As I stood in University Ministry wearing the clothes I’d haphazardly donned that warm morning, I became fully aware of the tininess of my dust-smudged white shorts, and, more importantly, the large cartoon bear I’d doodled on my thigh during a particularly slow Italian class.
Oh God, I asked myself, (can I say “oh God” in front of a priest? Is that blasphemous? Oh God, I mean, gosh) what does one wear to meet a member of the clergy? I broke into a slight agnostic sweat before entering the office of the man I’d come to speak to, the Reverend Donal Godfrey, S.J.
The first thing I saw was a small colorful painted tile saying “Shalom” on the wall. The second thing I saw was Father Donal’s bald head facing his computer. He turned around in his chair, and looked at me. He looked completely normal—a smooth, cheerful face, glasses with narrow rectangular frames. No paper collar to be seen.
He welcomed me in. I may have said “hi” five times in a row but I was too busy trying not to seem ignorant and uncouth. He didn’t seem to notice. I sat down and almost instantly forgot about the giant leg-doodle. There’s something about his down-to-earth manner and pleasant accent that puts a person at ease.
Upon reflection, it occurs to me that a priest whose doctoral thesis was on an LGBT-friendly Roman Catholic church in San Francisco’s Castro district might be the last person to care about something as petty as a bit of tacky ink on my skin. I realize my own preconceptions about religious people may come into play here. Full disclosure: I was raised without religion, but by an Italian father who grew up in Rome, practically in the shadow of the Vatican, an experience which, no matter which way you look at it, instills you with a certain pervasive reverence and almost fear of the Roman Catholic church, as well as the black-and-white-clad men and women who represent it.
“People do treat me differently when I wear the collar,” Godfrey said. “Some people will come and talk to you because you’re wearing it, some people will run a hundred miles. So I like to mix it up. After all, it’s only a uniform, a piece of paper, or plastic, or whatever it is.”
The decision to wear his formal priest’s garb is a judgment call he makes in the morning, after working out at the gym (which happens sometimes, but only if he gets up at 6:30 a.m.) and before his ritual reading of the New York Times at breakfast (“with coffee,” he adds). On the first day I saw him, he wore a layman’s blue polo shirt and light slacks; on the second day, he dressed formally—white collar, black button-up shirt, dark blue slacks belted tightly, because he guest-lectured in a class that morning.
The class was Homosexuality and the Bible, and the lecture covered a topic in which Godfrey is well-versed. He talked about his book, “Gays and Grays: the story of the Gay Community at Most Holy Redeemer Church,” a church in the Castro.
“No one wants to be known as a one-issue person,” Godfrey said, adding that there are many other issues that engage him (for instance, a photo on his desk shows him marching in a protest for immigrant rights in Chicago).
However, the issue he is most associated with, and some might say notorious for, is the place for LGBT people in the Roman Catholic Church.
“My niece and my mother looked me up on Google…and that wasn’t a good thing to do,” he said, laughing. “I mean, there was a lot said that was good, but some of the horrible things that were said about me… mostly it was extremely right-wing blogs.”
Godfrey has not backed down on his stance, despite sites that vilify him. The first search result for his name on the internet is sanfrancisco-catholic.com, a website that claims that Most Holy Redeemer “can corrupt good priests and laypeople” and activists such as Godfrey only desire “the furthering of the gay agenda, not fidelity to the teaching of the Church.” Comments on an article by California Catholic Daily accuse him of “repeatedly [committing] public scandal” and “destroying the faith.”
Godfrey said he seldom formally responds to such criticisms. However, he said, “I think the Roman Catholic Church’s official stance on homosexuality is conflicted within itself. On the one hand, you have the catechism saying that all unjust discrimination is wrong. But then other documents say that [homosexuality] is a propensity towards an intrinsic evil.”
His own position, he said, is that “All that kind of language is unhelpful. As I said in a homily at Most Holy Redeemer, it is time to end all harsh language and talk about sexual orientation as a blessing instead of a curse.”
Of course, he continued, “That doesn’t solve all the problems of how LGBTQ people within the church should live out their sexuality, but at least it’s a very different beginning from talking about things in such negative terms.”
Godfrey himself is gay. “At one time that was a struggle, that was very painful, but at this stage of my life, that’s just part of who I am. It doesn’t define me, it doesn’t make me better or worse than everybody else.” But, as he said, his sexuality has been a blessing rather than a curse. “It has been the place where I’ve been able to experience God,” he said. “The God that I have come to know in Jesus is the God who was always with the marginal, who was always with people on the fringe. They had supper with him, and they weren’t frightened of him. ”
Because of this, it is no surprise that his desire for greater tolerance is not a result of his sexual orientation but his faith. It “comes from a place within me, wanting to make a difference, wanting the church to be like a home for everybody, welcoming and open to change, embracing everybody, especially the LGBTQ people, who haven’t felt at home in the church. The LGBTQ work—I think that’s part of the Gospel. It’s not that we do it in spite of the fact that we’re Catholic, we do it precisely because we are Catholic and social justice is part of who we are.”
Entering the priesthood was not Godfrey’s first career choice—but then, as he made clear, it was really neither a choice nor a career.
“I like to think of it as a vocation, not a profession,” he said. “I think, in some ways, it chose me.”
The path to his calling was a long one. “I resisted being a priest for a while, didn’t think I wanted it, but the idea kept bugging me, that it might be a good fit for me. I think God was in that little bugging feeling, in my imagination. It kept coming back, and when I thought of it, I was kind of happy.”
Having had a Catholic education for most of his life—Godfrey attended boarding school in England at Stonyhurst College, a Jesuit institution—faith was present in his consciousness from a young age.
“I got a great education there. Strange, in some ways, because it was a boarding school,” he said. “I didn’t realize that not everybody went to boarding school. I think I thought, this is the way everybody goes to school, but of course…”
After this, Godfrey went to university in Ireland. “I became an attorney—those that wear wigs, which was very appropriate, because I’m bald,” he noted, chuckling.
During this time, he said, the idea of becoming a priest was still present in his mind, but “after high school I’d entered a space where it didn’t make much sense to me. I wasn’t sure what I wanted or what God was, or what the church was about…not that I even have all of that together now.”
One of the turning points in his life was a retreat he attended with Jean Vanier, the founder of the L’Arche program, which works with people with developmental disabilities. According to their website, L’Arche “makes explicit the dignity of every human being by building inclusive communities of faith and friendship where people with and without intellectual disabilities share life together.”
Godfrey said, “It’s a very different way of working from the normal model. They create communities of support and care, it’s more like a real family. It’s about the people rather than just shunting them into institutions.”
This experience, and Jean Vanier in particular, made him think again about his desire to join the clergy. “Listening to him, when he spoke about the Gospel, about real people and people whose lives have been transformed, broken but healed, that had an effect on me.”
He summed up the rest of his education in a whirlwind of various colleges, degrees, and life events one after another with little punctuation in between: joined the Jesuits; degree in philosophy, Dublin; degree in theology, University of Toronto; masters, license, postgraduate degree, Berkeley, worked on reconciliation between Catholics and Protestants in Belfast, and then finally a doctorate in ministry from the Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley. “And that became the book I talked about in class [this morning],” he said.
Catherine Cunningham, a legal assistant from San Mateo who has attended services at Most Holy Redeemer for 24 and a half years with her wife, Roz, met Godfrey when she was a deacon at Most Holy Redeemer and got to know him as he was working on this thesis.
“I find him to be a very compelling person because he is so courageous and strong in being who he is and not being afraid to let people know who he is and yet he’s very gentle and caring and supportive. In some people, those qualities are kind of at opposite ends of the spectrum and people are either one or the other, but because he’s been through so much in his life he’s managed to integrate it,” she said. Asked to describe her friend, she quietly handed me a slip of purple paper on which she had written a list of adjectives.
All of them were admirable, all of them were strong, but those that caught my eye were courageous, genuine, prayerful, and wounded healer.
“What does that mean, wounded healer?” I asked.
“You know, somebody that has struggled a lot and felt a lot of pain in their own life,” she said, “it makes them more empathetic and able to understand the pain of other people.”
At the University of San Francisco, Godfrey is in charge of a multitude of varied tasks as the assistant director and only Jesuit priest on the full-time staff of University Ministry. Part of this position includes the usual sacramental duties, such as liturgy, confessional, and Mass.
“For example, if someone comes in wanting a priest, I’m the one that is often referred to,” he said. “Sometimes in emergency situations I’m called on, if someone—student, faculty or staff—needs to see a priest.” He is also in charge of spiritual direction, which he said “i’s different from counseling or therapy, where you might focus on your issues and where you need help, whereas this is focusing on where God, as you understand God, is present in your life.”
Amid a hodgepodge of boards and committees, Godfrey also serves as the liaison between the ministry and USF’s law school, where he conducts some meditation programs for students, gives talks, attends alumni events, and so on. He witnesses weddings at the St. Ignatius Church and helps to prepare couples for marriage, talking them through issues that they might encounter. He helps lead the Ignatian Spirituality Exercises, these being a series of prayers and meditations developed by St. Ignatius Loyola. USF faculty and staff participating in the ten-month process commit to meeting for an hour of meditation each day.
“All that takes quite a lot of my time,” he said, adding that in his free time, he enjoys hiking, reading contemporary literature as part of a book club, and dining with friends. “I like the diversity of what I do.”
He especially likes working one-on-one with individuals. One such student that he worked one-on-one with is junior Evan Vaughan, who got to know Godfrey during his freshman year at USF. “When I found out that Fr. Donal is gay, I felt that I was able to have a deeper connection with him.”
Like Godfrey, Vaughan is both Catholic and gay. “I felt that I could be even more open about myself and my sexuality with him and University Ministry as a whole,” he said. Simply “to know that priest could be gay and still a priest just reassured me that who I am is valid, especially in the Catholic world.”
Godfrey’s favorite parts of these interactions are the transformations that happen, he said, “when people understand that God cares for them and they thought that they were alone, and they suddenly realize they’re not alone. When someone’s been going through a terrible time with their family, or some issue, and suddenly they come to an understanding that God supports them through that situation.”
He hastened to add, “Not that I can make that happen. I can’t do that, but—just being a guide, accompanying somebody, helping them find that power and that strength is very transforming for people. It doesn’t take away the problems, but it puts a totally different perspective on them.”
Godfrey himself is no stranger to these transformations. “It’s not like it happens once, forever. I think we keep going through them; I think I keep going through them. There were times in my life where I felt that I was alone, and then I realized that God was right there, wanting to empower me and support me so that I would be happy and joyful and free.”
The office where Godfrey spends the majority of his day is by no means stark, but somehow manages to still look simple and uncluttered. A computer sits in one corner, opposite a large bookshelf. Small art objects and personal items stand out against an off white wall.
“This is from Ireland,” he said, gesturing at a poster of Caravaggio’s “The Taking of Christ.” “I’m actually one of the owners of that painting—the original—as I’m a member of the Irish Jesuits, and that painting was discovered in one of our buildings in Dublin.”
Among other artifacts are a minuscule Mexican shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe, with a tiny glass door through which we could see the lady herself. “It opens up, I think, but I don’t know how you open it up,” he chuckled. “It was given to me by someone who made the spiritual exercises with me, a Latina.”
“And this is from El Salvador,” he reached up and pointed at a painted wooden cross, humble in its beauty, depicting in primary colors four small scenes of everyday life, while in the center a maternal figure opens her arms to us. “A woman is where Jesus would normally be, and that means a lot to me. And then there are all the real-life situations there, school, and families, showing that God is part of everyday life.”
On the wall there is a picture of Saints Sergius and Bacchus, third century Roman martyrs. “They died together,” he explained. “They were very close friends. We don’t know if they were gay or not, but they had a very intense friendship, and the gay community has kind of adopted them.”
Many of Godfrey’s decorations hearken back to his Irish heritage, from the Caravaggio replica, to a Saint Bridget’s cross above his well-stocked bookshelf, to a canvas scroll depicting a Celtic knot from the Book of Kells, an illuminated manuscript Gospel book created by Celtic monks in the ninth century.
“And this is a Celtic Irish cross, because I’m Irish,” Godfrey indicated a small wooden crucifix about five inches long. It looks roughly whittled and weathered by age, most of the details effaced. “It’s from the penal days, and it represents all the persecuted Catholics and Christians around the world. At that time, it was illegal to practice Catholic faith in Ireland, so the cross had to be able to hide up your sleeve.”
The last of the wall fixtures is a framed quotation from the Rev. Pedro Arrupe, S.J., which Godfrey read to me: “Nothing is more practical than finding God, that is, falling in love in a quite absolute way. What you are in love with, what seizes your imagination, will affect everything. It will decide what gets you out of bed in the morning, what you will do with your evenings, how you will spend your weekends, what you read, who you know, what breaks your heart, and what amazes you with joy and gratitude. Fall in love, stay in love, and it will decide everything.”
Godfrey stood back from his wall thoughtfully, and then sat in his chair again.
“Do you love what you do here?” I asked.
“Yes, I do,” he replied almost instantly. After a moment of thought: “I mean, I don’t love reports and budgets.” He smiled. “But I love being a priest, I love my work here, I love being in San Francisco.”
Back in the class Thurday morning, Godfrey presented an excerpt from a BBC program about Most Holy Redeemer for the students. The hymn “All Are Welcome” plays—a deliberate choice, Godfrey assured the class. The program continues with a sermon by Godfrey himself, at an October Mass five years ago. He shuffled his feet and looked at the wall, smiling a little, “I hate listening to my own voice.”
In the recording, Godfrey’s voice rang out, a tad higher than in real life and a great deal louder, telling the story of Noah and weaving it into the narrative of gay people’s–and, really all people’s– need for acceptance.
“The rainbow in the sky was a sign that the flood was over, and that creation could now rest secure. I learnt this truth here at this Catholic parish. The message of the rainbow is that for God, there is no ‘us’ and ‘them’… ultimately, there are only God’s children. We are all the rainbow people of God.”