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Father Bob, as everyone calls him, knew the Catholic Church had little credibility with gays, given its opposition to same-sex marriage and the tendency of some to blame the priest sex-abuse scandals on homosexuality.
But Monsignor Robert Bussen lives in Park City, a community known for its diversity and openness. So when U.S. Catholic bishops called on their own to start ministering to persons with "homosexual inclinations," Bussen saw a chance to do something bold.
He designed a special monthly Mass for gays, lesbians and their families at St. Mary of the Assumption in hopes of making them feel welcome.
The first such Mass was held in January, and a second followed in February. Although both were sparsely attended by same-sex couples, the Masses prompted many others to thank Bussen throughout the weeks and share their stories of a gay daughter, son, uncle or neighbor.
It also attracted some local media attention.
"It was a tremendously affirming experience," Bussen said this week. "The Mass was more symbolic than anything, reaching out to families who love their church and their children and don't want to have to choose. But [the church] has to earn their respect. They will not tolerate any more rhetoric that attacks their children."
What Bussen didn't expect was the immediate opposition within his own parish and the state - or the pulsing controversy his actions created across the country as the news spread via the Internet. He found himself in the midst of a firestorm of criticism.
Now, after only three months, the experiment is about to end. The March 17 Mass will be the last.
And Father Bob is left to wonder how his good intentions could have gone so terribly wrong.
"St. Mary's is a good and holy place with few divisions or factions," he says. "This was like shining a bright light on a magnificent statue and then the tiny cracks become visible."
The bishops' mandate
The Catholic Church believes in treating gay and lesbian members with kindness and friendship, but it condemns same-sex marriage, civil unions and adoptions by gay couples, according to a 2005 statement issued by the U.S. Catholic bishops.
Catholic teachings distinguish homosexual attractions and actions - the former is not sinful, the latter is. Homosexuals living a celibate life should be encouraged to participate fully in the church, but, the statement says, "the church has a right to deny roles of service to those whose behavior violates her teaching."
Those ministering to gays within the church should not "use their position of leadership to advocate positions or behaviors not in keeping with the teachings of the church," the statement says, nor should they "belong to groups that oppose church teaching."
And that's where criticism of Bussen comes in.
St. Mary's parishioner Joseph Ozog says Bussen failed to fully explain the church's position on homosexuality in the Mass, seeming to celebrate it rather that help people resist its temptations.
"You're not supposed to be ambiguous as far as church teachings are concerned," he said.
Ozog, who has a tape of the sermon, says it leaves the impression that "it's OK to be a practicing homosexual."
The Masses could create a gay subculture within the parish, another thing the bishops oppose, he says.
He also objected to the fact that Bussen attended a meeting of Dignity, a organization of Catholics whose stated mission is to change the church's doctrine on gay marriage. And he joined other religious leaders at an interfaith service during the Winterpride Festival in February.
Ozog and several others met with the Park City priest to register their objections but said he was unresponsive to them. So they wrote letters to Bishop-elect John Wester; Monsignor Terrence Fitzgerald, interim administrator the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake; and to the Vatican.
"This is not about Father Bob. He's a wonderful, caring man," says Ozog, who moved to Park City last year. "We just want to be sure that he's representing the views of the church."
The Rev. Erik Richtsteig of St. James Catholic Church in Ogden is also critical of Bussen's form of outreach.
"We have to be open to people who have homosexual attractions," he says, "but that is different from a ministry to people who identify themselves as gay and lesbian. There's a whole bunch of culture baggage that comes with that. [Such people] make that attraction the center of their lives."
According to Catholic teaching, Richtsteig says, "homosexuality is not something they have to feel guilty about. They did not ask for it and are not morally culpable for it. But it's still a disorder, something they have to watch, not something to be proud of."
That Mass affected more than Park City, he says. It affected the whole Utah church, implying approval of Bussen's methods.
In fact, diocesan leaders support him.
"He's not doing anything unorthodox," Fitzgerald says. "We have special Masses for youths, teens, elderly and Hispanic. Our bottom line is to care for the people, and that's what he's doing."
Even with the support of his superiors, Bussen thought it best to discontinue the Mass. He believes the opposition is more about him than about the service.
The mind of a gay priest
For the past few years, an anonymous Catholic priest has been publishing a Web log about his struggles with his homosexuality.
The writer describes being in the seminary in the 1970s when nearly 20 percent of the priests left to get married. He explored a slow awakening to his own sexuality, rampant homophobia in the church and the need to help other priests confront these issues.
Eventually, the blogger writes that he is at peace with himself.
"My bishop gave me the supportive counsel," he writes. "I was right in claiming, embracing and cherishing this dimension of my life. . . . This holy fire is sacred, not secret. It must not be trashed by anyone."
After Bussen began celebrating the Mass for gays and lesbians, some people concluded that he was the author of the blog and circulated it.
Some members of his parish confronted him and, Ozog says, he acknowledged he was the author.
They felt it indicated a kind of moral ambivalence about church teachings and have sent a complete copy of the blog, now closed to the public, to the Vatican.
In an interview, Bussen declined to confirm or deny the authorship or talk about his sexual orientation.
"In the Catholic Church, the emphasis should not be on the personality of the priest. It asks us not to make public declarations. There should not be the gay priest and the straight priest," he says. "I have never told my parishioners that I am straight or gay. I simply try to be their pastor."
Bussen is hardly alone in not wanting to discuss his orientation.
Priests rarely discuss sex at all. Though some researchers have put the number of gay priests as high as 40 percent, no one knows for sure.
He points to a recent survey in which a small percentage of priests said they were straight and an equally small number said they were gay, but the vast majority said they didn't know. They all take vows of celibacy, after all.
Eliminating healthy talk of sexuality is dangerous, even for celibate priests, he says.
"Celibacy does not mean you're not a sexual being. If you suppress your sexuality, it's going to come out somewhere else. It will do violence to you or the people you serve - alcoholism, power-seeking, pornography, workaholism and abuse."
Though Bussen's critics believe he is not upholding the church's teachings on this, no one has suggested he has broken his vows.
So the conversation about the blog, he feels, is a distraction from the work he was trying to do.
The ensuing controversy about the special Mass has divided his parish, thrust the gays and lesbians who attended into the public spotlight, and put too much emphasis on him, Bussen says with a mixture of sorrow and resignation. "If it's to be about me, it can't continue."
Still, the effort hasn't been all bad for the community.
On Thursday, he plans to moderate an open-ended discussion about homosexuality at St. Mary's for the entire parish.
"We are not as open as I thought," Bussen says. "We have some growing up to do."
On the special services:
He's not doing anything unorthodox. We have special Masses for youths, teens, elderly and Hispanic. Our bottom line is to care for the people, and that's what he's doing.
- Monsignor TERRENCE FITZGERALD,
the Salt Lake Diocese's interim administrator