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Benjamin J. Brenkert, ex-Jesuit seminarian, writes open letter to pope on homosexuality

Benjamin J. Brenkert, 34, an openly gay man

Benjamin J. Brenkert, 34, an openly gay man who grew up in Valley Stream and spent 10 years in training to become a Jesuit priest, at the General Theological Seminary in Manhattan on Oct. 2, 2014. Credit: Uli Seit

An openly gay man who grew up in Valley Stream and spent 10 years in training to become a Jesuit priest has left the Catholic Church and written an open letter to Pope Francis, calling on the church to treat gays and lesbians more fairly.

Benjamin J. Brenkert, 34, who now lives in the Bronx, said he left his studies for the priesthood in July because he was increasingly troubled by cases in which openly homosexual church workers and volunteers across the country -- including Nicholas Coppola of Oceanside -- were removed from positions because of their sexual orientation.

He wrote an open letter to Pope Francis last month and mailed it to the Vatican, Brenkert said Thursday in an interview. Afterward, he sent the letter to the website for New Ways Ministry, a Catholic gay-rights organization that promotes church reforms. Other media outlets, including The Huffington Post and The Washington Post, have posted the letter on their websites.

In the letter, Brenkert referred to the pope's statements in July 2013 when, speaking to reporters and referring to gay priests, he said, "If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?"

The pope's words, while not veering from church doctrine opposing homosexuality, were viewed as striking a more compassionate tone on the topic than that of his predecessors.

But Brenkert, in his letter, said "being non-judgmental is not enough," and he called on Francis to halt the firings.

"In your time as pope, your commitment to poverty has awakened the world to the evils of globalization, capitalism, and materialism . . . Yet, while you have focused on physical and material poverty, members of my community ... have been neglected. They remain on the frontiers, the margins, living spiritually poor lives."

The Jesuit order to which Brenkert had belonged did not return calls. The office of the Apostolic Nuncio, the pope's representative in Washington, D.C., declined to comment.

Brenkert, a graduate of Valley Stream Central High School, worked for a summer at the parish in Oceanside where Coppola served before his removal last year. He also worked at the former Jesuit-run St. Ignatius Retreat House in Manhasset.

In an interview, he said the seeds of his vocation were planted in his childhood, as a parishioner at Church of the Blessed Sacrament in Valley Stream.

He left the Jesuits during the summer, Brenkert said. Members of the order urged him to stay in the church and the order, he said, but his conscience told him to leave.

Brenkert was two years away from being ordained a Jesuit priest -- a process that typically takes 11 or 12 years. He had taken first vows of poverty, chastity and obedience as a Jesuit, and was considered a member of the order.

He said he struggled for months with his decision.

"Over time, I realized I couldn't be an openly gay ordained priest . . . if lay people were being fired because of who they loved and who they married," he said.

Coppola, who married his partner in October 2012 under New York State's same-sex marriage law, was removed from his public ministries last year at Jesuit-run St. Anthony's parish in Oceanside, where he had assisted at Masses, taught a fifth-grade religion class and visited the sick.

At the time, the parish pastor, the Rev. Nicholas Lombardi, did not comment. The Diocese of Rockville Centre said Lombardi had acted appropriately by removing a person who was violating church teachings.

In his letter to the pope, Brenkert said the "last straw" for him was when a married lesbian social-justice minister was fired from a Jesuit parish in Kansas City in May.

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