'Sexuality, like priesthood, is a gift from God. Nobody would choose to be gay'
Fr Bernárd Lynch, a gay Irish Catholic priest living in London, overcame prejudice and accusations of child abuse to find happiness in marriage, writes PATSY McGARRY, Religious Affairs Correspondent
FR BERNÁRD LYNCH seems taken aback by my question. “How can you believe in a loving God, considering the plague you have witnessed and experienced at such close quarters and what you have been through personally at the hands of so-called men of God?”
He reflects for a bit. “I suppose if I didn’t believe I would have killed myself a long time ago. It’s nothing to do with proof. It’s very fundamental.”
But he has had to separate his faith from the institutional church. He recalls how, in New York very early in “the Aids holocaust”, a Daughter of Charity nun he worked with, Sr Patrice Murphy, said, “The gay community will have to transcend the church in order to find God.”
The eldest of six, Bernard Lynch was born in Ennis, in Co Clare, in 1947, joined the Society of African Missions in 1965 and was ordained in 1971. He is best known for his work with Aids victims in New York and for coming out as a gay priest.
He has doctorates in counselling psychology and theology and was, for 15 years, theological consultant with Dignity, the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Catholic group. In 1982 he founded Aids/HIV Ministry of Dignity New York.
In what he believes was a combined action engineered by forces within the US establishment and the Church, he was falsely accused of abusing a 14-year-old boy. That ended in April 1989 when his accuser, then 19, refused to testify. The case was thrown out and the judge “dramatically and fiercely declared me wholly innocent”, as he puts it in his book If It Wasn’t Love.
But “it was a pyrrhic victory. The effects of this soul murder by the Church I served and devoted my life to in New York will follow me to the grave.” In 1992 he left New York for London, where he has lived since.
In a conversation on faith he had with the late Nuala O’Faolain, who had a house near his in Co Clare, he said: “All I have is a belief or faith that there is another country. Most people call it God. It’s a hope, Nuala. It’s not anything I am here to push on you but, at the end of the day . . .’ ”
It wasn’t something “that can indeed be forced or proven”, it was felt. He hangs “on to hope, for my life”.
Lynch found it striking that “the people that were most hopeless” in his work with men dying of HIV and Aids were priests. “Not one of those men had any hope. And part of it was the teaching of the Church to which they had given their lives.”
At the deepest level they had internalised homophobia, “a nice word for self-hatred”.
He is still a priest but lost membership of the Society of African Missions towards Christmas last year. He believes this was due primarily to his involvement with lesbian, gay, transgender and bisexual issues and his openness about his marriage to Billy Desmond. But Lynch, who is now a psychotherapist, believes the action was precipitated because he took part in protests “very publicly, very respectfully” during the pope’s visit to the UK in September 2010.
He has no regrets about becoming a priest. “I am very grateful for all that has been given me, even in this difficult journey that I have made. As a man of faith, I don’t believe you choose the path. I believe that path chooses you. And this is my path. And to have reached, or to have Billy reach me, at the ripe old age of 52 . . . I was totally broken. I didn’t believe I was loveable in any way. I couldn’t ask for more. It’s been worth it all.” There is “no Holy Communion more holy than the communion of two people in love. That’s what we talk about when we talk about gay marriage. We’re not talking about sex; we’re talking about love between two people. I find it so offensive when the bishops reduce it to [sex].”
He met Desmond, who grew up in Cork, at a mutual friend’s party in London. It was 1993, and Desmond, who had left Ireland because of his sexuality, was celebrating his 24th birthday.
Lynch said Desmond asked him to go for a drink. “I could tell Billy was interested in me.” He made it clear that he wasn’t interested in a relationship, that he “wasn’t up to it.” But “Billy was very persistent” and became more and more serious. So three years after they met Lynch said: “Billy, look, you’re wasting your time. Go out there and find someone that is more your age and more your experience and more suitable than me.”
Desmond was devastated, and Lynch “was very hurt to see him hurt”. He went for a run. “As I was coming back out of Regent’s Park I saw this figure, almost a quarter of a mile from me. I knew it was Billy. My immediate temptation was to go the other way. I felt so guilty; I walked towards him. He wasn’t expecting to see me. He just looked up at me, and I said, ‘I’m sorry. I’ll try if you want.’ ” That was in 1996.
Desmond, who is a psychotherapist and an organisational consultant, says he “fell madly in love with this man who was not the image. I was seeing something very different to what the image was: his brokenness, his capability to love, his humour. I hadn’t fallen in love like that since I was a teenager. I felt really hurt and broken that day.” The couple were married in 1998 by a Cistercian priest in London and had a civil ceremony in 2007.
Lynch believes that “the gospel of today is lived through the pursuit of human and civil rights. As you did it to the least, you did it to me, that’s the litmus test, not agreeing with Rome or being obedient to X, Y and Z, and people know it in their heart of hearts.”
Desmond says he is “culturally Catholic. I participate in Catholic services on occasions but have difficulties with the institution. The Holy Spirit is very important to me and very important in my work”.
Lynch says, “Sexuality, like priesthood, is a gift from God. It’s a given. Nobody in their sane senses would choose to be gay, because society makes it so difficult, not to talk about religion.”
He hopes to continue “to celebrate my faith with those who want me to, irrespective of what the institution wants and says, and, hopefully, more than anything, continue to be part of Billy’s happiness and fulfilment. It seems to me to be the prize God held back from me.
“Time is on the side of those who love, and I’m very grateful I’ve had the time to overcome.”