Father Philip Bochanski’s Departure From Courage Marks an Era of Growth Amid Societal Tumult
The executive director of the international apostolate that serves same-sex-attracted Catholics and their families reflects on the lessons learned during his tenure.
BRIDGEPORT, Conn. — Back in 2015, when Father Philip Bochanski joined the staff of Courage International, the Catholic apostolate that helps persons with same-sex attraction live in accordance with Church teaching, the U.S. Supreme Court had just legalized same-sex unions, and he feared the ministry would stall as America embraced a new normal.
“Everything seemed settled in the public mind, and I thought, ‘We probably won’t be expanding,’” Father Bochanski recalled during an interview with the Register.
Instead, the high court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges propelled an unexpected increase in the opening of new Courage chapters across the United States.
Bishops who had remained on the fence during the nation’s contentious debate over “marriage equality” now saw the urgent need for an apostolate that placed the Church’s vision of human sexuality at the heart of its pastoral outreach to Catholics seeking to reconcile their personal struggles with their faith.
The rapid expansion of Courage chapters in the U.S. was the first, but not the only, twist in Father Bochanski’s eight-year tenure, which will come to a close on June 3, when he will leave the Trumbull, Connecticut-based apostolate and return to Philadelphia, where he will take up new duties as the vicar general of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.
While serving as the ministry’s executive director for the past six years, Father Bochanski also faced new challenges, from a pandemic lockdown that suspended vital face-to-face chapter meetings to a fast-moving campaign to change Catholic teaching on homosexuality, led by Church leaders in Europe.
The lockdown paved the way for remote video-facilitated chapter meetings, now a permanent option for some members, and the push to upend Catholic teaching prompted Father Bochanski to pen an 2022 “open letter” urging the Church leaders to halt their efforts.
But Father Bochanski has maintained a laser-like focus on the apostolate’s primary responsibility: serving the spiritual and pastoral needs of his same-sex-attracted flock and bringing this vital ministry’s message of hope and healing to more dioceses, both in the U.S. and beyond.
“We have always made an effort, as an apostolate, to avoid political activism of any sort because it is a distraction from our primary pastoral work,” he said. “We are here to walk with those we are striving to serve through one-on-one, face-to-face conversations and small groups.”
That approach has paid off. In 2017, Courage sponsored 247 U.S. chapters, and by 2023, that number had surged to 340, with 236 priests serving as chaplains. EnCourage, a companion ministry for the family and friends of persons experiencing same-sex attraction, has also made similar progress, along with a steady increase in Spanish-language groups and online resources.
Likewise, Father Bochanski devoted significant time and resources to securing a strong beachhead in Latin America, which now has 36 Spanish-language and nine Portuguese-language chapters and 35 chaplains.
The website for Courage is available in English, Spanish and Italian, and a revised handbook for the ministry is also posted online, providing a “deeper understanding of the spirituality, practices and beliefs that lay at the heart of this apostolate.”
“A lot of the success Courage has experienced is due to Father Bochanski’s leadership,” Bishop Frank Caggiano of Bridgeport, the chairman of Courage’s seven-member episcopal board, told the Register, while noting the urgent need to identify a suitable successor.
“He is extraordinarily intelligent, very well-spoken, and when he gives a presentation, he is able to address complex issues and thoughts in a way that invites someone to walk with him and reflect afterward,” the bishop said.
“He is a faithful priest,” Bishop Caggiano added. “Just look at the number of seminarians and priests who have him as their spiritual director. People gravitate toward priests who, as they say in Brooklyn, are ‘the real deal.’”
Courage chaplains echoed this assessment, while highlighting additional areas of strength.
“Father Bochanski is leaving the ministry with a strong network and a firm foundation,” Father Kyle Schnippel, a Dayton, Ohio-based Courage chaplain, told the Register. “He has built up financial support and an international presence.”
Father Schnippel, the chairman of the board of directors of Courage, will serve as acting executive director until a successor to Father Bochanski is appointed.
A Philadelphia native, Father Bochanski first began working with Courage in 2009, a decade after his ordination as a priest in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and about three decades after New York Cardinal Terence Cooke established the first chapter of Courage in 1980.
Courage offers weekly or monthly confidential chapter meetings that include the sacrament of confession, recitation of the Rosary and the reading aloud of memberships’ five goals: chastity; prayer and dedication; fellowship; support; and being good examples/role models.
An annual conference, with in-person and virtual participation, draws about 330 people. A separate Spanish-language conference is simultaneously available via Zoom with members from the U.S., Latin America and Spain participating.
Father Bochanski views his early involvement in Courage as the “best decision” of his priesthood, aside from entering the seminary. More than anything else, he said he has been deeply moved by the members’ hunger for a true spiritual father.
“My father passed away in March, and before he died, I thanked him for being a good role model,” said Father Bochanski.
He said his father replied, “The older you get, the more you see how much you learned from your own children about being a father.”
And his son, in turn, has also learned from the Catholic men and women who share their stories and pose deep questions about their identity and earthly mission as a child of God.
“It is a real privilege to speak to those questions, affirm a person, and help them see, through my eyes, what they may not appreciate in themselves,” said the priest. “St. John Bosco said, ‘It is not enough for us to love the children; they must know they are loved.’”
As a result, the most important lesson he has learned from this ministry “is the ability to tell someone I loved them because it is true and not worry about whether I feel uncomfortable.”
In 2019, in recognition of his important work at Courage, Pope Francis awarded Father Bochanski the Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice medal recognizing exceptional service to the Church.
Father Bochanski also serves as a consultant to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Subcommittee for the Promotion and Defense of Marriage. He is the author of six books on a variety of religious topics, including, most recently, Wisdom of the Desert Fathers and Mothers: Ancient Advice for the Modern World.
Members of Courage acknowledged the spiritual fruits of Father Bochanski’s ministry in interviews with the Register.
“He never disregards the severity of the problem or the immorality of acting out, but he starts with a spirit of encouragement,” John, a Courage member in the Midwest who did not want to use his name for reasons of privacy, told the Register. “I never feel like I am being ‘fixed’ by him. I feel I am being loved back to life.”
Joe L., another member of Courage on the East Coast, described Father Bochanski as a priest with a “commanding presence” and a “calming tone of voice.”
“He is a tall, stocky man, but he is not threatening in his demeanor,” he said. “He is always a priest, not some guy doing his job.”
Joe noted that Courage members “are at all different levels of their journey: Some, like myself, were fully integrated in the gay community; others only had it in their mind, and no one knew about it; and still others were married and sometimes acted out.” But whatever the member’s personal experience, Father Bochanski is very adept at meeting them where they are, said Joe, who added, “He is approachable and sincere.”
Both John and Joe said that they valued Father Bochanski and the ministry’s commitment to Christian sexual ethics, even as some pastors have become uncomfortable with the Church’s teaching on chastity.
During confession with a local pastor, Joe shared his spiritual struggles and was encouraged to establish a monogamous relationship with a male partner. “That’s what Christ wants for you,” Joe said the priest told him, insisting that this was the case, even after Joe told him the Church did not endorse this guidance.
Now, as a stepped-up effort to change Church teaching on homosexuality draws headlines across the globe, Courage members worry that the controversy could derail the progress Catholics like them have made as they deepen their relationship with the Lord, exercise the virtue of chastity, and form healthy friendships.
Father Bochanski expressed similar concerns in his April 2022 open letter to German Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich and Freising, Germany, and Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich of Luxembourg, the relator general of the worldwide Synod on Synodality. The letter opposed their call for a change to Church teaching on homosexuality and warned that it could raise “false hopes.”
The letter spotlighted the countercultural witness of Courage’s community of chaplains and laypeople who are often ignored or misrepresented in a world that views sexual rights as a source of liberation and Church teaching as a vector of stigmatization.
Apart from all the chatter in “the political arena, social media or contemporary culture, the Church cares deeply for those who have same-sex attraction and wants them to be welcomed,” said Bishop Caggiano. “But the Church also asks them to live a chaste life in fidelity to what Christ has asked of us. That is why Courage’s ministry of accompaniment and formation is timely and important.”
He said he was not surprised that the apostolate had opened almost 100 new chapters amid the culture’s seismic shift on issues like same-sex unions and transgender rights, noting that “it has always been true that the Church is at its best when it is under attack.”
That said, Bishop Caggiano expressed frustration that the apostolate was not better known across the Church.
A lack of information and “misinformation” were partly to blame for the problem. But he also agreed that the growing number of activist groups promoting new models of pastoral accompaniment for “LGBT” Catholics made it tough for the faithful to hear and appreciate Courage’s distinctive message.
Father Martin’s Perspectives
Perhaps the most striking example of this problem is the fact that Jesuit Father James Martin’s influential 2017 book, Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity, did not even mention Courage or the experience of its members. Yet Father Martin was invited to address the 2018 World Meeting of Families in Ireland, where he discussed “best practices from parishes that have successfully reached out to the L.G.B.T. Catholic community.”
During an email exchange with the Register, Father Martin said he regretted the decision to exclude Courage and the experiences of its members from his book.
“If I were to write the book today, I would speak more about LGBTQ Catholics who follow Church teachings on celibacy,” said Father Martin. “At the time, though, the vast majority of LGBTQ people I knew were not living celibately. And that is still the case today.”
Father Martin also expressed deep respect for Father Bochanski, noting that the priest served as a panelist at the 2022 “Outreach LGBTQ” Catholic ministry conference he had helped to organize at Fordham University.
As a panelist, Father Bochanski “set forth the Church’s teaching on homosexuality and entered into dialogue with some top-notch Catholic theologians,” Father Martin said, and “everyone came away with gratitude for his presence.”
Father Bochanski’s presence at the conference signaled his eagerness to meet people where they are, in order to help them understand that the Church does not seek to destroy their chances for happiness, but to invite them into a life-changing relationship with Jesus Christ, through the crucible of the cross.
At the same time, he has been very cautious about addressing the deeply politicized gender-identity revolution and the relatively new phenomenon of young Catholics struggling with gender dysphoria and feeling trapped in the wrong body.
This issue is very different from “the experience of same-sex attraction, so we have wanted to proceed very carefully,” he said. “Thus far, Courage has focused on building connections with those who are more expert on the transgender question,” while some EnCourage chapters have opened meetings to parents who need support as their children deal with gender-identity issues.
Looking ahead, Father Bochanski prays that the lessons he has learned at Courage, and the insights he has gleaned during his travels around the U.S., will bear fruit as he begins his new role as vicar general and moderator of the curia in Philadelphia.
He also believes that his trips to university campuses have provided vital feedback that will help guide the local Church’s outreach to young Catholics, many of whom are leaving the Church in droves and often single out Catholic teaching on homosexuality as a major sticking point.
“I have encountered a number of young people who are not angry at the Church, but they are angry at what they think the Church has to say about same-sex attraction or gender identity,” he said.
The key, he concluded, is to begin by carving out a “middle ground.” After that has been accomplished, “you can show how it is possible for them to keep the faith and also appreciate and honor the people they love.”
- father philip bochanski
- same-sex attraction
- church teaching on sexuality
- courage international