Michael J. Califano, former teacher at Maria Regina School poses for a photo with third grader Jameson Ward outside Maria Regina Church (OSV News photo/courtesy Brianne Ward).

How do people keep their faith, when it seems as if their faith has turned against them? How can they follow a faith whose leaders believe them to be sinners? Most decide to turn away, knowing they will lead a life with one less source of judgment or criticism. Then there are the stubborn ones who stay. Count me among them.

My Catholic education taught me that God created all of us in his image and likeness and that I should treat others the way I would like to be treated. I have lived my faith according to the Church’s teachings and practiced my faith consistently, even through devastating circumstances: my sister’s death after only six months on Earth, as well as the death of my father, a police officer, in the line of duty. Even through difficult times like those, I continued to believe and trust that God had a plan, even if I could not see it yet.

I have always been grateful for and receptive to what the Church teaches. But recently, some of the leaders of my faith have tried to condemn me for something I have no control over: whom I love. I was fired from my job teaching at a Catholic elementary school because I am gay. The same Church that told me God loves me and made me in his image has taken away my livelihood because of this uncontrollable aspect of myself.

My roots in Maria Regina School in Seaford, New York, run deep. My father attended Maria Regina. I attended from kindergarten to eighth grade, and the education I received there solidified my foundation in the Catholic Church. I went to high school at St. John the Baptist in West Islip, and then Manhattan College—fourteen years of Catholic education in total—and all along, I stayed connected with Maria Regina as an altar server, Eucharistic minister, and director of the school’s annual musical production. A few years after my father’s death, my family, friends, and I created a memorial scholarship to honor him. Every year, we put together a pancake breakfast to raise the scholarship funds to help an eighth-grade boy and girl from Maria Regina attend a Catholic high school. The winners were determined by an essay contest that focused on what a hero meant to them. I also worked as a substitute teacher at Maria Regina when I was pursuing a master’s degree.

After I graduated, I got a job working for Nassau County in the Office of Crime Victim Advocate, helping connect victims to counseling and other services. I had a good job, good health care. But I left it when the principal at Maria Regina called to tell me there was an opening for a third-grade teacher. As I was considering the position, family and friends raised a concern: “If you go to a Catholic school, they do have grounds to fire you if they find out you’re gay.”

At Maria Regina, there was no need to “find out” that I’m gay. I had continued to volunteer in the school and parish. They knew me and my story, and they knew that I had come out after high school. When I took the job, I agreed to the diocese’s stipulation that I wasn’t to discuss my sexual orientation in the classroom and I would have to make any social-media posts private. I didn’t post much on social media anyway, and I didn’t think my sexual orientation needed to be discussed in a third-grade classroom.

So I began teaching third-graders at the school where I learned to be a Catholic. I developed a teaching style that the kids seemed to enjoy, based on my love of Disney characters. But my approach to the students was not childish; I didn’t talk down to them and I took their concerns seriously. I remembered the support system that Maria Regina had provided me in eighth grade when my father died, and I wanted to provide a support system for my kids when they needed it.

But things fell apart in November 2023. Someone had sent a photo from social media of me and my boyfriend kissing to the diocese. Whoever sent it knew the situation well: they knew that the principal and the pastor would support me, or at least wouldn’t see it as grounds for firing. So they went right to the bishop’s office, and the bishop’s office began an investigation.

Some of the leaders of my faith have tried to condemn me for something I have no control over: whom I love.

I learned later that the diocesan education department called an emergency meeting with my pastor and my principal to discuss the situation. At that meeting, someone from the diocese raised the subject of firing. My principal said, “You can’t be serious.” The diocese was unable to view any of my social-media accounts because I had made them private, so they searched through my boyfriend’s accounts, where they found a video in which my boyfriend and I were kissing. They deemed this inappropriate.

As we had agreed from the start, I had made all my social-media accounts private, and I didn’t think that they could really hold me accountable for something that somebody else posted. But the day after Christmas, when I was still planning lessons for the rest of the school year, the pastor asked me to come into his office the following morning. I thought it was going to be a slap on the wrist; I knew that both the principal and the pastor were advocating for me.

The next morning, I found out that my pastor had been instructed to read me a letter from the diocesan human-resources office. The text came from the diocese, but it was on parish letterhead. It said that the social-media posts that they had found “violate our policy on what a Catholic school teacher must be in both their words and actions.” It concluded, “The decision to terminate your employment was based on these serious policy violations and the negative impact your public actions have had on our reputation and workplace/student environment.”

The diocese had strong-armed my pastor into firing me but didn’t have the nerve to tell me themselves. As we were leaving the meeting, my pastor broke down in tears. “You have no idea how hard we fought for you,” he said.

There were many more tears to come. The parents of my students reached out to me to offer support and express their sadness at the news. They organized a rally of about one hundred people outside St. Agnes Cathedral to voice their displeasure at the bishop’s decision. I cried during the final performance of Maria Regina’s musical when one of the directors presented me with a rose and gave a speech that led to a standing ovation. My third graders gathered around me and I gave them a big hug—I knew this would probably be the last time I would see them at the school.

As I said, I’m one of the stubborn ones. This abrupt change in my life has not cost me my faith. I still go to Mass every Sunday, though usually at a neighboring parish, Our Lady of Lourdes. I’m sad that it is difficult for me to go back to Maria Regina for Mass. This is true even though it was not my pastor or my principal who fired me, but the diocese. When they look at me, they don’t see a teacher who loves his job and whose students look up to him, but a disgusting sinner who needed to be removed. No matter what the human beings who run the Church might say, God made me this way.

I would like to ask Bishop John O. Barres why he feels I should not be allowed back in a diocesan classroom. I would like to know why I was only made aware of this after the decision had already been finalized. Why was a teacher who had never had any prior incidents fired on his first “offense”? Why did the diocese not reach out to me and address their concerns? If they had, I would have taken down any problematic posts or addressed the issue and continued my vocation as a Catholic educator, as I promised the diocese I would do when they hired me.

For now, I’m looking for work in public schools and seeing where it leads. But at the end of the day, I’m still a Catholic, and I still want to teach in Catholic school. I just want my job back. I want to be back in my classroom with my kids. As I told my students at an emotional Mass after the firing, God did not do this to me. I do not want my story to be a reason why anyone would turn their back on our faith. I only hope that one day all will be welcome in the Church that I have always loved.

Michael Califano is a former third grade teacher who has not let his ordeal destroy his faith.

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