Avera Maria Santo travels to parishes across the country giving her own testimony of experiencing Jesus’ love while living with same-sex attraction, and she shares how the Courage apostolate gave her a road map and supportive community committed to living out integrated sexuality informed by the beauty of the Church’s teachings.
Santo, 22, will bring that message to the University of St. Mary of the Lake seminary and conference center in Mundelein, Illinois, as a speaker for the 2019 annual Courage International Conference July 18-21.
In this interview with the Register, Santo discusses how she became involved with Courage and how people can “open the floodgates” to have a real conversation on same-sex attraction with friends and family that is rooted in a profound awareness of God’s goodness and love.
Avera, can you share with me your story and how you got involved with Courage?
Absolutely! So when I was in high school, probably around my sophomore or junior year, I kind of came to grips that I had same-sex desires. I didn’t really know what to do with them, and I kind of went through this period where, for about a year, or year and a half, I didn’t really know what to do. I didn’t really have anybody to talk to. I didn’t know Catholic Church teaching on homosexuality. And then what I did know I didn’t fully understand. I went to my chaplain of my high school and told him, “I think I have same-sex attractions, and I think I’m gay, and I don’t know what to do.” And it was later on that he said, “We need a chapter of Courage in our archdiocese in order to help you.”
So he was the one, along with my current spiritual director, who started really laying down the groundwork for our Courage chapter in my archdiocese, which is how I got involved with Courage upfront. So I’ve been a member for about two, two and a half, years now.
How did the Courage chapter you joined help you? What benefit did you see?
It gave me a sense of community, more than anything. It gave me the sense that there were people in my area who not only struggled in the same way that I did, but they also wanted to persevere the same way that I did. They wanted this relationship with God; they wanted this relationship with the Church; they wanted this relationship with those who love God. And I admired that and I needed that, more than anything. I needed to be a part of that community, and Courage gifted me with that. And Courage has been that for me in a way that I wasn’t really expecting, but that I am so, so grateful for. I don’t know where I would be without it.
Why is community, the sense of being integrated into a community, knowing there are other people with same-sex attractions, trying like all of us to live fully integrated Catholic lives, important?
It’s essential to human flourishing, I think. We can’t do this by ourselves. We can’t just journey through life on our own. “No man is an island” might be a little bit of a corny saying, but it is absolutely true. We can’t do this by ourselves. So this sense of community that I’ve experienced in Courage has been the thing that I so desperately longed for.
I needed intimacy. I needed friendship. I needed the pastoral care that my priests offer. I needed to be recognized as a human person that’s struggling and that exists, and that feels, and that longs for God. And Courage has been that. It has really set the standard of what (and how beautiful) human flourishing can be, even in the midst of something that can, in a sense, completely ostracize me from other people.
Looking at the landscape of the Church’s ministry today to persons who have same-sex attractions or gender-identity issues, what would you say are the strengths and the weaknesses?
I would say the strengths are that we’re starting to talk about it more. I’m seeing more conversations happening surrounding the topic of homosexuality, as well as gender. Seeing the conversation brought up is good.
The thing that I see is the downfall of, I guess, the people in the Church, the Body of Christ as a whole, is that we don’t really understand that it’s really quite simple to bring people with same-sex attraction into our communities and integrate them into our lives. I think we make it more complex than it needs to be. At the end of the day, we’re all people, and we all have the same basic needs. We all have the same primal desires and needs. And if we really just kind of looked interiorly, and looked at ourselves and what it is that we desire and what we want, I think we would start to see a lot more similarities than we see differences in people. We might all have different crosses, but at the end of the day, we all have crosses. So we have that in common.
I think if we looked and actually saw our struggles for what they are — as crosses — then we would see so many more similarities. We would stop making things so complex and make them simpler from the start, just integrating people into our homes, our families and our friend groups. I think it’s simpler than people realize.
Can you give me an example where people make this discussion much more complex, instead of opting for a simpler approach?
I think a lot of people don’t necessarily know how to start the conversation. And I think especially if they have a friend whom they think might be dealing with same-sex attraction in some way, they don’t have to have an “intervention” or something [like that]. You don’t have to go through such great lengths. I think, ultimately, it’s just talking: Just open up these pathways of communications, and be open to having a conversation. They don’t necessarily have to bring [same-sex attractions] up, because the person might feel uncomfortable talking about it. But I feel more comfortable sharing things with people if they give me the opportunity to speak — and a lot of times, things will just pour forth very naturally. So I would say: Just open the floodgates, even just a little bit. And all the water will come pouring forth in due time. I think that’s the simplest way to do it.
Is Courage for everybody? Do you think it’s the only approach?
I do think that there is a place in Courage for everybody. However, I don’t think Courage is the only place for everybody. So, again, there’s the personal relationships that we have. All these people that are going to the Courage conferences, we live all over the country and in different countries. At the end of the day, we have our more domestic families that we have to go back to. And I think that we really underestimate the value of familial relationships and close friendships when we come back home from conferences like this like.
We really underestimate how powerful it can be to have these friendships. Whereas I think Courage is a really amazing foundation for informing us on how to build and how to sustain those friendships with people, at the end of the day, we can’t stay upon this mountain. We can’t stay at the conference. Eventually, this coming Sunday, we’re going to have to go home. And what we bring back home with us, I think it’s important that we’re able to share with the people who are back home.
Since we’re discussing how to have conversations on this subject, are you familiar with Jesuit Father James Martin’s book Building a Bridge?
I am. I’ve written open letters to him. He has responded to none of them. But I have written to him about the premise of the book and why I disagreed with it.
What do you make of his approach to the issues of homosexuality and how to create conversations on this topic in the Church?
His approach, honestly, is really upsetting to me because, while he is starting conversations, 9.9 times out of 10, he is starting the wrong conversation. And he is spreading a great deal of confusion, I think, in regard to what the Church actually teaches.
Where do you think the real starting point needs to be for a healthy conversation on these issues?
The healthy conversation — I think the real conversation, the right conversation, is the fact that God loves and that God is good. And so if we’re talking about the fact that God loves and that he is good, then there’s an understanding in faith that everything that he has said to us (especially since that is his word), because he said it, and because he’s so trustworthy, is to be believed by all of the faithful; that this is a God who is a God of his word and a God who keeps his promises, and he would never withhold anything from us that we need.
In my case, as someone with predominant attractions to women, because of the circumstances in my life that I did not choose — I didn’t choose to have homosexual attractions and yet I do — because of those circumstances of my life, I won’t be married one day.
Yet I — because I know God is good, because I know that he is love and he would not withhold anything from me — I know full well that if he withholds marriage from me, then I obviously don’t need it in order to become holy or be sanctified or be in heaven one day. I have to believe that, again, because God is so good and I am aware of the fact that he loves me.
You’ve been traveling across the country sharing your own story and experience. Can you share with me some of the powerful encounters or moments of grace that you’ve had in this apostolate?
Absolutely. I think one of the things that has kind of gotten to me the most, or revealed God’s hand in the work that he is allowing me to do and has meant to me the most, is the fact that people come to my talks, to the events that I speak at, so open and so vulnerable. And I know inherently that they aren’t looking for me. Whether they’re excited to see me or not, it’s not me that they’re coming for — they’re coming for God, because they want to find him. They want to see him. They want to experience him.
You’re going to be speaking at the Courage International conference this week. What is the message that you’re looking forward to sharing most of all?
So I know going into this conference that I’m going into really a familial place. I’m going to a place where a lot of people may agree with my stance or just want to hear a little bit of my story, how my story is unique, but also how I’m similar to them. Again, the message that I want to preach, especially to people who may be hurting and may need the reminder, is that God is so, so good, and God loves them. Sometimes we just need that gentle push; we need that reminder. Because it is a heavy cross to carry, but I think it’s precisely because of that weight that it is such a beautiful cross to carry. And sometimes we just really need that reminder — of not only who God is, but also who God is calling us to be, even in the midst of so much suffering.
But again, God is so good. God is love, and he hasn’t abandoned me. He never has, and he never will. And he hasn’t abandoned those who experience same-sex attraction, and he never will.
Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.