Father Peter Liuzzi stepped onto the moral tightrope on his way to visit a man dying of AIDS.
His gay cousin, Gary Rini, had asked him to administer the last rites to Kevin, his lover. As Liuzzi drove to UCLA Medical Center, he was tormented by private demons and doubts. He pulled his car onto the shoulder and wept.
"I just lost it," he said. "I had the blessed sacrament. I had the holy oils. I had the ritual--all things that were powerful to me, that always were helpful to people." When Liuzzi entered Kevin's hospital room, he was still trembling.
Since that fateful day 18 years ago, Liuzzi, who steps down Friday as director of the Los Angeles Roman Catholic Archdiocese's Ministry With Gay and Lesbian Catholics, has been anything but timid, thanks in large part to being with the dying man.
During his 11 years on the job, Liuzzi publicly disagreed with California's Catholic bishops by opposing Proposition 22, the anti-gay marriage initiative approved by voters in 1999.
In 1989 when Archbishop Roger M. Mahony and other bishops banned the celebration of Masses for members of Dignity, an unsanctioned Catholic gay and lesbian group, Liuzzi led a delegation of priests in a dialogue with Mahony about pastoral concerns. Dignity publicly had repudiated the church's teaching against sex outside of marriage.
Ironically, Liuzzi also sent a tremor through the National Assn. of Catholic Diocesan Lesbian and Gay Ministries by quitting in protest when its statements risked blurring the church's clear teaching against homosexual acts.
"That's why he has been successful," said John Good, a friend and member of the association board. "He's a master in being able to walk that tightrope."
But to walk that tightrope, Liuzzi first had to face his fears. Step by step he had to feel the tension of standing on a strand of belief stretched between two seemingly opposing poles--the church's unequivocal assertion that homosexuality tends toward "an intrinsic moral evil" and the pastoral urge to meet the needs of lesbian and gay Catholics who struggle to reconcile their most intimate feelings with the beliefs of the church they want to call home.
Those steps, Liuzzi said this week, began when he walked into Kevin's hospital room in 1983. He put on hospital gloves, mask, surgical hat and disposable booties. The pale green smock would become his priestly alb.
Kevin lay on a gurney, naked except for a cloth that covered his waist. He was obviously in pain. Bluish-red sores, grim evidence of Kaposi's sarcoma, covered his body. "He is filled with chaos," Liuzzi thought.
A Holy Moment on Holy Ground
Then Liuzzi saw something else. Call it an insight. Or a sign. "Oh my God," Liuzzi thought. As Kevin lay vulnerable and motionless, Liuzzi saw the Pieta, Michelangelo's poignant depiction in marble of the crucified Christ lying in Mary's lap. "This is a holy moment. This is holy ground."
Liuzzi was convinced. He removed his mask, gloves and surgical hat.
"Father?" Kevin asked.
"I'm sure glad you took that off. You're a handsome dude!"
They shook hands. The tension lifted, but only for a moment. Kevin and Gary were estranged from the Catholic Church because of its position on homosexuality. But Liuzzi was family. Gary once had been married. It was "a big Italian wedding," Liuzzi remembered. The couple had a son. Gary had hoped that marriage, then having a baby--and before that, joining the Navy--would make him straight. Nothing worked. With the help of a therapist, Gary had been able to admit that he was gay.
Liuzzi knelt by Kevin's bed to pray. Instead, he began to weep, just as he had on the drive over.
"I'm afraid of dying," Liuzzi recalled telling Kevin. "But there's something else going on in me. I feel like I'm also afraid of living. Right now I have a feeling that you're the master of both of these more than I."
In a role reversal, Liuzzi asked for Kevin's blessing. Puzzled, Kevin, with some coaxing, placed his hands on Liuzzi's head and blessed him.
Kevin didn't die that day. In the few weeks he had left, Kevin taught Liuzzi something about courage and honesty.
"In the most ordinary situations and waking moments, that's where God is," Liuzzi said this week. "We learn to be attentive to the movement of God's spirit."
About five years later, Gary also died of AIDS. About two years before his death, Liuzzi felt compelled to share a secret. Liuzzi--a Carmelite priest under solemn vows of poverty, chastity and obedience--told his cousin that he also was gay.
Some years later, Liuzzi disclosed his sexual orientation during a parish meeting. The information was given to a conservative Catholic newspaper, which outed him. But not everyone was aware of it, and Liuzzi largely has avoided speaking about his homosexuality even though he remains celibate.
All life, he said, is full of paradox. Jesus, he said, bore paradox. He was loved by his Father, but rejected by humankind. He was innocent, but was crucified outside the city walls between two thieves.