Local News Archive
Print Issue: June 22, 2000
Priests Offer Ministry To Homosexual Community
By Suzanne Haugh
ATLANTABeyond the politicized issue of homosexuality is the human experience of an individual longing for the spiritual embrace of ones Creator.
Division on many different levelsin society, among church leaders and even within oneselfcontinues to muddle sometimes the pilgrimage one makes. The journey may appear as through the eye of a needle, but priests and lay people, the sacraments and their graces are available guides.
One companion for the pilgrimage is Father T.J. Meehan, pastor of St. Anthonys Church in Atlanta. When serving as parochial vicar at the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, Atlanta, he experienced the inclusive ministries to all kinds of people, including those in the lesbian and gay community. He was often surprised by the number of disaffected Catholics he found when ministering to HIV-AIDS patients at Grady Hospital.
Many of these folks are just looking for an invitation to come back (to church), he said. Theyre waiting and have the desire to plug into the church, but there has (generally) been no positive overture to them so they feel the alienation.
Being a homosexual Catholic is not a contradiction in terms, but a reality lived beautifully by many.
They are doing their very best to live chaste lives within their situations, said Father Meehan, who pointed out that many are involved in various ministries within area parishes.
The truth is that in any Catholic congregation, gay and lesbian (parishioners) are present in a very, very quiet and invisible way. And there are parents of gays and lesbians who have never felt free to have a conversation with the pastor about the secret in their family life. The church really has to end the silence and make it possible so that people can be who they are and can have a place in the church.
In a pastoral message, called Always Our Children, the U.S. bishops refer to the teachings of the Catechism of the Catholic Church as they pertain to homosexuality and address parents and pastoral ministers who work with this segment of the Catholic population.
The Church teaches that homogenital behavior is objectively immoral, while making the important distinction between this behavior and a homosexual orientation, which is not immoral in itself ... Ones total personhood is not reducible to sexual behavior or orientation (Always Our Children).
While homosexual persons must be accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2358), different approaches on how to lead gay and lesbian Catholics to spiritual wholeness exist. The U.S. bishops make it clear that the truth of the churchs teachings, while difficult for some, lead to the reliance on and a greater understanding of Gods love.
Theres nothing sinful about a homosexual orientation, Father Meehan said. Its the homosexual act (thats sinful). He does not see priests, though, becoming moral policemen checking up on people. He points out that we may all fall short in some way on what the church teaches.
Honestly, most of the priests know and feel the tension (and) their hearts go out to these people ... I know many priests are very sensitive and supportive (of them) pastorally. Theyd rather work with people than tell people outright that theres no place for them in the church.
One place, among others, for those in the gay and lesbian community to rediscover their Catholic faith and find the strength to live it is through the Courage program, founded in New York City in 1980. The program, fairly new to the Atlanta Archdiocese, promotes a chaste lifestyle with the support of homosexual friendships, ones faith in Jesus Christ and the sacramental life of the church. Father Bill Hoffman, pastor of the Church of St. Joseph, Dalton, will be joined by Father Fred Wendel, pastor of Immaculate Heart of Mary Church, Atlanta, to minister to those within the gay and lesbian community using the Courage model.
Father John Harvey, OSFS, founder and director of Courage, described the five goals of Courage. The first goal is for Courage members to live according to the churchs teachings on homosexuality, namely to live a chaste life. Secondly, members must dedicate their lives to Christ through service, spiritual reading, prayer, spiritual direction and by frequently going to Mass and receiving the sacraments of reconciliation and the Eucharist.
Fellowship, the third goal, is crucial for members so that no one has to bear the burden of homosexuality alone, Father Harvey said.
The fourth goal is to form good, chaste friendships, which are not only possible but also necessary in living a Christ-centered life. These friendships offer members needed encouragement. Lastly, members of Courage must live lives that serve as a good example to others.
While he remains committed to the Courage philosophy, Father Harvey realizes its a difficult message. People are not knocking down the door, he admitted. Chastity is not in.
Teaching young people that chastity is possible is a crucial place to start, he said, adding that most Courage members are older men and women who see the sexually-active homosexual lifestyle as flawed.
The role of priests and lay people who work with Courage members is not to become therapists, he said. Opponents of the Courage program purport that it seeks only to turn homosexuals toward the heterosexual lifestyle, but Courages main effort is to help gay and lesbian men and women lead chaste lives, to which single heterosexual men and women are also called.
A chaste life applies to everybody, he said.
Nick, (not his real name), is a 40-year-old Italian-American born in New York City where he now lives. The youngest of six children, Nick remembers calling his mom from California and hearing her acknowledge, for the first time, his gay lifestyle.
(My mother) just said, You know what the church teaches, dont you? I said, Ma, I cant deal with that right now. She, a staunch Catholic, never judged me, though; she just loved me.
He credits his sister, who is involved in Courage, and a brother, who is a priest, with introducing him to Courages approach of reconciling his homosexuality with the teachings of the Catholic faith. As a result of this ministry, Nick now experiences a peace he had never known before.
In 1995, when his life was falling apart, his brother took him in spiritually. Nick had come into the homosexual lifestyle at the age of 19 and was active in it for about 16 years. Even though he spent 10 of those years with a long-time companion, I was still very promiscuous, he said.
My brother carefully prayed with me (during my crisis). We dialogued and he counseled me, Nick said. He was accepting of my orientation but not what I was doing, the old, love the sinner, hate the sin.
To Nicks dismay, his brother suggested he attend a Courage conference. I had known about Courage for years and had been deathly afraid of it, he said. It just meant I cant have sex. But the whole homosexual lifestyle says have sex.
At his brothers beckoning, Nick attended the conference and had a profound spiritual conversion.
Through God and the Holy Spirit, I received the gift of tears. Within three months I basically sold everything and went back East (from California) and lived with a lay community afterwards.
One effect of the change was because of Courage, the church, my own prayer life and other people who were praying for me, I was significantly different. I have an interior life now, he said, and Courage teaches that. God is in the center of my life.
His desire for an interior peace comes from the power of prayer, the Holy Spirit and grace, Nick said. I could never do it on my own.
Pat Size, in her early 40s, cited two reasons why she became involved with Courage and Encourage, a support group for family members of gays and lesbians. Having worked in the theater, she has lost many friends to HIV-AIDS. She has also come to the ministry as an individual recently called to live a chaste life after her marriage of 20 years ended abruptly.
Size described a recurring cycle among many of the gay and lesbian acquaintances she has known over 20 years. Once someone self-identifies himself as gay, theres a gradual shift over time in the person. The individual becomes more identified with sex until it influences every aspect of his life, from his friends, where he goes, what (theater) parts he takes. Everything is permeated with it. At first they feel much freer, Im out of the closet now; everyone knows who I am. But they become more and more enmeshed in themselves. Thats what Ive seen.
Through Courage, Size sees men and women with a deep respect for themselves and for others. Amid her sorrow, she has found an infusion of joy while working among the seriously happy people of Courage.
As she tries to remain chaste after being sexually active within her marriage, she understands how chastity is one of Jesus hard sayings. She recalls the Prayer of St. Francis.
... For it is in dying that were born to eternal life. Were not just talking about final death, but all the little deaths, of letting go of whats not good for us. Each one is a death. We all have them, unless were running away.
One death can be the self-denial of sexual fulfillment, whether one is a single lay person or a married person called to live chastely with ones spouse.
It can all be lived joyfully, she said. But its difficult in a highly eroticized culture.
While critics charge the church as being a moral dictatorship, Size credits the church with upholding the truth and valuing individuals and ones unique gifts.
... The church is usually, in the public image, seen as the legalistic rulemaker where theyre anti-sex, anti-fun. Thats patently untrue. The Catholic Church is the only place where the teaching is that we are all children of God, were all accepted, were all broken in one way or another and we all have a cross were called to pick up; theyre just different ones.