BRIDGEPORT, Conn. — The leadership is changing at Courage International, an international apostolate serving persons experiencing same-sex attraction. Father Paul Check will pass the mantle to a successor who has worked alongside him sharing the beauty of the Church’s teachings on sexuality and chastity.
Father Philip Bochanski, Courage’s associate director, was unanimously tapped by the apostolate’s board of bishops to succeed Father Check as executive director in January 2017, with the full endorsement of Archbishop Charles Chaput, who released Father Bochanski from ministry in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.
Building on the work of the same-sex apostolate’s late founder, Father John Harvey, Father Check has led Courage since 2008, helping to expand its ministry to 15 countries on five continents and enriching the pastoral language of its ministry. He will step down to take up the position of rector at St. John Fisher Seminary Residence in Stamford, Connecticut.
In this interview with Register staff reporter Peter Jesserer Smith, Father Bochanski talks about his pastoral experience with Courage, the legacy of Father Check and the need for the Church’s teaching on sexuality to always be accompanied by a personal and authentic joyful witness.
Father Bochanski, how long have you been working with Courage and alongside Father Check?
I was a local chaplain for our Courage group in Philadelphia for about five years, starting about 2009 until the end of 2014. And so, like with all chapters, my job was to meet with the members of our local group, coordinate with them and provide pastoral care for them in Philadelphia. I was doing that, and so I got to know Father Check from our annual conference and Courage events that we hold in Philadelphia from time to time.
In 2014, our board had this vision to expand the central office of ours by adding this position of associate director. Up until then, it had just been Father Harvey for the first 28 years, and then Father Check was by himself in the office. But part of the work is going to visit with priests of various dioceses and sharing the message of chastity and pastoral care; and that was increasing, so we needed somebody else to share that workload with Father. So they created the position in the beginning of January 2015, and I started working in our central office as associate director since then.
What has been the legacy of Father Check’s tenure at Courage?
Father Check was hand-selected by Father Harvey to be his successor, and I think a big part of that was his background as a teacher of moral theology. And one of the things that Father Check has done extremely well is to articulate the Church’s teaching and the motivation behind it, and to present that to people in pastoral ministry through lots of initiatives, such as our clergy days and books, videos and conferences, and things like that.
I certainly have developed my initial understanding of the whole subject from learning from him, working alongside him, and it has become a big part of my ministry now as associate director to do that kind of formation for clergy and others in ministry. So he has certainly taught me a lot from his very clear perspective on the issue. But I think even more than that, all of his spiritual fatherhood is deeply concerned for the people that we serve and for the fellow priests who are serving as chaplains in the apostolate. He has just got this very fatherly heart for the apostolate. And that’s what impressed me about Courage to begin with, and it really shaped my approach both, in Philadelphia and now working alongside him. It’s something I hope to continue to emulate going forward.
How did you get involved with Courage?
It was kind of by accident. It was not something I would have anticipated as either a seminarian or a young priest. But around 2009, the Courage chapter in Philadelphia had this meeting in the next parish over from where I was living at the time. The priest from that parish had been reassigned and not replaced. It was a religious community at that parish, and they didn’t have somebody to give to the ministry at a time when other people could actually make the meetings. So that chapter was trying to readjust their schedule and looking for a new chaplain, and one of the lay leaders of the group was a parishioner and a friend of mine and asked if I might be able to get involved.
What is the most important thing you have learned about pastoral ministry to persons with same-sex attraction in the Church?
I often say that my work with Courage is the part of my priestly ministry where I feel most fatherly, most like a spiritual father. Because what I found is that people who are coming to our Courage groups are saying, “I’m realizing that God wants something more for me and is inspiring me to live chastely and to participate more fully in the life of the Church. But I’m not quite sure what to start with that, what to do with that, and could you help me find my way, and could you walk this way with me?”
I wouldn’t say I was surprised, but I was very impressed by just the great desire for holiness that exists among so many folks who are making this very courageous decision to really embrace discipleship, embrace a life of chastity and work at it in their own lives and to support one another. I’m constantly seeing that and becoming more and more impressed by the people that we serve.
And I would say the same goes for our Encourage apostolate, which is parents and spouses of people who often times are in homosexual relationships and not practicing their faith. But their parents and loved ones are trying to balance keeping the faith and keeping their family relationships intact. To see their dedication both to Church and family has impressed me very much; it is a privilege for me to be part of both of those apostolates.
One of the emerging (and in many ways uncharted) areas of pastoral care for the Church is with persons who identify themselves as “transgender” and “transsexual.” Is the phenomenon of gender dysphoria something Courage is starting to look at?
This is a different issue in many ways from same-sex attraction, and so I don’t think it is necessarily affecting our Courage groups right now per se, but I do know this comes up a lot in our Encourage groups.
It’s also on our minds, in terms of our ability to present the truth of faith and to assist people in pastoral ministry for this challenge. As you say, it is kind of new in the life of the Church and is becoming more and more a question on people’s minds.
So at our conference in Phoenix, which we’re holding in January, the questions of gender and people who experience gender dysphoria are certainly on the agenda. And we’ll have several speakers at a conference who can address that specifically, as well as the topic of helping people living with same-sex attraction.
Will that conference have any testimony from Catholics with gender dysphoria who are trying to authentically live out what the Church teaches?
I know that we have several people who are giving witness testimonies during the conference. A lot of those discussions have been going on since I’ve been in Australia and New Zealand for the past three weeks, but TruthandLove.com will give you the whole roster of speakers.
From your pastoral experience, what is the best way — and what is the wrong way — for us to encounter and dialogue with a person who has same-sex attraction?
I think we can take Pope Francis’ words on this as a starting point: We must accompany persons starting from their situation. So I think the wrong way is to tell somebody, “This is what’s wrong with you; this is what your problems are; this is what you have to do. Go figure it out, and then you can come back.” But that’s not loving; that’s not treating a person as a person.
I think the right way to approach it, and certainly what I’m constantly trying to get across to priests, deacons and people involved in pastoral ministry, is our faith in God’s plan for the human person and for human sexuality — for male and female in the context of marriage, the context for sexual authenticity, all those things that Revelation and Tradition teach us are so inherently beautiful, good and life-giving. If we present that in a joyful way, first and foremost by living it out ourselves, that is a real invitation to people.
I think we need to listen to them; listen to where each person is coming from, what that person needs and is looking for, and understand how those needs of the heart are influencing their understanding of themselves and the relationships that they make; and then tell them what we can see from the perspective of faith. This is what the Church is about: “Here’s the plan that God reveals for your happiness, for your fulfillment and is going to be the answer to all those needs and desires.”
So really listening to where people are coming from, what it is if they’re looking for in them, proposing the path that God worked out for us joyfully and charitably, and then helping someone to hear it, accept it and hopefully follow it.
What are you most looking forward to in your new position as executive director of Courage? What do you see lies ahead?
Most importantly, the thing that I look forward to, every day that I’m involved in this work now, is to be present and involved in the lives of our Courage and Encourage members. It is such an honor and privilege that they share their lives with us, and the idea that I will be able to continue in those relationships and those friendships for many more years to come is just a gift. That’s the best I can say about this work.
Looking forward, this is a moment in the life of the Church, and the life of society in general, where questions about sexual attraction and sexual identity are more and more in the minds of people and in conversations both in the Church and in the world. So the idea is that, going forward, I’ll be able to be more involved in that discussion and in the work of formation, of education, of dealing with those issues as much as possible on behalf of the Church, speaking clearly about what the Church teaches. That is very exciting to me. I’ve always found in parish ministry that the more I teach, the more I learn, so I’m looking forward very much to those conversations, as well.
That’s also where the challenges lay: finding the right words to speak the truth to a society that’s not always ready to hear what the Church teaches or often dismisses the message of chastity as something that’s impossible or even harmful to people per se.
But the truth of the Gospel, and the truth the Church’s teaching on sexuality in general and homosexuality in particular, is so inherently beautiful and freeing. I’m not discouraged by the fact that I’ll be part of that discussion, saying it over and over again, because I do believe, ultimately, if people can hear it and really come to consider it, that they will come to accept it and find it just as beautiful as the Church does.
Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff reporter.