About 12 years ago, my wife and I received a letter from our son, who was then about 30. On the back of the envelope he had written that we should read it together. “Uh oh,” we thought, bracing ourselves for what it might contain.
He informed us that he was attracted to persons of the same sex, which he first noticed when he was in his late teens.
Not to worry, he assured us. He had been living a chaste life and intended to continue.
But about nine months later, he formally “came out” and told us that he would seek a partner. He has since had two partners and has recently separated from the second, after a seven-year relationship during which they were “engaged.”
All kinds of emotions and thoughts took over immediately: shame, fear and worries for his salvation and physical and spiritual well-being.
Our initial focus was largely inward: Where had we gone wrong in raising him? Did we dare share this “shameful fact” with anyone? What would family and friends think of us? What kind of relationship should we seek to maintain with him and a partner? What would this mean for his future life, for his career and for his membership with the Church? What would we do if he decides to get “married?”
The initial experience was very isolating. We told only our closest friends and family, some of them only after much time had passed. Our main recourse was to priest friends and confessors. We remain grateful for their good advice, which came down to “just love him.”
A couple of years passed, and then we saw a notice in our diocesan paper for EnCourage, an apostolate related to Courage, the Catholic ministry to persons with same-sex attraction (SSA). EnCourage serves the spiritual and relational needs of parents, siblings, children, spouses and other relatives and friends of persons with SSA.
To our great comfort — and initial surprise — we heard many stories like our own: of children raised in traditional Catholic households who, despite having attended Catholic schools and being taught about chastity as the path to holiness, identified and lived as “gay.”
We were not alone, after all!
We heard parents talk about their children in a calm and loving way, with obvious sorrow for their attraction and choices but filled with hope for their eventual salvation. Over the years, we’ve since seen many persons come in filled with anger and anguish about their children, often admitting to raising their kids in rocky and tumultuous, if not dysfunctional, environments. And, with time and the support of the EnCourage community, we have seen the anger fade, replaced with hopeful love, and relationships mend.
Our EnCourage community has become another family that we look forward to meeting with each month.
Embracing the fullness of Catholic teaching, EnCourage members support one another and their loved ones through discussion, prayer and fellowship.
It is a community of faithful Catholics — bearing unique crosses, but with similar experiences — who, by their words, prayers and example, help one another bear their burdens with grace and patience. Meetings are built around EnCourage’s five goals:
1. To grow spiritually through spiritual reading, prayer, meditation, individual spiritual direction, frequent attendance at Mass, and the frequent reception of the sacraments of penance and holy Eucharist;
2. To gain a deeper understanding of the needs, difficulties and challenges experienced by men and women with same-sex attractions;
3. To establish and maintain a healthy and wholesome relationship with their loved ones with same-sex attractions;
4. To assist other family members and friends to reach out to, with compassion and truth and not rejection, their loved ones with same-sex attractions; and
5. To witness to their loved ones by their own lives that fulfillment is to be found in Jesus Christ through his Church.
Meetings always include recitation of the Rosary and prayers for our loved ones and ourselves and a joint reading of the five goals. We speak openly and off the record. We try to help one another to love our children — and one another — more unconditionally and to navigate through those shoals where tough, practical decisions must be made and where unconditional love does not mean unconditional approval and can often mean “tough love.”
Our excellent priest and deacon moderators keep us on track, clarify moral issues, and provide spiritual guidance and inspiration. We hear of minor miracles among our children and major miracles of spiritual and relational growth among our group.
We have found there are no strangers at an EnCourage meeting, just fast friends who welcome and support us. We are now blessed to have two flourishing EnCourage chapters in our immediate area and are working to publicize EnCourage more intensively.
Much work remains. Staff at Courage International estimate that there are about 75 EnCourage chapters (versus 170 Courage chapters or contacts worldwide). Our local chapters have about 15 members each; this suggests that, nationwide, fewer than 1,200 persons are benefiting from EnCourage assistance.
How large might the EnCourage “market” be? I estimate that at any time approximately 600,000 Catholics may be persons committed to Catholic sexual ethics who have a loved one with same-sex attracton. In the U.S., there are approximately 254 million persons 16 and older. Recent data from the Centers for Disease Control indicate that 2.3% of them, or about 5.9 million, identify as SSA. If we assume that at least 1.5 friends and family members are deeply concerned about the fact that their loved one is homosexual or bisexual, we are talking about nearly 9 million persons, and 1.9 million of them Catholics (as 22% of Americans identify as Catholic).
Using as an estimate of the percentage supporting Catholic sexual ethics the one-third who report that they attend Mass at least weekly, that is still about 600,000. Discussions with priests who counsel people who have loved ones with SSA indicate that many of these prefer to “go it alone” or are too embarrassed or shy to join a group; but even if only one in five would embrace EnCourage if they knew about/had access to it, EnCourage is now reaching only about 1% of those who would benefit.
Our basic advice is: Don’t go it alone! Please do not suffer in silence.
Log on to CourageRC.org/encourage/#encourage-chapters to see if there is an EnCourage chapter near you. And if you do not have a loved one with SSA, please spread the word about this ministry to those you know who do. Their suffering is deeper than you know. Help them.
You can also look into starting a group yourself. Get basic guidance from Courage International: See the Courage website, CourageRC.org, or call (203) 803-1564.
Ask your diocese for support.
Also ask your confessor to be a mentor or to suggest one. Then ask the mentor whether he knows other persons who would be interested in joining a group. Most confessors undoubtedly are asked to counsel people who have loved ones with SSA, and they might be willing to convene a group by asking people who come to them whether they’d be interested in meeting others in the same situation for mutual support under the EnCourage banner.
We repeat: Don’t go it alone!
While the pain of our situation has not gone away, we found something new.
The joy of Our Lord’s love and the compassion and support from our new friends are crowding out the pain and have even given us greater hope for our son.
Come with us on this journey. It will change your life.
Bernie S. is part of an EnCourage group in the Mid-Atlantic region of the United States.