xbn .
Catholic Re-Visions

“My secret is God, I’m God’s secret” [1]: desire, the closet, and queer ministry

In Spain, a man contests the sexual politics of the Catholic Church by opening the first LGBTQ+ faith refuge.

In the early hours of the last day of winter, 1956, a young man paced through the empty cloisters of the convent-seminary at Vic, an hour drive away from Barcelona, Spain. Vic, a “city of stone and fog” had grown with its back to a river that constantly washed away the polluting by-products of its leather industry. The young man incessantly turned back on his heels, awaiting the sun, wishing the same pestilent river could cleanse his feelings. He had been weeping for hours. Three times during the night, the noviciates master offered him a glass of water: “Hermanito, no llore” [don’t cry little brother], “Uno nunca sabe los caminos que nos tiene preparados el Señor” [we never know the paths Our Lord has prepared for us].[2] Each time, the young man drank the glass of water, said thank you, and resumed his cloistered walk. A few hours later, exhausted but resolute, he stopped. In his chamber, he opened a bag, reeking of mothballs, of his lay clothes. Broken, he undressed. Taking his cassock off, he would never put it back on again. Before he left the seminary, he kissed his sleeping roommate on the cheek.

On an early summer afternoon in 2018, I interviewed Emili at his small house in Foios, a town outside the city of València in Eastern Spain. We sat across a desk, sipping black tea. The red tin teapot spurted more liquid around the cups than into them. We had talked on the phone for some time before this encounter, and had exchanged a couple of brief letters, Emili’s preferred method of communication. I had come to hear of him through conversations with founding members of the Religious Affairs working group within Lambda, the LGBTQ+ association in València. In their archive, I found a cache of pamphlets, newsletters, and personal communications containing his name. Yet, the same name failed to appear in any of the “academic” histories written about Lambda-València, instituted in the late 1970s. 82 years of age at the time of the interview, Emili’s animated speech meandered. Questions did not mean much to him.

“For me, it was a trauma, a total destruction of the 19 year old me, sensitive, madly in love with Christ, with the Church, with the religious vocation.” With a heavy heart, Emili recalled the night he decided to leave the seminary in 1956. He had grown up in a hungry country that was ravaged by the Civil War, but the Church had given him forms of nourishment. From the age of nine, he had wanted to be a priest. “I sat for hours in front of the tabernacle, full of wonder at the immensity and the smallness of Christ.” His family had no means to send him to the seminary, but Emili had a good voice. He earned a place in the prestigious Cathedral choir, where he received an education in the arts, music and religion. Entering the seminary eventually as a “late postulant” at the age of 16, Emili told me he spent some of the happiest times of his life during the first stages of his training as a priest.

Yet, the 1950s were “terrible times” for people’s sexual identities, particularly dissident ones. “I had had my agonies about our sign,” he said in respect of his/our sexuality. “I knew about my feelings already when I was six,” he confessed. “Everything was prohibited and sinful back then though; priests used to say, God’s commandments are ten and they can be summed up in one: do not fornicate.” During the interview, Emili was less clear about his own same-sex experiences, in any of the registers he could have used. The Valencian dialect of Catalan, which we both spoke, abounds in expressions that reveal as much as conceal information about sex and about sin. From what Emili said and did not say and from what he expressed through his eyes and his hands, I put together an early life of falling in love often, being occasionally corresponded, and rarely succumbing to any form of carnality. During his seminary years, he strove for celibacy and sincerity. Seminarians were asked to keep a diary of thoughts and tribulations, encouraging a confessional honesty not only with oneself but also with the confessor who read the diary regularly. One day, spurred by this call to bear all (a call to which Michel Foucault dedicated the first volume of his History of Sexuality), he told an external confessor about his “sign.” “I have never forgotten what he said to me,” Emili admitted. He has never forgiven who uttered them either: “I’ll have you know then, that it’s better to be a good lay person in the world, than a bad religious person in life.”

Devastated by this pronouncement, Emili decided to leave the seminary. But his love for Christ and the call to spread this love never left him. During the obligatory military service, he kept a diary that would become his first published book, Els Quaderns d’Emili Coniller 1956-1960 (1973). In it, a young Emili grapples with spiritual anguish and vocational desire, to reveal an increasingly confident voice that decries the Church and his contemporary society for rejecting, punishing and mocking homosexual people. Not many books like this came out in Spain at the time. In the mid-1960s, Emili opened a bookshop in the city of València, selling books in the different Catalan dialects. This was not only provocative to the authorities of the fascist regime, but also verged on illegality. The bookshop attracted people of all sorts, he said with a wink. He made friends with gay Valencian writers and poets who visited from the villages. Emili told me that books on religion and spirituality sold best, but that his friends and acquaintances deprecated him for his choice to sell them. Institutional Catholicism had played such a pernicious role during the Civil War and the early decades of the dictatorship. It regulated the social and moral lives of Spanish people. Emili’s open fondness for Christianity during the dictatorship’s last decades was coded as démodé, corny, or reactionary even. “All my life I have been in and out of two closets, the gay one and the Christian one,” he told me during the interview.

“But all along I yearned and yearned. “El de dalt [the One Above] tugged at me,” Emili continued, placing his left hand on his chest. After the bookshop venture, Emili and a friend with similar concerns embarked on a long Iberian pilgrimage to different Marian shrines. He also attended spiritual training given by Acción Católica Obrera, a Catholic worker’s union that offered classes on religion, manual skills such as carpentry, and general education. His aim, he told me, was to find himself spiritually, and learn what to do with his unfulfilled vocation.  Vatican II’s ground-breaking reverberations could be felt already, Emili said. “In the end,” he continued, “I realised I needed to be an apostle for my own people.” With the little money he had left from the sale of the bookshop, he bought a house in rural València. It was a house with open doors, “a refuge, a chapel.” At a time when the fascist regime had renewed the persecution of non-normative sexual behaviours and identities, Emili founded the Fraternitat Cristiana de l’Amistat [Christian Fraternity of Friendship] in 1966, the first organization explicitly dedicated to the support of what we now would call queer people.

“All sorts of people came, believers and not, young men who had been chucked out from their home [for being gay], young women who had gotten pregnant out of wedlock or by someone they didn’t love…” In a way characteristic of Emili, there were no banners or explicit manifestos in the house. Emili remembered a young man who, after a typical long evening of simple food and heated debate, exclaimed, “I’m not sure why but we always end up talking about either sex or religion.” Emili’s aims were clear: “To vindicate homosexuality and to evangelize.” For Emili, the Gospels “are not venerable scrolls, but words that are alive, a document that beats like a heart, that welcomes and moves you, whoever you are.” Hundreds of men and women passed through the Fraternity house in the decades that it remained opened. “A lot of them came to talk about what they could not talk about at home or in the village, and to meet people like themselves.”

The Fraternity published well into the 2000s. Since I met Emili, he has sent me bundles of them. The content is more explicitly in line with Emili’s aims: prayers and exhortations, translations of articles about homosexuality, and long opinion and experiential pieces by a growing number of collaborators and subscribers on themes such as HIV/AIDS, devotion, priesthood, and the Church. In 1993, Emili published another book, El Mensajero Herido [The Wounded Messenger]. It contains thoughts and provocations that I cannot but link to what I call his queer-evangelizing work: “Even when you’re not allowed to love, love freely. They don’t want us to live freely anyway, but we live” (fragment 97).

Towards the end of the afternoon we spent together, Emili took me to a loft at the back of his house that stood above a patio with a lemon tree. On the wall, there were posters with words such as “silencio” [silence] and “recogimiento” [retreat, meditation]. Two chairs and a prayer stool had been placed in front of a statue/image of Mary holding her child. It stood on a golden column garlanded with the words “Maria Mater Homofiliorum Ora Pro Nobis.” A few candles shivered coyly. Emili motioned me to come near the statue. He picked it up gently and cradled it in his arm. “This is our Mother, the mother of those who share “el nostre signe” [our sign]. “Here,” he said as he delicately pulled off the golden heart on Mary’s chest, “you can put your prayer if you want. She’s hollowed,” he whispered reverently. How telling, I thought, of the Catholic closet at large: things seem not as they appear. Secrets abound. Outward forms matter. Later, Emili narrated how friends from the Fraternity had funded the statue’s restoration, turning Mary’s hand around in an aiding position and adding a small orb on the little Jesus’s hand.  “A symbol that we are universal,” he stated.

There were many more stories that afternoon, like the tragically touching visits that the statue paid to gay men’s bedrooms as they were dying of AIDS-related illnesses in the 1980s and 1990s, or the one about the Jesuit that Emili and his friend encountered in their pilgrimage who travelled everywhere with his male (lay) companion. He has continued telling me these and other stories in the letters we still exchange several years after our first meeting. My aim is to write briefly about Emili’s unique evangelical desire: one of acceptance, “vindication,” and change. This desire accounts for the extraordinary amount of work he has done, even though it remains unknown.

During his papacy, Pope Francis has strived to pay attention and answer the concerns of queer Catholics, yet the latter are losing their patience with an unchanged body of doctrine that still condemns their lives as sinful and an institution that often refuses to acknowledge their contributions, whether they be spiritual, theological, or in the many forms of devotional labour. Now more than ever, we need to uncover these stories of dissidence, of hurt, and of hope.  

[1] Fragment 93 in El Mensajero Herido (see below)

[2] Translated quotes are originally in Spanish and / or Catalan.

“My secret is God, I’m God’s secret” [1]: desire, the closet, and queer ministry

In Spain, a man contests the sexual politics of the Catholic Church by opening the first LGBTQ+ faith refuge.

Women’s Desire for Priests

Reflections on a Catholic ‘gender paradox’: When womens’ desire for priests drives the Church’s ‘passionate machine’

Polish Grassroots Theologies of Desire: From Internal Conflict to Political Action

Polish Catholics protest against the Church’s conservative approach to sexuality. Liberal traditions have been successfully silenced since John Paul II, so now they create their own theologies of desire. Will the Church listen?

Responding to the Desiring God

Contemplating a radical response to contemporary politics of (sexual) desire

Contemplative Prayer, Desire, and the Problem of Other People

In its embrace of solitude, contemplative prayer opens up a space of tension around the social and embodied qualities of desire.

Desire and Meaning in Augustine

Language and meaning originate not from a fullness trying to communicate itself but from a lack that strives after enjoyment.

Like what you're reading?

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Share This

Share this post with your friends!