Franciscan University Debuts Ministry for Students Struggling With Same-Sex Attraction

Integratis serves students striving to live in accordance with Church teachings.

Integratis (photo: Courtesy of Integratis; cropped logo)

STEUBENVILLE, Ohio — Two recent graduates of Franciscan University of Steubenville are pioneering a dynamic apostolate for Catholic students who experience same-sex attraction and/or gender dysphoria.

Called Integratis, the endeavor debuted as an officially recognized ministry of Franciscan University this academic year, but it began three years ago, when Brittany Bain and Manny Gonzalez founded Integratis in hopes of providing community for fellow Franciscan students experiencing same-sex attraction and living in accord with the Church’s teachings regarding homosexuality and chastity.

Bain and Gonzalez spent two years developing the structure and programming of Integratis in partnership with the university before its launch as a public apostolate. Since then, the Integratis community has more than doubled in size, and it now includes 20 current students.

Integratis founders
L to R: Brittany Bain and Manny Gonzalez, co-founders of Integratis

The mission statement clarified that Integratis “is not a ‘support group,’ a ‘student club,’ or an ‘advocacy group’ that might be found at other colleges and universities,” and the ministry “rejects the current cultural LGBTQ+ definitions and assumptions.” For instance, Integratis avoids identifying people by their sexual attractions or experience of gender.

Instead, Integratis provides “a faithful community that assists men and women to live full, abundant, virtuous, integrated lives in accordance with the truth, goodness and beauty of human sexuality as understood and proclaimed joyfully by the Catholic Church.” The group’s name means “made whole” in Latin, emphasizing that “all of us are in need of Christ and are only made whole through his Resurrection.”

Bringing an Idea to Life

Integratis was born of Bain’s desire for a faith community with other students who could relate to her experience as a faithful Catholic with same-sex attraction. Bain said she felt “totally alone” in this regard until her senior year, when she became aware of other students with same-sex attraction. “I did not want anyone else to feel as alone as I did,” she told the Register.

In 2019, Bain approached Office of Evangelization Director Bob Lesnefsky and expressed the desire for a ministry for same-sex-attracted Catholic students. He was enthusiastic about the ministry and approached the university’s president, Franciscan Father Dave Pivonka, with the idea.

“It’s a huge need in the Church right now,” Lesnefsky said, “and it hasn’t done us well as a Church to sidestep the issue or be silent or not engage.”

With Father Pivonka’s support, Lesnefsky and Bain began meeting with other Franciscan faculty and staff members to pray about the ministry and create a vision for Integratis under the Office of Evangelization. Bain drew on her personal experience, as well as her background as a coach, mentor and student of social work.

Gonzalez joined the project in the spring of 2020. Before his involvement with Integratis, he had launched a public-speaking ministry about same-sex attraction and living the Church’s teaching, speaking nationally and internationally to audiences of students, teachers, priests and seminarians. He has also collaborated with numerous Catholic ministries, such as Jason Evert’s Chastity Project, Courage International, Catholic News Agency and Sophia Institute.

Both Bain and Gonzalez had previous involvement with Eden Invitation, which is an apostolate for same-sex-attracted Catholics living in fidelity to the Church’s teachings on sexuality and chastity.

Anna Carter, a Franciscan alumna and the co-founder and president of Eden Invitation, told the Register she is “incredibly excited to see the fruits of [Bain and Gonzalez’s] dedication to Christ and his missional call.”

“At a Catholic university, there can be pressure to be ‘perfect’ or have it all together, in comparison to your classmates,” said Carter, noting that students with gender dysphoria can feel this especially strongly. “Specific spaces for them to process and find fellowship are incredibly important.”

Bain is now the program director for Integratis, and Gonzalez serves as the ministry’s graduate assistant while he pursues a master’s degree in catechetics and evangelization.

Striving for Sainthood Together

The Integratis community gathers for weekly community nights, which seek to build and foster authentic friendship. The community attends Mass together for a night of prayer twice a semester. Also twice a semester are formation nights, during which Bain and Gonzalez provide more formal guidance for the community by returning to two central themes of the ministry: Who are we, and who is God? In addition to sharing personal experiences, the group takes advantage of resources such as Eden Invitation’s “Porch Series videos, the writings of Eve Tushnet, and other sources that address gender and sexuality from a faithful Catholic perspective.

“We all share the same or similar experiences, and yet we are all in agreement with the Church and are striving to live holy lives according to the Church’s teachings,” Gonzalez said. “The whole purpose of the community is to provide a safe space and to provide support as we each carry this particular cross up Calvary together” and “rejoice in the glory of the Resurrection and the freedom found in the Church’s teachings.”

As an unofficial ministry for two years, Bain and Gonzalez advertised Integratis through posters and word of mouth. Out of respect for the members, Integratis is a confidential community.

“I don’t know where I would be if it weren’t for this group,” said a junior at Franciscan who has been involved with Integratis for two years. He was raised Catholic and experiences same-sex attraction, and he sees Integratis as a “gift from God.”

During his freshman year, he attended several Courage meetings in the neighboring town of Mingo Junction, Ohio.

“It was a new concept to me because I just didn’t really know that there were young people who still wanted to embrace the Church’s teaching on marriage and chastity,” he said.

In 2021, this student learned about Integratis and began attending the meetings. He said he appreciated that the group met on campus and was so accessible to students. “It felt more homey. It didn’t feel like we were sneaking away to go to this secret meeting,” he said.

He said Integratis has helped him understand his experience of same-sex attraction in light of the Church’s teachings as a call to sacrificial love.

“It’s as if God is calling me deeper to really just look at him. God is calling me on to love in a deeper way that sometimes hurts. It’s not the most comfortable, but, in the end, it’s going to be the most rewarding.”

Franciscan and Beyond

Gonzalez said he hopes that Integratis will cultivate and further encourage an atmosphere of encounter on campus. He seeks to diminish the shame and isolation that can often be felt by students when experiencing same-sex attraction or gender discordance on Catholic campuses through Integratis’ witness to the freedom found in Christ and the Church’s teachings.

He wants Integratis to be a witness of faith to campus and a means of encouraging all students to bring their struggles to Christ. “My hope is that students who are coming [to Franciscan] — whether they experience same-sex attractions or not — feel comfortable to come to the Father, to come to the foot of the cross with their struggles, whatever that struggle is.”

While Gonzalez said the campus reception of Integratis has been overwhelmingly positive, he mentioned that some students disagree with the mission of Integratis because they disagree with the Church’s teachings.

“They see the teachings we are upholding as being outdated, mundane and bigoted, and they see us as feeding into the problem,” he said. “For anyone who disagrees, my heart doesn’t go to anger or judgment. It immediately just goes to sadness. I wish they could experience and witness the goodness that the Church does offer — to see that it is good; it is holy; it is fruitful.”

This year, Gonzalez and Bain are hoping to further refine Integratis so that the ministry can spread to other Catholic campuses in coming years.

Over this past summer, Franciscan hosted a summer conference for all the “Newman Guide” Catholic colleges (which are included in the Register’s own annual guide). The conference focused on human dignity, with a particular emphasis on the relationship between Catholic identity and questions of sexual orientation and gender identity. Integratis presented its vision for ministry as part of the conference.

“We’ve had a couple of the other [colleges included in the Newman Guide] already contact us asking us to send some of our Integratis missionaries to their institutions to provide training and start creating satellite ministry teams on other Catholic college campuses,” said Dan Dentino, Franciscan’s vice president for student life.

“The goal is to foster it on this campus to the point where then the cup is overflowing to such an extent that we’re ready to pour it out onto the rest of the world,” said Gonzalez. “They’re definitely ready to receive it, and I think there are a lot of Catholic campuses in our nation and around the world that are thirsty [for this kind of ministry].”

Mary Frances Myler is a post-graduate fellow with the University of Notre Dame’s Center for Citizenship and Constitutional Government.