SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Paul Darrow looked out into the audience gathered for the Nov. 21 screening of Desire of the Everlasting Hills, a documentary film shown during the annual Faith Formation Conference in Santa Clara, Calif.
“Each person is a unique and unrepeatable manifestation of God’s love,” Darrow told his audience, echoing the central message of the new film produced by Courage, an international Catholic apostolate for people with same-sex attraction who seek to live chaste lives, in accordance with Catholic teaching.
Darrow, one of three Courage members profiled in the film, participated in a post-screening panel discussion at the Santa Clara conference, which typically draws about 2,000 educators and catechists who serve in dioceses across California.
The audience clearly found the film engaging, and several people asked Darrow, now in his 50s, to share more details about his own story, which begins with a high-flying career as an international model and ends with his present life as a joyful Catholic who has experienced God’s mercy and freely chosen to remain celibate.
One person asked whether Darrow’s involvement in the film had provoked any backlash from friends and colleagues who not share his acceptance of Church teaching. Darrow replied that he had suffered some repercussions, “but I am most amazed about the doors the film has opened, with people contacting us. We have given them so much hope.”
The new film has offered a fresh opportunity for Courage to challenge misconceptions about its work. Further, the documentary is helping to reframe a tense, often politicized discussion about the difficult pilgrimage of Catholics with same-sex attraction and how Church ministries should present Catholic teaching on celibacy.
Indeed, this new Courage initiative offers a striking response to Pope Francis' description of the Church as a “field hospital” for alienated Catholics, and others on "the fringes."
Outreach to Catholics with same-sex attraction “is a sensitive issue, and there just aren’t a lot of resources,” acknowledged Ed Hopfner, director of marriage and family life in the Archdiocese of San Francisco, which sponsored the film at the Santa Clara conference.
“At the same time, Catholics are relentlessly catechized by our culture that what the Church teaches is unreasonable and discriminatory,” Hopfner told the Register. “It’s so important to offer resources that honestly present the truth, whether we are dealing with chaste living for singles or for people with same-sex attraction.”
The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that homosexual acts are “gravely disordered,” but also emphasizes that such an inclination constitutes “a trial” for most of those who experience same-sex attractions and that such persons should be treated “with respect, compassion and sensitivity” and that “every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided” (2357-2358).
While the Church has maintained this definitive teaching on homosexuality and homosexual activity, growing acceptance of same-sex relationships in the West has generated debate about how to reach and minister to this segment of society.
Controversy over the issue surfaced in last month’s Extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family and continues to spark headlines in the United States.
New Ways Ministry
Last week, for example, Archbishop Allen Vigneron of Detroit barred a local parish from hosting a talk by a representative from New Ways Ministry, a group that has been censured by the Holy See and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops for promoting views on same-sex attraction that conflict with Church teaching.
Meanwhile, the effort to expand the number of Courage chapters across the country has met with growing success but also occasional resistance from some local bishops.
Thus, Courage members, and others who support the apostolate’s efforts, welcome Desire of the Everlasting Hills as a way to shift the focus and tone of the discussion and to convey the peace that comes with the choice of embracing the Church’s call to chastity.
During the U.S. bishops’ annual meeting in Baltimore earlier this month, Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco endorsed the film as a unique and important instrument for evangelization.
“The New Evangelization depends upon a culture of witness both personal and public. I was reminded of the power of personal witness when viewing the film Desire of the Everlasting Hills,” the archbishop said Nov. 10 during his report on the state of marriage.
“It was profoundly moving to see three courageous witnesses who experience same-sex attraction testify to Jesus’ concrete love in their lives. Personal witness speaks volumes,” the archbishop said.
However, the documentary is a departure from traditional apologetics and does not offer a linear defense of Catholic teaching. Rather, it gives intense, respectful attention to the very personal dreams, choices and epiphanies of two men and one woman as they slowly respond to God’s voice. At the same time, former partners are treated with the same respect and never demonized.
“I admire the three people whom you will see in this movie — Rilene, Dan and Paul. I admire them because of their humility and courage,” wrote Father Paul Check, the priest who leads the Courage apostolate, in a statement introducing the film on its website.
“[S]ome viewers may be troubled, offended or even angered by their stories. No one involved in making this film wishes to cause anyone distress,” Father Check continued.
“But if we are free to design our lives, then each of us will have a story, and whether or not this story is welcome, it deserves respect. It deserves respect not only for the unique mind and heart the story reveals, but also for what it may contain for others.”
Yet despite the film’s sensitive subject matter, Courage members say they have received very positive feedback.
“I do think the Holy Spirit has been active in this whole project,” Rilene Simpson, the California Catholic woman profiled in the film, told the Register.
The film offers an unvarnished account of Simpson’s deep loneliness, her search for love and fulfillment and the stirrings of conscience that led her back to church and her first confession in decades.
Simpson thinks her own “edgy” story resonates with people who have experienced similar struggles.
“I couldn’t see any point in hiding any of it. This is my experience. If I am going to help anybody, I have to share it,” she said, noting that she spent much of her former life promoting a homosexual-identity agenda, while suppressing her own misgivings.
Simpson has discovered that her brutally honest comments, leavened by an engaging sense of humor, put a human face on a subject that is generally treated in more abstract ways — as a political issue or doctrinal matter.
Paul Darrow, for his part, has discovered that the film contains a universal message of redemption that transcends sexual orientation.
“I have been given hope,” he states in the film, “and I want to do that for other people — to give others the same hope.”
Now, after watching people’s reaction to the film, he has concluded that many Catholics are engaged in tough moral and spiritual struggles.
“I didn’t expect it, but heterosexuals are applying the film’s message of God’s grace and love to themselves,” he said.
“We all have inclinations that may influence our choices. But when God is in your heart, those choices are clearer.”
Darrow also hopes the film will effectively challenge misconceptions about Courage that have limited the growth of an important apostolate.
“I tried for nine months to bring Courage into a particular diocese. The reaction I got from the bishop was, ‘People can’t be changed, so we don’t want Courage.’”
Darrow said he has “written long letters to explain that it isn’t about changing people’s orientation. It is about changing their hearts and opening them to God.”
Indeed, as Church leaders respond to Pope Francis’ efforts to present the New Evangelization as a message of God’s mercy, Desire of the Everlasting Hills reveals that Courage has embraced Pope Francis’ exhortation and offers a striking new template for engagement with Catholics who may feel marginalized.
“The film is filled with love and God’s grace,” Darrow emphasized, but it does not focus on Catholic sexual ethics or even explicitly promote Courage.
“It is not hitting anyone over the head or shooting bullets at people and the sins they have committed,” he said.
“It looks at the two greatest commandments: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.’”
Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.