Neil Fox thought about becoming a priest when he was a child. His family were not overly religious, but he attended Mass, by choice, with his grandad on a regular basis. ”I probably was more prayerful as a child than maybe the average child,” he says.
In his 20s, Fox didn’t quite fit the stereotype of someone who might be associated with the priesthood. “I was working in Arnotts. I used to go in really hungover from the night before, out partying, and yet I’d be saying, ‘I think I should become a priest,’ and [my friends] couldn’t marry the two,” he says, laughing.
He was 32 by the time he actively looked into joining the priesthood. The death of his mother from cancer at just 51 was followed closely by the deaths of a friend and his grandad. This proved to be a catalyst to begin the process.
His family and friends were mostly very supportive of his plans. The sex abuse scandals within the church “put people off going into the priesthood”, Fox says, and the fear “of being tarred with the same brush. The only negative comments I got when I was going in were, ‘Do you really want to get involved with an organisation that covered up or were seen to cover up that?’ My feeling was to change things: it’s better to be on the inside and to be part of something. And the same with other issues.”
But, he concedes, “it’s a noble thought, but when you’re in there, it’s a lot trickier”.
‘There was a lack of empathy towards the messiness of life’
Fox found life at the seminary to be quite different to his expectations. “There were 12 of us in most classes. People go in for genuine reasons 99 per cent [of the time]” he says, but adds: “if you’re living in more rural parts, the priesthood still is a sort of status thing, so you got that a little bit. Or people who are very rigid, sort of black and white thinking. They can be drawn to it more for the rules and regulations side of things.”
Some of the discussions that took place during classes surprised Fox. “There was one seminarian who was obsessed with hell. I was there during Trump [versus Clinton] ... There were two of us, possibly three, that wouldn’t have been in favour of Donald Trump, but everyone else was very for him. In my view, there’d have been a negative attitude towards people who were on social welfare and things like that, which really surprised me. There was a lack of empathy towards the messiness of life.”
Most of his lecturers in Maynooth were priests. “It’s a very male-dominated place. But it’s not macho men. It’s like going into a different world.”
On the positive side, “it was lovely to be around people who did have a faith”, Fox says. “There was a kinship in that. Also, the sense that we were all called to do something.”
However, Fox struggled with some of the teachings. “I always felt they were a bit too black and white. If you do become a priest, in general, you’re sent out to communities where people have all sorts of issues and things going on in their lives that don’t fit into the religious sort of bubble.”
Even on things often fundamentally associated with the church, Fox struggled to adapt to the rigid views. He was involved with the pro-life movement at one point, but says “I disinvolved myself with all that because I felt it was too one dimensional. And life isn’t like that. I remain friends with a lot of people in that group and I have a lot of respect for the work they do. I actually abstained. I didn’t vote in the referendum.”
While Fox was in the seminary, his sister Donna died at the age of 30. “She was hit by a delivery lorry while cycling to work in Dublin city. She died at the scene. I was meant to meet her the next day in Dublin for lunch. It was a horrendous experience. Most of the religious order I was involved with were wonderful and sent cards and letters and some came to the funeral.”
But in spite of the fact that Donna’s death was on the news, “not one of the lads from Maynooth came to the funeral”.
“I suppose it was a turning point. In early grief you’re kind of all over the place. You’re shell-shocked, especially when it’s a sudden death ... I just thought at the worst moments of your life, if you don’t feel comfortable where you are, there’s something wrong.
“It was a gradual thing. I didn’t want to leave, actually. I continued with my studies there but I wasn’t happy where I was living. I wanted to move, to stay in the order but to move to Dublin because I was nearer friends, just for that period of time, for about six months or so, and that was vetoed.
“I started feeling disconnected from God and from my faith because of, in my view, some odd behaviours within the priesthood and within some of the seminary. I was just shocked that they didn’t know how to listen or be there. The deeper conversations were with atheists or people who weren’t particularly involved.”
“Donna was gay,” he explains. “I don’t know if that was part of the issue, people didn’t know what to say. Donna was in a happy relationship for the last two years or so of her life. I remember thinking at that point that the actual church teaching would have been very against that. So I just felt I can’t marry that with my own faith, or my own feeling of what Jesus would think.”
A year later, after more than four years of religious life, Fox left the seminary.
Sexuality had a big part to play in Fox’s decision, he explains, as he is also gay. “I didn’t consciously try to go into the priesthood in my early 30s to get away from being gay, but, with hindsight, it was a big part of it. I would have had what I would term internalised homophobia. I’d no homophobic feelings towards anybody else, but I probably did towards myself. I felt I shouldn’t be this way, I need to change that.
“This is probably the first time I’ve ever said it.”
Fox says while he can’t say what exact percentage of priests are gay, “an awful lot are. In this part of the world, I’d say the majority. That doesn’t mean that they say they are, but there is hypocrisy.
‘I go to Mass most days. It’s part of my life and I’m glad it is. I would encourage anyone else who’s gay, who feels in anyway drawn to the church, not to feel they can’t be a part’
“The majority of Irish priests are very quiet on the issue [of homosexuality]. Privately, they wouldn’t have a huge problem with it ... There’s a sense that the church is being ridiculous on it.
“During the marriage referendum it was very clear the church had no energy about it. They weren’t going to be listened to. People have friends, sons, daughters, grandparents, great-grandchildren who are gay and they see their lives.
“The whole idea of Christianity is to love one another. Donna’s death just brought it to the fore for me. I would have lost a level of faith while I was involved in Maynooth and the religious orders, and I always said that if that happens, I would leave.”
Fox has been in a relationship for the past year with another man. “When you care about somebody, you love somebody, you make each other happy, I don’t see anything wrong in that and I don’t feel that is against my faith. For me, the saddest part is so many people who are gay feel that they can’t go to church or they can’t be a part of something that perhaps they would get a lot of solace from being involved in.
“I’m always very conscious of not tarring everyone with the same brush,” Fox says. “There are amazing people in the church. There’s a lot of good, but I think the institutional end itself and the hierarchy and the technical church teachings are a big issue, and I didn’t want to be seen to promote that. That’s why I wouldn’t go back.
“I go to Mass most days. It’s part of my life and I’m glad it is. I would encourage anyone else who’s gay, who feels in any way drawn to the church, not to feel they can’t be a part, because Jesus was all about the marginalised. He wasn’t about the pious.”