Editors’ Note: This piece was written in conjunction with GALA ND/SMC, the LGBT alumni group for the University of Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s College, which, together with the Fairness Campaign and local NYC LGBT Catholic groups, is sponsoring a “Pilgrimage of Mercy” celebrating and recognizing LGBT Catholics – and calling for an end to anti-LGBT discrimination. The goal of the pilgrimage is to call upon The University of Notre Dame, and Catholic bishops across the US, to join in a show of mercy and compassion for LGBT Catholics, who continue to be marginalized by the Catholic Church.
This Sunday, October 2, Jack Bergen will walk in line with dozens of other LGBT Catholics and allies for a special Pilgrimage of Mercy event in New York City to call on Catholic bishops and institutions across the country to embrace greater compassion for LGBT Catholics.
“I want to encourage the Catholic Church to more closely embrace the Pope’s vision of what he wants our community to be,” Jack said. “He’s talked about being more inclusive, he’s talked about being more welcoming – and not focus so much on pointing out the sins of others. We should move away from divisive language and actions and more toward a welcoming environment where even though people may have differences, they are still part of the Catholic community and should be welcomed more. That’s my motivation for participating in the pilgrimage. I want to deliver that message to a broader community and have Catholic leaders across the US take steps toward achieving a more hopeful vision.”
Jack is marching – and serving as one of the lead coordinators – through his work as the chair of the Gay & Lesbian Alumni of Notre Dame & St. Mary’s. He remembers fondly his time at the University of Notre Dame, graduating in the Class of 1977, and he knows that the school has a responsibility to its LGBT students and alumni to be more inclusive. As a gay man himself, he has watched the school make progress, but he knows there is significant work ahead.
“While at Notre Dame I identified as straight and hadn’t gone through any coming out process,” he said. “All of my classmates and I would go to mass every Sunday – at Notre Dame, you go to mass with your dorm mates, and you create a real community that way, going to mass with 200 kids in your dorm. It’s a very spiritual experience and was a good opportunity at the end of a busy week to spend time with the people you live with. I thoroughly enjoyed that experience.”
As a young man raised in the suburbs of Boston, Jack said he grew up with a strong traditional Irish Catholic family – and a parochial view of the world: His small town had a population of 12,000, and it was ingrained in these kids that the ultimate life is to study hard, go to a good college, graduate, get married, and have kids. “That was my paradigm, and I followed along that path,” he said. After graduating from Notre Dame he married a woman, had a child with her, and stayed with her for more than a decade.
“Later I started to recognize a different part of me and determine what that was – and I came out to myself,” Jack said. “During that era, my story wasn’t that uncommon.” He and his wife separated, and he soon fell in love with someone else – a man, who has been his husband for more than 20 years.
Throughout it all, his faith has remained important to him. “I believe in and act in the principles of the Catholic faith,” he said. “We were all taught about the commandments and the principles – how we treat each other, how we interact with each other – and I still strongly believe in those principles, and I think I still am my best self when I act consistently with them.”
His sexuality, he said, shouldn’t be a factor in the way he is viewed by the Catholic Church. “I see religion about embracing people for who they are and not for who they should be. As long as we are all good human beings, I don’t see where our sexual orientation should matter.”
That’s part of why he has become so active in the Gay & Lesbian Alumni group at his alma mater – and why he’s excited to march on behalf of other LGBT Catholics this Sunday. “I had more time as my career wound down, and I thought it would be a good way to give back to Notre Dame,” he said. “I really wanted to help make things better for the broader LGBT community, and specifically LGBT students at Notre Dame. When I first became more involved, the student group wasn’t recognized – they didn’t really have the same respect as LGBT people did at other schools. So I wanted to help influence change in the community at both the student and alumni levels.”
But the other part of why he became involved is more personal – his daughter is also a Notre Dame alum, and while she attended school there she met and fell in love with a woman. The couple married in a beautiful ceremony in Vermont several years ago.
“They represent some of the very best of Notre Dame,” Jack said. “And as I sat there at their wedding in the field, I just couldn’t imagine why anyone – why my faith, and my school – would not understand or appreciate the love between the two of them. When you start seeing how negative laws or policies or viewpoints hurt your own children, it can be a strong motivator to take action.”
Jack believes that there is a substantial connection between change within the Catholic Church and a broadening of federal laws protecting people from discrimination in the United States. In a majority of states, of course, LGBT people are not sufficiently protected from discrimination, with no or limited state-level laws explicitly prohibiting employers, landlords, or store owners from discriminating based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
“In society it’s really a combination of institutional prejudices and the people who run them not wanting to change what they know,” he reasoned. “And we can name the major institutions that affect us in our lives – the religious institutions, the governmental institutions, the educational institutions. And these institutions influence and affect each other. The more we can encourage change within them individually, the more we can affect them all.”
“If we can move the needle with the Catholic Church,” Jack outlined, “Then I think the other groups will see that and move on board.”
You can learn more about the Pilgrimage of Mercy taking place on Sunday, October 2 by clicking HERE.