senior Religion Editor Paul Raushenbush had mused that 2013 may end up being the year that Christianity becomes "cool" again. And even Pope Francis, himself a Jesuit, had just made international headlines for brief comments regarding homosexuality on his way back to Rome from Brazil.

Still, I debated if, how, and when to unmask myself. My greatest fear was that I'd be discovered and denied Communion in the middle of daily Mass. Just a passing glance at the titles of the books I'd brought -- The Book of Common Prayer and Dan Savage's latest, American Savage, among them -- might have suggested that I wasn't the average retreatant. And I knew that undoubtedly flubbing the responses in liturgy would be a dead giveaway, especially given the recent adoption of new English translations in Mass.

So after orientation, I made my way to the meeting with my assigned spiritual director, the Rev. Don Ward, S.J., parochial vicar at St. Therese Catholic Church in Mooresville, N.C. Father Don couldn't have looked less like the priests I grew up with. For starters, he was the first one I'd ever seen wearing high-top Chucks, with shorts and a T-shirt in place of a clerical collar. He had a warm smile and a proud laugh. Four other retreatants were assigned to him, and we all met together to introduce ourselves. I went last.

"My name is Richard Weinberg," I said. "I'm from Washington, D.C., where I work at Washington National Cathedral as director of communications. I was raised Catholic and left the Church as a teenager. As an adult I converted and became an Episcopalian. It's a privilege to be with all of you, and I'm very much looking forward to our time together."

Whew. All smiles.

Immediately at the end of the meeting, a fellow retreatant, a retired priest, came up to me and shook my hand and said, "I'm glad you're here. You know, you have a wonderful bishop. She's impressive and very pastoral." He was referring to the Rt. Rev. Mariann Edgar Budde, the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington.

"Why, yes, she is," I said, smiling.

The next morning I met with Father Don individually for the first time. When I mentioned that the reason I'd left the Catholic Church when I was a teenager was that I'm gay, he didn't even blink. Then, when I started to ask whether it would be offensive for me to receive Communion, he almost stopped me mid-sentence and said, "You should feel welcome to enter into the experience and liturgy here as fully as you want. Whether you feel welcome will be up to how people here treat you. But, really, you don't have to worry about not being Catholic."

Wow. Would that I'd known a priest like Father Don growing up.

That I would come to feel welcome and equal among my Catholic brothers and sisters in the end was far less meaningful than the deepening of my faith. This resulted especially from my guided experience through Ignatius' Spiritual Exercises, the main point of my being there.

For those who don't know, "St. Ignatius Loyola was a sixteenth-century soldier-turned-mystic who founded a Catholic religious order called the Society of Jesus, also known as the Jesuits," as the popular Jesuit author the Rev. James Martin explains in The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything. The Spiritual Exercises, devised by Ignatius, are "a manual to a four-week period of meditation on the life of Jesus." So my retreat was a kind of miniature seven-day crash course in the Exercises.

Surprisingly, the most powerful day for me was the day in which retreatants were invited to reflect on their sinfulness. Assigned scripture passages illumined our meditations (mine was the story of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16), and then we were invited to meditate by picturing Jesus on the cross, and to address Him directly to answer the following questions:

  • What have I done for Christ?

  • What am I doing for Christ?
  • What am I going to do for Christ?
  • As a former Catholic still suffering from perpetual guilt, this was challenging for me. I know it also probably sounds very stereotypical, what with the Catholic tradition of confession, for example. But when it came time to answer these questions, my meditation helped me realize how little I have done that actually serves the least among us: the poor, the homeless, the destitute. I'm certainly proud of the mission and the ministry of the National Cathedral, and I know firsthand that our growing outreach to the LGBT community is serving one segment of society that has been disenfranchised. Still, the great sin I came out of my meditation feeling was selfishness. Indeed, what was I going to do -- for Christ?

    Sure, I know that I'm not going to go to a gay wedding in a Catholic church anytime soon, and I know that I'm not always going to agree with what the leaders of the Catholic Church have to say, but my time at Loyola affirmed for me that at the end of the day, people of faith -- in this case, Catholics and Episcopalians -- have more things in common than differences. In the end, the Catholic Church's ministry, which serves millions of people around the globe, surely does more good than my personal qualms about some Catholic teachings could ever negate. And for my wonderful week at Loyola on the Potomac, I'm in their debt.