Father Richard Vitale knows what it's like to feel unwanted by God. His family in New York was a triple whammy of conservatism: Roman Catholic Republicans who were deeply involved in the Boy Scouts.
He knew he was attracted to other boys at the age of 6, although he was too young to have a word for it. At first he thought it was a good thing. But when slurs started getting thrown around in the fifth grade, he vowed to never reveal the urges he was feeling to his peers.
Growing up in 1980s New York at the height of the AIDS crisis shook him deeply. Vitale didn't find a positive role model until he met his 12th-grade English teacher.
"He had a partner, sold real estate on the side, and drove a BMW," he explains.
So at 18, Vitale moved to Washington, D.C., enrolled in American University, and came out. But in a juxtaposition that might sound strange to some people, that's also when he started a period of discernment -- the religious term for trying to figure out whether one is suited for the clergy.
Vitale went into seminary school open about his orientation but was never forced to outright disclose it, explaining that the church "invented 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell.'" He almost scooted by undetected, but when the Catholic sex abuse scandal broke out, the church started an inquisition on gay men within its ranks.
"One day, we were told there would be a search of our room for effeminate artifacts," he says. "I knew I would never be able to counsel lesbians or gay men to be themselves or be with whom they loved. And it wasn't right."
It was 2007, and Vitale had his friends clandestinely move him out in the middle of the night. He joined an Episcopalian congregation, took a secular job in advertising, and eventually married the love of his life. His new path was derailed when he met a priest within the Independent Catholic Movement and felt the pull toward priesthood again.
The priest explained that splinter groups had broken off of the religion, because they didn't believe in papal infallibility, and that these movements didn't focus on hot-button issues like homosexuality, abortion, and contraceptives. Vitale finally realized he could be an agent for change if he joined their ranks.
Today he's one of six priests at a Wilton Manors church who are openly gay. As its website explains, Holy Angels Catholic Community is part of the National Catholic Church of North America Inc. -- part of the Independent Catholic movement, independent of the Roman Catholic Church. It's "a valid church in the apostolic tradition and succession," and adherents celebrate the Seven Sacraments.
In the past 15 years, priests here have married hundreds of same-sex couples, Vitale says. (While legal marriage requires the parties to be of opposite sexes, that requirement doesn't exist for fulfilling the sacrament.) Holy Angels Catholic community also has branches in Jacksonville, Orlando, and Key West, and all are open to women clergy and married priests.
Vitale's been part of the church only since January but says he's finally found a place where he fits in. He's hoping he can get other gay men and women to find their place too.
"There's been all this muckity-muck thrown on top of the religion," he says. "We're dealing with people who are wounded, who have been told that's something's wrong with them."
Holy Angels Catholic Community also offers Sunday and Wednesday masses in English and Spanish and free yoga on Mondays.
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