Several things struck Andrew Krzmarzick during orientation week for his class of aspiring priests in the late summer of 1997: how brainy everyone seemed, how they weren't ostentatiously pious, and one other thing. Midway through a tour of the library at Theological College in Northeast Washington, he noticed another student "definitely checking me out." So he ditched the tour and asked the one friend he'd made so far: "Hey -- are we the only straight guys here or what?"

For David Kucharski, that same realization came as a pleasant surprise. Walking back from a movie after his first week of classes, he asked some fellow students how they thought gay people were treated in their parishes. At least a couple seemed sympathetic. "I knew I would need a friend for later," he said.

They were two young seminarians from the diocese of Dubuque, Iowa -- one straight and one gay. They arrived in Washington one year apart, and both would have been Roman Catholic priests by now, classes of 2001 and 2002, respectively, at the elite national seminary affiliated with Catholic University. But both left when what they noticed those early weeks came to dominate their seminary experience in a way they found unnerving -- something "known by everyone but never really acknowledged," said Kucharski.

It was not the presence of gay men that bothered either of them -- both wound up working at the Whitman-Walker Clinic, doing outreach to people with AIDS, many of them gay. It was the skittishness surrounding the whole issue of homosexuality at the seminary. Gay or not seemed to define social cliques, political camps and many a classmate's wrenching personal struggles. Yet being gay was never mentioned by the faculty except as an abstract possibility.

"It's not like guys were walking around holding hands," Krzmarzick said, "but there was just this huge undercurrent that was not addressed."

In some ways that silence is hardly surprising. Until now, the church's position on ordaining gay priests has remained ambiguous. Pope John Paul II's spokesman, Joaquin Navarro-Valls, recently said of gays: "People with these inclinations just cannot be ordained." But it was an offhand response to a question, and generated much controversy because in fact church policy does not forbid ordaining gay men.

For some conservative Catholics, however, the priest sex abuse scandal has made the issue unavoidable. Much of their anger is directed at the seminaries, gatekeepers of the priesthood. In "Goodbye, Good Men: How Liberals Brought Corruption Into the Catholic Church," published this year, Michael S. Rose described the schools as havens for "homosexual dilettantes" who alienate heterosexual candidates, ridicule the orthodox ones and make a mockery of the church's moral teachings.

Catholic liberals attribute the sex abuse scandal to the requirement of celibacy or the absence of female priests. To them, the focus on gay priests is just a witch hunt, and many would prefer not to open the subject at all.

Somewhere between them is Donald B. Cozzens, a former seminary rector. In "The Changing Face of the Priesthood," Cozzens wrote that the presence of a "gay subculture" is self-evident, as are the costs of ignoring it. The answer is simply to open up the debate, he wrote: Is the priesthood "becoming a gay profession. . . . Does it matter?"

The last time the Vatican dealt with the issue was in the 1980s, when it sent a committee of bishops to investigate whether the 200 American seminaries were complying with the church's moral teachings. At the time, many of the schools had a reputation for being lax in enforcing their traditional ban on sex. Next year, as part of its response to the sexual abuse scandal, Rome plans to dispatch another Apostolic Visitation focusing on questions of celibacy.

It is generally agreed that sexual activity at the seminaries is less flagrant now, so this time the questions are more murky than they were in the '80s. The debate centers on the mere presence of a significant number of gay students.

TC, as Theological College is known, was one of the seminaries investigated in the '80s, when the "gay subculture was a fairly significant element" and the faculty was not strict, said the Rev. Bill Parent, outgoing vocations director for the Archdiocese of Washington and a TC student at the time.

Many of the two dozen present and former TC students who were interviewed for this article described participating in, or witnessing, some sexual activity, sometimes in the dorms and sometimes off campus. But mostly what they described was the "weirdness," as several called it, meaning the gay undercurrent that Krzmarzick described -- ubiquitous yet unacknowledged.

The Rev. Lee Purcell, president of Krzmarzick's class in 1997 and now a priest in Indiana, said about 20 seminarians in a class of 80 told him they were gay -- some who "were almost flaunting it," some who had never admitted it to anyone else. He guessed about the same number were clearly heterosexual and the rest were "struggling."

No members of the TC administration would discuss these numbers or the issue of gay students. But the Rev. Jon O'Brien, a priest and psychiatrist who has counseled students at the school, described in general what the seminary is looking for in its students. "The men we take are 'regular guys,' " he said. "The ultimate question I ask myself is, would he be able to make a good marriage? The seminary is not for men who would not make good husbands."

'Why Do I Feel So Uncomfortable?' When Krzmarzick arrived at TC in August 1997, the place looked a bit worn, at least from the inside, with its peeling paint and cinder block walls. But he had no doubts about his choice.

It was a national seminary, with the smartest men from dioceses all over the country. The students lived and ate in the seminary building but took classes across the road at Catholic University with lay students, men and women. They were free to skip any meal and head to a restaurant or a movie in downtown Washington, a short Metro ride away.

At 22, he was one of the youngest in his class, and, compared with the accomplishments of his fellow seminarians, his degree in philosophy paled. The list of 80 in the house included educators, business people, an astrophysicist.

Like most of the freshmen, Krzmarzick was "on fire to serve the Lord," a zeal confirmed by a personal moment of revelation: a message from his earthly angel, a woman he met who had dreamed that the Virgin Mary gave him a rose.

Krzmarzick's previous experience of living in dormitory life was his fraternity at Iowa State. It was a dry fraternity full of guys like him, high achievers who 10 years down the road would be heading some agribusiness, "wearing their Number One Dad apron, flipping burgers with one hand and throwing a ball with the other."

But at TC he couldn't quite find his place. "Why do I feel so uncomfortable in social situations here at seminary?" he wrote in his diary at the time. "I went up to another seminarian's room where several candidates were gathered and I felt really uncomfortable . . . as if there were inside jokes going on, conversations that made no sense to me."

Often he and a couple of buddies would skip out of these gatherings and go play football, or head for Colonel Brooks' Tavern, a local bar, for some beers.

Krzmarzick had grown up in a Catholic family in a few Midwest towns of under 1,000, but he was no rube. In college, he attended a rally for a gay student who was beaten up, and even wrote a letter to the paper calling it a "travesty." Still, he was not prepared for what he found at TC.

First, there was the stare at the library. Then Krzmarzick walked into a seminarian's room and saw him kissing another student. No one mentioned it; Krzmarzick just asked his question and left.

"It was starting to hit me: This was a place where a lot of the guys are gay," he recalled. "But I wasn't sure what to make of it, who to talk to. There was no public forum where we could talk openly about it."

In some ways, faculty members did address the issue, even tried to confront students about addressing it honestly. In the weekly Monday night talks about some thorny aspect of priesthood, faculty members referred separately to issues faced by the gay students and the straight students.

One seminarian recorded in his notes that the Rev. Tom Hurst, now the TC rector, advised the students once to "stand in front of the mirror and say, 'Hello, my name is Bob and I'm straight, gay, bisexual, confused but working on it,' " and talked about sexual orientation existing on a continuum, with men falling on all points along the line.

But many students said they could not imagine asking a follow-up question in these sessions, discussing being gay with the group or mentioning their own personal struggles.

"We didn't talk about it," Krzmarzick said. "It was talked about to us."

The effect was to deepen the mystery, like announcing someone was having an affair but not saying who. Some nights after dinner, Krzmarzick and a couple of friends would sit in their rooms and run through the list of men in the house and label them: "Gay. Gay. Gay, but doesn't know it. Gay, knows it, but won't admit it."

Anyone who was slightly strange or overly sociable or even too conservative was gay. The "parafaculty," or students who planned alumni days, bishops' visits, cocktail hours -- gay. The DOTS, the guys on the fourth floor named after a very rigid order, the Daughters of Trent, who wore cassocks to class or did the 5 a.m. devotions in chapel -- gay, but "praying to the Virgin to take it away."

No one was exempt. "At one point I started wondering about myself," Krzmarzick said.

Purcell, the class president, had sort of adopted Krzmarzick, becoming his mentor, lending him his car, taking him on trips. Toward the end of the first semester, Krzmarzick was feeling homesick and went to him for comfort. They disagree on what happened next, beyond a hug, but Krzmarzick left feeling uncomfortable.

Krzmarzick told his formation adviser about the incident, but the advice he received made him uneasy. The adviser kept pressing him on why he was so offended by the incident, kept pushing him in a direction he did not want to go.

"I felt like if I would have said, 'I'm gay, Father -- I've come to accept it,' he would have said, 'That's great, congratulations,' and left me alone," Krzmarzick said.

At Christmas break, Krzmarzick told his parents about the confusion. His father gave him this advice: "Make sure this is a natural lake and not a man-made one."

When Krzmarzick returned, he and Purcell clashed a bit over planning an antiabortion rally, and for a while the tension just hung there. A few nights before the event, Krzmarzick's closest friend was walking down the hall in search of a cigar and a TV to watch the debate over President Bill Clinton's impeachment. Suddenly he heard yelling. He dropped his jacket on the ground and ran down the hall to see Purcell physically threatening Krzmarzick.

That night, Krzmarzick slept on the floor in his friend's room because Purcell, trusted by faculty, had a master key to all the rooms.

Purcell said he had been "sucked into a co-dependent relationship. . . . In these very, very bizarre circumstances, you frequently get these intimacy issues," he said. But the experience taught him "to create boundaries and limits" -- a lesson crucial to becoming an effective pastor.

For Krzmarzick, the incident began to taint his view of the place. "If you could address this thing, openly gay men might mature, develop normally," he said. "But instead it gets dysfunctional." He began to view his classmates as "people who'd come there not out of some noble calling, but who'd come there to hide."

Krzmarzick said his friends dealt with the strangeness in different ways.

"You can lead a horse to water but you can't make him drink," said the Rev. John McDonough, an informal class leader who is now a priest in Arizona. "Some people just don't want to deal with it."

But another friend sounded increasingly bitter. "If you're hetero, it's a different card you were played," he would say. "But if you come out, you're golden, the whole system helps you." Eventually, he dropped out.

Krzmarzick made his decision that summer away from his friends. He'd gone out to San Diego to take a clinical pastoral education class, a kind of group therapy in which aspiring priests minister at a hospital and then write "verbatims" hyper-analyzing what they felt during those interactions. The leader was a Unitarian Universalist minister who was openly gay.

To Krzmarzick, the minister seemed so much more "healthy" than the "atmosphere of suffocating sexual repression" he had just lived through in Washington.

"Here's the problem," he thought to himself. "You need to create a space where people can be who they are. Being gay is not the problem, but when it's all underground it's no good."

One night while watching the sun set on the cliffs overlooking the Pacific, he thought, "I wish I had a companion to share this moment with me." He thought: "I still love God with every fiber of my being." But the priesthood was something he just couldn't do.

Both Hopeful and Anxious In the summer of 1998, six weeks before he was headed to TC, David Kucharski received an e-mail from Krzmarzick saying he wouldn't be going back. Kucharski was disappointed to hear it.

He had just gone through a difficult year. Once he had almost asked a girlfriend to marry him, then changed his mind. So without any lightning moment of revelation, he'd decided to enter the seminary. "It did not seem likely I would ever have a very fulfilling relationship, so celibacy just didn't seem like a big deal, which I suspect is fairly common," he said.

First, Kucharski had to complete a two-year course in pre-theology at a Catholic college in Dubuque. During his final semester, in the spring of 1997, Kucharski picked up a copy of Time magazine with Ellen DeGeneres ("Yep, I'm gay") on the cover and "it was like, click, that's me." He was 32.

Kucharski kept it to himself for a couple of weeks and then decided to tell his vocations director, figuring that "for sure I'd get kicked out." But in fact the vocations director was fairly encouraging. So he was a little bit hopeful about TC, but mostly anxious.

His diary from the orientation week reflects a lot of worrying. "I wish I knew who to trust" is a phrase that recurs often. But after a few months Kucharski relaxed and began to thrive. "The most striking thing for me was the intense self-examination," he recalled. "You really got to know who you are, what your desires are. In that way, seminary was a complete success for me."

Seminary turned out to be a "great place to come out," he said. "There were other guys there in the same building going through the same struggles, and faculty members who didn't throw it up in your face."

He became comfortable saying the sentence "I am a gay man" and used it selectively, with people he trusted. In seminary, each candidate is assigned a spiritual director who acts as part mentor, part confessor and part psychiatrist. His office is like a confession booth, a safe place to discuss anything with no repercussions. He repeated the sentence to each of his possible advisers to gauge their reactions.

One was "really mean," he recalls, and cut him off. Another appeared to stiffen and become silent. Another seemed completely comfortable, so Kucharski chose him.

By March, he had found friends he could confide in. It began with two guys who he talked to that day after the movies and who gave responses he liked, then grew into a larger group. It's not like it was a "gay club or anything," or even a network -- "that sounds so conspiratorial," he said.

But these were men who liked to do the same things: buy group tickets to the Shakespeare Theatre, see French films at the Dupont Circle movie theater, drink wine out of real glasses, eat somewhere other than Colonel Brooks'.

For a while he was taken with the bliss of finding, for the first time in his life, somewhere he fit in. But by the end of the first year he realized he was blooming in a very tight space. Sure, people were supportive, but the subtext of their message was: Don't talk about it out loud, and never outside the walls of this building.

Yes, the rectors referred separately in the Monday night talks to the gay and straight students. But it was impossible to imagine raising your hand and saying, "As a gay student . . ." and proceeding with your question.

Honesty was encouraged, but only to a point. On the periodic psychological self-evaluations the students had to write, neither Kucharski nor any of his friends would mention that they were gay. "No one ever came out and said you can't be a priest because you're gay, but they made it clear that you should be careful in case your bishop didn't approve."

Once, in a moment of what he now realizes was almost willful naivete, Kucharski asked a faculty member if he could start a kind of gay support group. The school advised him against it.

"It was the classic case of the elephant in the room," he said. "Here was this big and very important issue that they would only deal with in the most oblique ways."

Later that year, he developed a crush on a lay student in one of his classes but kept himself in a state of suspended frustration. "There was never any improper activity," he said. "I never would have considered such a thing."

Kucharski came back for a second year, but reluctantly. At Christmas he went to a retreat and took some prayer books and a copy of Andrew Sullivan's "Love Undetectable," about gay friendship, AIDS and homophobia. There he made his decision.

"I realized I was not willing to go through priestly life keeping something that important a secret," he said. "Not that I expect to go up to every parishioner and say "Hi, I'm Father Dave and I'm gay,' but I want to be in an environment where it's considered okay to talk about it."

As a parting act of low-grade defiance, he wrote a semi-autobiographical paper on spiritual practices for gay men and read it out loud to his class. After he left, Kucharski got an apartment near Dupont Circle and a job at Whitman-Walker.

His closest friend is convinced Kucharski would have made a good priest, but he has no regrets. Last month, when he went back to visit his parents in Iowa and attended the ordination ceremony for the 2002 class of priests in his diocese, all he felt was relief that he was in the back, clapping.

Occasionally, he says, he still asks God, " 'Why, why am I gay?' And to this day I don't have an answer. But I have the unshakable feeling that God made me this way, and since then I've never felt alone."

The Aftermath Krzmarzick and his friends have formed an informal club of almost-were-priests. Every once in a while they get together for beers and trade rumors: who stayed, who dropped out, who was having affairs -- and who is gay.

After a few beers the other night, Krzmarzick's friend, the bitter one, who also dropped out, conceded that some of the gay guys are "the most pastoral guys."

"They are the ones I would want on my deathbed by my side saying, 'God loves you,' " he said. "Even though I'm bitter they made me leave, I know they're the only ones who can do it."

Krzmarzick, too, has sorted out his feelings about homosexuality. Through a fraternity brother, he also got a job at Whitman-Walker, and after a few months there became convinced that "it's an ontological part of a person. They don't choose it." Now he thinks his calling is to be a sort of bridge between the gay and straight communities.

One of his friends was married this summer, and Krzmarzick, who now has a girlfriend, is sure it will happen to him, too. But he's also sure he'll never feel quite satisfied, stuck in a state he names after his favorite book, "The Holy Longing."

"I know I am called to the very depths of my being," he said, "and I will be restless until I can call myself 'priest.' "

Andrew Krzmarzick, left, and David Kucharski left Theological College over the atmosphere created by the issue of gay priests.David Kucharski said that at Theological College in Northeast Washington, the administration and students were skittish about gays at the seminary -- that it was "known by everyone but never really acknowledged."Andrew Krzmarzick began to see his classmates at Theological College, he said, as "people who'd come there not out of some noble calling, but who'd come there to hide." He and Kucharski dropped out of the seminary.