For the last 20 of his 45-plus years, the dark-haired man at the altar has baptized babies, buried grandparents, married young men and women.
The fact that he is also gay had never been much of an issue, until now. "I've never felt personally discriminated against," he said. "But right now there's a lot of homophobia and hysteria going around."
Serving God and the community was what pushed this Roman Catholic priest into his white collar, he said. "The first time I thought about being a priest I was in grade school," he said. He didn't begin to understand that he was gay until his second year of seminary.
The priest, who said he has held to his pledge of celibacy and done nothing wrong, also said he is afraid to have his name or picture made public.
In the midst of the Catholic Church's widening sex abuse scandal, the relative abundance of gay men in the priesthood--a fact that for years was mostly ignored --has suddenly set off a divisive debate among American Catholics.
Some liberal priests and parishioners are furious, saying church leaders have begun raising questions about gay priests instead of addressing the church's real and very separate problems: sexual abusers of any orientation and the practice of reassigning abusive priests from parish to parish.
Some conservatives are angry too, but for different reasons. They say homosexuality in the clergy is a concern that has long deserved more scrutiny, and that church leaders still are failing to fully deal with it.
Somewhere between the right and left edges of this debate, the issue has opened up for many Catholics questions of theology, sociology and sexuality--questions with layered sides, but no easy answers.
Does the sexual orientation of priests have any place in discussions of the abuse scandal? Beyond the scandal, what draws gay men to the priesthood? And, perhaps most of all, does a priest's sexual orientation matter?
Church leaders themselves touched off this debate, as the church's priest sex abuse scandal swirled. Bishop Wilton Gregory, leader of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, last month described the church's "ongoing struggle" to ensure that the Catholic priesthood "is not dominated by homosexual men." A papal spokesman said that people with "these inclinations just cannot be ordained."
Rev. Stan Sloan, a former Roman Catholic priest, said the "real shame" is the notion that homosexuality in the priesthood be raised in the context of the molestation scandal. "There's a difference between being gay and being ill" by abusing children, said Sloan, who is gay and now an Episcopal priest. "Nobody is making that distinction."