Recently, a group of friends (all priests and religious) and I went to a sports bar in the early evening before diaconate ordination. Shortly after we had ordered an appetizer, men dressed in cut-off shorts, kilts, leather collars and vests, chains, and t-shirts with explicit messages began to trickle into the restaurant. Soon, there was a critical mass of freaks. A lot of eyes were staring at my table, and the curiosity was mutual. After all, we had a Capuchin Franciscan among us dressed up in a Medieval brown robe with a rope, and the rest (excepting the women) donned all black with Roman collars. The members of my party probably looked like freaks to them.
I asked the waiter about the group, and he explained it was a ‘leather convention’. A ‘leather convention’, I found out, is not a gathering of leather craftsmen selling saddlebags and briefcases. Instead, the term is code for a gathering of male homosexual sadomasochists.
I could go on here about why sadomasochism undermines the dignity of the human person or discuss the Catholic Church’s teaching on homosexual acts. Those would be worthwhile discussions, but, instead, I want to reflect on an oft-repeated saying of Pope Francis—one that needs some hefty interpretation, lest it be understood as a statement affirming moral relativism, as some on the far-left like to think: “We have to meet people where they are.”
As the mutual side-glances continued throughout the meal, two of the priests at my table, including the Capuchin dressed in the brown sack, decided to approach a table of the leather-clad men—big, burly guys who’d snigger and laugh and sometimes wave at us. Fr. Brian and Fr. Kevin introduced themselves to the group and asked the leather-clad guys what they were in town for. The men asked whether the priests were doing something at the cathedral that night (they had noticed lots of people entering the front doors of the church). After a short exchange, the men thanked the priests for greeting them and said that it “really meant a lot”.
When Pope Francis exhorts us to “meet people where they are”, he’s not wrong. But as a good bishop I know says, “Where else are you going to meet people, except wherever they are?” And some people are in a really bad place and shouldn’t stay there, including, I’d venture to say, these sadomasochists. I don’t know why they engage in the practices that they do, but my hypothesis is that something has gone terribly wrong in their lives, something that has led them to the dark place where they are. Like Christ who met the woman at the well, Fr. Brian and Fr. Kevin met the guys in the leather collars and chains. They brought the presence of Christ to the Christ-less missionary territory right there in the restaurant.
Maybe what Pope Francis is emphasizing is just this: when the opportunity arises, Christian discipleship challenges us to meet the freaks, rather than ignore them, sneer at them, or pat ourselves on the back for not being a freak. A greeting and a charitable word need not, in any way, affirm a sinful lifestyle. It’s true that sadomasochism, whether homosexual or heterosexual, is morally bad, and these men must be called out from their dark places and into a life of holiness. What happened at that restaurant was just the first step—the encounter. And the necessary next steps—the ones that bring people from a dark place into a better place–, including sharing the Gospel, Church teachings, and Sacraments, can’t happen without this first one.