"At last," Jim said, "everyone who matters to me knows the truth."

Joe Healy didn't realize it then, but those were the final words his brother would say to him. For the first time in years, Joe remembers, there was no fatigue in Jim's voice.

Jim Healy was a Catholic priest. He was also gay, and he had AIDS. A charismatic preacher, a passionate activist for the poor and outcast, a liberal renegade within the Catholic church, he spent decades at the altar calling people to take action, to look at themselves honestly and fight the world's cruelties and injustice.

As pastor of Our Lady, Queen of Peace Church in Arlington, Healy did not flinch from expressing his iconoclastic opinions on the moral dilemmas of American culture and foreign policy, on priestly celibacy, women's ordination, the hierarchy of the Catholic church. But for the most essential facts about himself -- the nature of his personal life and the shape his death would take -- he could find no words.

In both his living and dying, Jim Healy struggled with some of the same, confounding questions that entangle the Catholic church in America. How faithful will American Catholics be to traditional church teachings on sexuality? Which controversial subjects can be discussed, and which words cannot be said? How can people reconcile the demands of the religious life with the freedoms of modern American culture?

For years Healy had exhorted his parishioners to accept and love everyone no matter how different. He told them to remember that priests are complicated, flawed humans rather than pristine arbiters of doctrine. He was speaking of others, but also of himself: A man who had taken a vow of celibacy he privately repudiated, a man who loved being a priest so much he was willing to accommodate himself to a life of irreconcilable contradiction.

For years Healy wrestled with the desire to tell his secret. "He wasn't concerned that he was gay or was having problems with God," says Jeffrey Earl, a friend. "He was more concerned that people would sit there and say, How can I believe him on other issues if he's this way?' He didn't want people to remember him as a gay man or a person with AIDS. He just wanted them to remember him as someone they trusted and respected, and who loved them unconditionally."

Finally, a year and a half after retiring in April 1995, because of undefined health problems, Healy overcame whatever combination of fear, privacy and pride had held him back. In a speech at a World AIDS Day service last December, the 62-year-old priest announced he was gay and that he had AIDS. Two weeks later, he declared the same thing in the pages of the National Catholic Reporter. "I can say quite candidly that I never personally embraced celibacy as a gift from me to God or a grace from God to me," he wrote.

He did not mention the guilt of a young

seminarian falling in love with another man. He merely hinted at the loneliness and regrets of a man yearning for something more than the discreet fellowship of priests and respectful admiration of parishioners.

Only his friends and family knew about the homilies he considered but never gave, about his dread of offending parishioners and losing their affection and attention by telling them he had broken his vow of celibacy.

Healy did not know how his beloved parishioners would hear his news, when it finally came: With sadness and love, but also with pain that he did not tell them directly, and with -- for some -- discomfort about the choices he made.

But whatever was omitted, whatever left unexamined, Healy felt the truth he wanted told was out. Four weeks later, on Jan. 10, 1997, he died. His Message

Jim Healy did not deliver sermons, he performed them. Although two generations away from Ireland, on Sundays his vowels and Rs reclaimed their hereditary dip and roll. He leapt off the altar, gave his homilies in the aisles, his arms carving the air as he spoke, eye to eye with his people.

His message was of joy and fury: God's love is unconditional. Yet people treat others as dispensable objects.

"Doesn't it make you angry?" he asked again and again.

"He was the type who would just touch you," says parishioner Dottie Williams. "I can see that smile of his now, as if to say, Welcome. Come in, child!' He leaves an indelible impression on you -- you never forget this man."

With his white hair sweeping down from his high forehead, his arching eyebrows, his deep voice, Healy had the look of an Old Testament prophet and the bearing of someone to be reckoned with. But he also laughed often, taking obvious delight in the strength and promise of the Mass.

And he was not unaware of his charismatic appeal.

"He was the most inspirational speaker from the pulpit that I've ever heard," says Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.), a parishioner. "So often when you go to church, you don't get anything out of it. It's kind of a payment on your weekly insurance policy, rather than being a transforming experience that makes you a better Christian or a better person. With him, I came out of church a better person and, I think, a more spiritual person."

When a particular word slipped his mind during a sermon, Healy asked the crowd to help him. When a parishioner was sick or suffering, he told them to pray, to visit. The parish was a family, the world was a family. They must take responsibility for their brothers and sisters.

If his congregation seemed to falter in this challenge, he berated them. If they rose to it, as he felt they often did, he praised them.

In one homily he urged people to read a long New Yorker article about a 1981 massacre by U.S.-trained Salvadoran battalions. He would not accept the excuse that they didn't have time. Stay home from Mass next week, he said, and read. Better to educate the conscience than maintain a perfect attendance record.

Some left the parish because they disagreed with his liberal politics or found his style too abrasive, too outspoken, too theatrical. But for each person who left, more came, drawn by the warmth of the parish and Healy's gift for making the gospels a living, challenging part of their lives. During his tenure, the congregation doubled in size to about 800 families, according to parish records.

Many of those who disagreed with Healy's attacks on American foreign policy in the Middle East, Haiti and elsewhere -- and felt he should not use the pulpit to push those opinions -- even they stayed. One group of about 10 families with backgrounds in the military and intelligence services thrashed out many a disagreement with Healy, but never thought of leaving the parish.

"We all used to laugh and say, If anyone knew we were members we would lose all our security clearances,' " says Robert Williams, a retired Army lieutenant colonel. Healy outraged him every once in a while, but nearly every week he inspired him as well. "He would say, If you don't agree with what I'm saying, don't just sit there. Get involved!' "

Healy and Queen of Peace were well suited to each other. The church was founded in 1945 by blacks fed up with attending segregated Arlington churches. Its priests come from the Congregation of the Holy Ghost, an order devoted to missions among blacks. Under Healy, the church became what one parishioner calls "one of the most genuinely multicultural institutions I've been involved with," attracting African Americans, whites, Hispanics, gays, social activists. Healy founded the Washington Office on Haiti and befriended the Rev. Jean-Bertrand Aristide and other Haitian leaders. He worked with Central American refugees. He expanded the parish services for people with AIDS and the poor.

In the conservative diocese of Arlington, his church became a magnet for the dissenters, for people seeking a way to return to a church in which they had long felt unwelcome. Healy came to Queen of Peace in 1984. Before Arlington, he had served as a teacher and pastor in Phoenix, Chicago, Rhode Island and Tanzania. But his faith and his drive grew strong long before that. Family Ties

Jim Healy was the 12th of 13 children born to Michael and Elizabeth Healy of Bridgeport, Conn. He said often that he always wanted to be a priest. For years, his younger sister, Mary, attended his Necco wafer Masses. In all, four brothers and two sisters went on to become priests and nuns. The family's faith was rooted in a devotion to justice. On their honeymoon in 1916, Michael and Elizabeth were eating dinner at their hotel when they overheard the proprietor refuse to serve a party of blacks. Michael confronted the man to no avail, and when the blacks left, so did the Healys. Michael and Elizabeth both worked long hours in the restaurant they owned. The older children cared for the younger ones. All understood from the beginning their interdependence: They were responsible for each other.

When Jim was 11 and Mary 10, their father died. There was little money, but all the Healys speak of their mother's grace in raising them on her own and the security of growing up bathed in her unconditional love. In 1961, she was named Catholic Mother of the Year by Fordham University. Jim was devoted to her.

The idea of unqualified mercy, a love that cannot be lost, would shape Jim's life and theology. But outside the home, he must have known acceptance was not as likely.

"I think with great sadness about his growing up years," says Mary. She is a social worker and nun living in Silver Spring. For the last 18 months of his life Jim rented an apartment across the street from her, and she helped him as much as he would let her.

White-haired, direct and politically committed like her brother, she has spent the last few weeks sorting through his things. She speaks about him with a clear-eyed and calm love. She and her siblings wish now they had known he was gay in his youth, "so we could have been supportive of him. I remember what it was like for gays in my high school years. I would come home hearing about gays being beaten up, the jokes, the homophobia and bigotry of people -- to grow up in the midst of that culture."

The conflict between what he wanted and what he had voluntarily promised to the church, his intimate knowledge of life's moral complexities, may have helped fuel Healy's dynamism and passion as a priest. His friends in Washington do not know at what point he decided he would ignore his vow and be both a priest and a sexually active gay man. He had many close friends, but he never told them of any long-lasting romantic relationships, and so they can only imagine his life.

They know he was determined to keep his sexuality separate from his parish. For years, he found camaraderie among the gay Catholics of Dignity Washington, for whom he performed Mass despite the church's official condemnation of the group. But this too could not become public. He lived two distinct lives, one of them a profound secret.

Jeffrey Earl speculates that the need for secrecy may have led Healy into dangerous encounters. "I don't know if Jim got {AIDS} in anonymous situations or not, but a lot of people who are in the closet have sex in an anonymous situation because it's the safest. You don't know where else to go." In his NCR article, Healy wrote, "I could have summoned the courage to leave the ministry and find a deep personal relationship. But in fact that was no answer, because of my sexual orientation. The church had condemned the type of relationship for which I longed. To be in sync with the hierarchic church, I was destined to be celibate, like it or not." Healy knew that the official church teaching on homosexuality is essentially this: Love the sinner, hate the sin. Simply being homosexual is not itself sinful. Acting on homosexual desire, however, is. "An individual may or may not be responsible for the homosexual inclination or orientation," says William E. May, professor of moral theology at the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family in Northeast Washington. "However it comes about, we are still responsible for the actions that we choose to take. The church's position is simply that whether you're homosexually oriented or heterosexually oriented, you ought not to choose to engage in anal or oral intercourse. The choice to exercise your genital sexuality in this fashion does not pay true respect to the great goods that should be honored in sexuality -- namely, faithful, {married} love, and the good of human life in its handing on to new human persons."

Gus Tirado, who met Healy through Dignity and became a close friend, asked him once if he preached that God is mercy because he felt guilty about breaking his vows, if he felt his sexuality was a sin. No, Healy said. He was certain his theology was not a mere attempt to find personal comfort. Nor did he feel that his sexual being was at odds with his God.

"Before young men are ordained," says May, "they know full well that accepting ordination means that they will live a celibate life, just as people who get married understand that they are supposed to be faithful to their spouses. It's unfortunate that this gentleman didn't seem to understand it."

Healy wrote in NCR: "You will not be terribly surprised that I became persuaded of the emptiness of celibacy for me. In time I made decisions at odds with my vows -- some very foolish, unfortunate decisions for which I now pay a terrible price.

"I must never deny responsibility for those decisions or try to contrive some innocent excuse. But neither can I deny that we priests have long realized that the institutional church has done extraordinary harm to both the laity and to us in its adamant stance on all sexual issues."

The words were typical of Healy's sweeping and confrontational style. Many in the church, however, would differ with him.

"I don't think he quite has the right to say we priests,'" says the Rev. Thomas Bevan, executive director of the secretariat for priestly life and ministry of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. "The church's approach to sexuality is very, very longstanding and flows out of its theology which we believe comes to us from the early church and Jesus. Priests are sexual human beings. I would hope the general consensus they come to is to be true to their commitment. Unless we come to deal with our sexuality before we make a commitment we can have a very difficult time. He may not have ever really -- before he was ordained -- understood his sexuality, and then perhaps had to carry a burden the rest of his life.

"I can never condemn the person. If he couldn't keep his commitment, the church would probably have been willing to dispense him from the active priesthood."

But in Healy's mind, the law was unjust. He chose not to follow it. The Father's Release

The Mass was over. In his flowing yellow and gold robe, Healy stood before the gay men and lesbians of Dignity, gathered to march on Washington in April 1993. Smiling, he said he would like to end with a few words of his own.

"I like to think that when I have the privilege of being the celebrant here, that I make a difference to some of you," Jim Healy told the Dignity congregation. "I want to give witness that you and all the people you represent make a difference to me."

He had, he said, a dozen siblings, 38 nephews and nieces, 44 grand-nephews and nieces.

"And I've decided that, with the force of your presence, the power of your witness, I'm coming out to all of them!"

As he said the words, Healy threw his arms open wide and was greated by a roar of cheers and applause. He smiled, breathing it in.

At last, he took a deep breath and began to sing.

"Stand up, my brothers, give glory to God! Shout out my sisters, give glory to God!"

When the song ended, the cheering began again.

"I can't remember any other fear he ever expressed except the fear of losing his ministry," says Mary. "That's why he was as careful as he was."

Healy and his family and friends were certain that if word got out about his illness -- and his sexuality -- the bishop of Arlington, John R. Keating, would remove him as pastor of Queen of Peace.

The Rev. Robert J. Rippy, chancellor of the Arlington Diocese, said earlier this month that he would not comment on whether Healy's fears were justified or on any other subject relating to the priest.

"I'm not going to answer those questions," Rippy said. "It's kind of late talking about a dead man."

Not a single diocesan priest or representative of the diocese attended a memorial Mass at Queen of Peace, a fact his friends interpreted as a deliberate show of disapproval. Healy and Keating had clashed most notably over the presence of altar girls at Queen of Peace, a practice that the Pope allowed but the bishop did not. Rather than reject the girls, the parish chose to have no assistants at Mass. (After Healy retired, Keating demanded the church use altar boys, and the parish -- fearful Keating might remove the priests from the order of the Holy Ghost -- reluctantly acquiesced.)

Healy felt Keating would leave him alone as long as he did not broadcast his views. He deliberately avoided the Northern Virginia chapter of Dignity and worked with the Washington branch.

Keating, he assumed, would be happy to find reason to be rid of him. Coming Out

He stayed through Easter 1995. His crowded farewell party was not shadowed by the knowledge of his disease, but just below the surface, questions buzzed.

Some thought he had cancer. Some wondered if the emphysema was more serious than they imagined. Some speculated that he retired because of his political problems within the church.

He moved to Silver Spring, not giving out his phone number, and after a lifetime of teaching and leading, he retreated.

He read, spent time with friends, fed peanuts to the squirrels who learned to gather by his patio door. Strengthened by new AIDS drugs, Healy had a year of relatively good health neither he nor his friends expected. But gradually, the disease was claiming him.

Then the request came.

Jay Fecette, head of the Whitman Walker AIDS program in Northern Virginia, knew Healy from his parish's work with AIDS, and he asked him to speak at the annual World AIDS Day service. Healy called him back and told him he himself had AIDS, and could not speak because he could not be honest about his own condition.

Three days later, Healy called again. He would come.

His face pale, his body shifting on the bench, seeking a comfort it could not find, he waited to speak at the Unitarian Universalist church in Arlington. His balance was faltering, and simply walking to the pulpit was a challenge. But once there, he came alive. His voice, his words had all the force they ever had.

The picture that ran in the Northern Virginia Sun Weekly showed a face whittling away toward death. The information in the caption -- that the speaker had AIDS -- spread immediately through the Queen of Peace parish. When the NCR piece appeared, Healy asked that it be reprinted in the parish bulletin.

He had told his people the truth, but at a distance, through intermediaries.

"In a way, that is contrary to what he's been preaching to us for the last 10 years," says Robert Williams. "From the pulpit, he would preach we had to be honest with ourselves and we had to trust people."

"Like most people, I worshiped him -- it wouldn't have bothered me in the least," parishioner Lisa Shepard says of the news he had AIDS. But the fact that he told a crowd of what she saw as strangers, rather than the parish, confused her. It felt to her, and others, like an act of abandonment.

Others in the parish, however, were troubled -- as Healy had feared they would be -- by the content of his public statements.

"I'm still not so liberated that I know how it would have affected me," says Moran, who deliberately avoided reading the NCR piece. "I didn't want it to detract in any way from my deep respect for him as a person and a priest."

"My first feeling was, if you couldn't be celibate, then why not leave?" says Dottie Williams. But then, she says, came the next thought. "Wait a second, Dottie!" she told herself. "Who am I? That's between him and God, just like I hope my God will have compassion on me."

The letters that inundated Queen of Peace were almost unanimously supportive. All, including those few that expressed reservations, were passed on to Healy. Return to Queen of Peace

The end was quick, as Mary had been praying it would be.

Brother and sister had dinner together at his apartment on the night of Jan. 9. Standing up from his chair, he lurched toward his walker and swayed precariously.

"After I'm gone," he said to her, "and you talk about my balance problem, I want you to make sure to say I always leaned to the left."

They laughed, and soon she went home. "He was free of a lot of the conflict other people feel," says Mary now. "He was so certain of how he felt. That's not to say he didn't have any regrets -- he had them, he wrote that in the article. But he came to terms -- his own terms -- with his decisions." Less than an hour after she left, a sudden fever burned through him. Mary rushed over, the paramedics arrived and got him to bed. He had long ago said he wanted to die at home. He was gone by morning.

At the Liturgy of Resurrection at Queen of Peace five days later, the crowd overflowed the church. "Perhaps my belated decision to share these thoughts will encourage other priests to speak, but I rather doubt it," Healy had written.

"As for me, I will continue to draw strength from my oft-repeated preaching, which insists, We do not have a God who has mercy. Rather, our God is mercy, love, and forgiveness. Nothing shall I fear.' "

CAPTION: Rev. Healy, before his death from AIDS: In the final days, unsteady on his feet, he told his sister: "After I'm gone, and you talk about my balance problem, I want you to make sure to say I always leaned to the left."

CAPTION: Healy, in 1960, as a young seminarian.

CAPTION: The Healy family. Jim, seated far right, was the 12th of 13 children, six of whom became priests or nuns. Seated at center is the family matriarch, Elizabeth Healy.

CAPTION: Healy celebrates his last Mass, in 1995. Some parishioners suspected he was sick, but they didn't know the nature of the disease, and he didn't tell them.