Chris Pett, long-time activist and leader in the Dignity (Catholic) organization,, was born June 21, 1950 in the mid-year of the middle-year of the 20th century. His parents were Robert Pett and Miriam (Neumann) Pett, who were native New Yorkers (Queens and Rockville Center). His Dad, who was a chemist and sales representative, was transferred by his company to the frontiers of the Midwest, or so did the family back in New York think. They arrived as newlyweds and shortly after the move, Chris was born followed by a surprise twin brother, Geoff. They only found out that there were twins on the way shortly before their birth. Chris was the firstborn which was a closely kept secret until Chris secured a birth certificate which noted the birth order. Two more brothers followed in 1953 and 1954.
The Pett household was traditionally Catholic. The “Pett boys” as they were known, attended Catholic school and the family faithfully attended church and observed all the obligations of being a “good” Catholic. The family finally settled in Elmhurst, a near western suburb of Chicago. The family attended Mary, Queen of Heaven Church and the boys were in Catholic school. Their mother was particularly religious and volunteered with the Mary’s Guild, and sometimes drove the Sisters (Mercy nuns) to the local A & P, to help them with their grocery shopping.
Chris always did well in school and the nuns loved him. It was in the 8th grade that he seriously began to think about becoming a priest. People today ask how someone so young would even think about this as a career opportunity and life commitment? But there was a strong tradition both culturally and within Catholic families honoring a young man who might consider a vocation to the priesthood. Chris was also heavily influenced by two Mercy nuns who fostered his interest but also encouraged all of their students to live purposeful lives in service of others, to make a real difference. This was the early 60’s, JFK was the first Catholic president and there was a real push towards young people taking on service commitments, such as the Peace Corps. He idolized the Maryknoll Fathers and their commitment to bringing the Gospel to “mission” territories. To him, these were the true heroes of the Church, at least for that day and time.
So Chris began seminary as a freshmen at Quigley North, operated by the Chicago Archdiocese. He studied there the first year of high school and then transferred to St. Charles Borromeo Preparatory Seminary in Lockport outside of Joliet. Chris studied for the Joliet Diocese and St. Charles was built as a high school preparatory seminary as well as Collegiate seminary.
Chris completed his B.A. degree in Psychology at Quincy College under the guidance of the Franciscans and their tradition of humble service to all. Following the usual track towards priestly ordination, Chris completed his M.Div. degree at St. Mary’s Seminary and University, Baltimore, MD, the first and primal seminary of the U.S. He attended St. Mary’s because of its commitment to a progressive theology and support for post-Vatican II teachings and Church renewal.
Following two intern experiences as a Deacon for St. Patrick Parish in Kankakee and at St. Alexis in Bensenville, Chris was ordained a priest on Oct. 9, 1976, and continued his assignment at St. Alexis. He has described this day as the happiest day in his life, the completion of a 12 year journey towards priesthood. Two more pastoral assignments followed at St. Matthew, Glendale Heights and then St. Paul, Joliet.
It was in the fourth year of a five-year assignment to St. Paul’s that Chris began to experience a real dissonance and dissatisfaction with the lifestyle and restrictions of the traditional priest in a parish. After a year of counseling, he decided to leave active ministry and began a leave of absence on June 1, 1988. While this turned out to be a very life-giving and fulfilling life transition, it carried with Chris the tremendous loss of the dream of priestly ministry. While Chris has not regretted this priestly life and all he gained from it, he knew it was time to claim his sexuality as a gay man and seek a new life which included the possibility of a long-term relationship.
Chris is certainly a prime example of a gay man, attracted to priesthood not because he could hide his sexuality there, but because of a true sense of vocation that coincided with his gay identity. He grew up and matured in an age (60’s/70’s) of emerging openness and visibility of those who identify as LGBTQ+ but without the language or role models. Leaving active, formal ministry as a Catholic priest was an act of claiming his identity and in recognition of his worthiness for living this identity with spiritual and psychological integrity.
Chris had gained a Master’s in Religious Education, with a concentration on adult learning, and was fortunate to quickly find a job as a training manager for a small insurance company. This was followed by a number of jobs in large Chicago area corporations, earning a Master’s of Science in Organization Development along the way.
It was in 1990 Chris met his one (and only) partner who was a member of Dignity/Chicago, which is a Chapter of the national organization, DignityUSA. Chris had heard of Dignity but was initially attracted to the model of Church he knew most intimately, membership in a local Chicago affirming and inclusive parish. So Chris began attending Dignity/Chicago with his partner which began a long history of involvement with the progressive LGBTQ+ Catholic movement which demands full inclusion and respect of LGBTQ+ Catholics in the life of the Catholic Church. As Chris observed, the relationship with his partner ended, but the relationship with Dignity continued.
Chris served a board member for a number of years and eventually as the Chapter president. As his involvement grew locally, he became more engaged with the national organization DignityUSA. In 2000, using his skills as an organization development consultant, he co-coordinated the “Reimagining DignityUSA” project which resulted in a significant re-structuring of the organization and re-ordering of its governance structure to better reflect the evolving needs of LGBTQ+ Catholics and better position the national organization’s voice and impact on the progressive Church reform movement.
Chris was recruited to serve on the DignityUSA Board of Directors, 2014-2017, and was elected national president and served in that role 2017-2021. During that time, DignityUSA celebrated it’s 50th anniversary as one of the oldest and largest faith-based LGBTQ+ identified national organization and movement leader.
During his leadership period, he partnered with Marianne Duddy-Burke, the DignityUSA Executive Director, to be the voice of DignityUSA in national media, which positioned the organization as the go-to voice of LGBTQI+ Catholics. His interviews both in print and live sessions included secular and religious publications nationally, as well as a live interview with an Israeli radio station, which certainly attested to the reach and credibility of DignityUSA as the pre-eminent voice of LGBTQI+ Catholics.
During his work with the national and local Dignity organizations, he has been featured in interviews on the local NBC and CBS television stations. He participated on a panel for WTTW, the local PBS station, providing a counter-perspective regarding the early pontificate of Pope Francis and his change in tone around LGBTQ+ sexuality and identity in the Church and his efforts towards a more inclusive Church. Francis did change the tone of discourse towards a more pastoral and welcoming stance, but unfortunately his leadership has not resulted in doctrinal or theological teachings around LGBTQI+ sexuality, which has been quite frustrating to LGBTQI+ Catholics. Chris has sat across a table with a reactionary, abusive southern Illinois bishop who has tried to exclude LGBTQI+ Catholics from the sacramental life of the Church, defending our truth and ensuring our messages were delivered in the face of disrespect and careless disregard for the experience of LGBTQI+ Catholics. Efforts to do this kind of hard but necessary work continues as DignityUSA and local/national leaders take on the hierarchy, speaking their truth and claiming their place in the Church.
Chris also has authored a number of columns for the local Chicago gay media, including a commentary in the June, 2019, addition of the Windy City Times, celebrating the 50th anniversary of DignityUSA and its impact locally and nationally. He also authored a commentary piece that appeared in the Advocate, January, 2018 focusing on our collective and individual roles as movement makers and leaders.
Chris has also been active in the larger LGBTQ+ rights movement in Illinois. He chaired an Equality Illinois board committee that led efforts towards a strategy to engage faith-based congregations and leaders to support of LGBTQ+ civil rights in Illinois, and specifically focused on achieving the passage of Civil Unions legislation which was signed into law in 2014. Chris also served as the Co-Chair of the Equality Illinois Board of Directors, 2014-2017.
Chris continues to support his local Dignity/Chicago Chapter while discerning other opportunities for impacting the continued progressive Church reform movement for LGBTQ+ Catholics.
(This biographical statement written by Chris Pett.)
Biography Date: December 2021