By Maria Wiering
CATONSVILLE – Once a month, a group meets at Our Lady of the Angels Chapel at Charlestown retirement community, chairs pulled in a circle to prompt discussion. Sometimes only a few people show up, but other meetings draw as many as 15, with some driving from Northern Virginia or Pennsylvania. They range in age and religious beliefs, but share one thing in common: a loved one is gay or lesbian.
The group, EnCourage, is a support group for family members and friends of gay men and women. A Catholic apostolate based in Norwalk, Conn., it is a subsidiary of Courage, an outreach to gay Catholics who are striving to abide by Catholic Church teaching on human sexuality.
The 33-year-old international organization held an annual convention near Chicago July 25-28.
The confidential support group has been meeting in the Archdiocese of Baltimore for more than 15 years, although it was not established as an official EnCourage chapter until 2009. Pat Phebus, a local founding member and parishioner of St. Thomas More in Baltimore, said the group lets parents “unload.”
“I’ve seen couples come to us in terrible grief,” said Phebus, 75. “We’ve been there, we understand, we know what it’s like.”
Most members of Baltimore’s EnCourage chapter are parents of gay adults. At meetings, participants share their challenges and triumphs in their relationships with their gay children, discuss books and documents related to homosexuality, offer advice on navigating difficult situations and pray by name for gay loved ones.
They prefer to use the term “same-sex-attracted,” rather than “gay,” which they describe as an unnecessary label.
Foremost in their concern are loved ones who reject the church’s teaching, which prohibits sexual activity between people of the same sex. Catholic teaching distinguishes between homosexual orientation – which is not immoral in itself – and homosexual behavior.
Pope Francis briefly addressed homosexuality July 28 while speaking to reporters on a flight to Rome following World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. According to a translation from Catholic News Service, he said, “A gay person who is seeking God, who is of good will – well, who am I to judge him? … The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains this very well. It says one must not marginalize these persons, they must be integrated into society. The problem isn’t this (homosexual) orientation – we must be like brothers and sisters. The problem is something else, the problem is lobbying either for this orientation or a political lobby or a Masonic lobby.”
Dominican Father Carleton Parker Jones, chaplain for both the local EnCourage group and Courage outreach, said the pope’s words did not imply a change in the church’s teaching on homosexual behavior, as some commentators have suggested.
“What he said about people corresponds very well with what I consider to be the aim of the Courage ministry, which is, first of all, to show love and acceptance to people, to make them feel as though they belong in the church – that they’re not being marginalized by the church’s teaching – and helping them to be free of sexual compulsion and acting out in such a way that they’re involved in sin.”
That approach is consistent with the 1997 document “Always Our Children: A Pastoral Message to Parents of Homosexual Children and Suggestions for Pastoral Ministers” published by the U.S. Bishops’ Committee on Marriage and Family.
The document affirms the dignity of the homosexual person and the church’s teaching on human sexuality, and recommends ways parents and church ministers can support gay Catholics. Among its advice is for parents to join a support group.
Phebus’ son came out to her and her late husband about 20 years ago. She said that his revelation was difficult at first, but she has continued to maintain a good relationship with him and his partner.
“What matters to Christ is not whether our children consider themselves gay or straight, but whether they are living in holiness, according to his will,” she said. “He loves them even more than we do, and this is our unceasing prayer for each of our sons and daughters.”
Father Jones began working with Courage almost 20 years ago while pastoring a parish in New Haven, Conn.
“Courage,” said Father Jones, former pastor of Ss. Philip and James in Charles Village, “is for people who are faithful to the church, who want to be faithful to the Christian way of life, who have no argument with the church’s teaching but find themselves with more-or-less strong same-sex attractions … and very serious temptations.”
Currently, there is not a Courage chapter in the Archdiocese of Baltimore, although Father Jones hopes that changes one day. For now, he offers individual spiritual direction for same-sex-attracted Catholics.
“When you look below the surface of the gay world, it’s a real horror show, I have to say. It’s very dark,” he said. “That’s why I see the ministry that I do as being for the good of souls. Evil gets power over people when they get so focused on themselves, on their own fulfillment and happiness, and when they identify themselves according to their sexual desires, making that a central desire of their personal identity.”
Ministry to gay Catholics and their families has been complicated by a political and social culture that normalizes gay relationships, especially through the growing acceptance of same-sex civil marriage, Father Jones said. Same-sex marriage is legal in 13 states, including Maryland, and the District of Columbia.
“(Gay Catholics) are dealing not only with forces within themselves, but also with messages from the culture, so often they’re very lonely in their struggle,” he said. “One of the fallacies behind this message from the culture is that without having an active sex life, no one can be happy – which of course, I know is not true.”
Western culture’s changing sexual mores haven’t altered the views of Vicki Iseminger, 55, a Baptist who has a 31-year-old gay son. She said he is aware of her desire for him to seek “holy sexuality” – the same thing she says all Christians are called to – which precludes sex outside of marriage.
However, she sees no reason for her son’s homosexuality to be the crux of their regular conversations.
“I think it’s good not to make that the elephant in the room,” said Iseminger, who joined EnCourage after a referral from Regeneration, a Christian ministry based in Baltimore and Northern Virginia that helps men and women mired in sexual sin. “All of us need to pursue holiness, pursue our relationship with Christ. … We’re all sinners in need of a savior.”
Iseminger said she began attending EnCourage meetings for support, and now also goes to support others. She said the apostolate teaches people how to love their children, even if they don’t agree with their choices.
“EnCourage has helped us work through what was going on in our family, and get us to a place of balance, of trust in the Lord, of going through the journey,” she said.
“Our children would like us to fully embrace everything about their same-sex attraction and that they want to pursue relationships,” she said. “The easiest thing in the world for us parents would be to do that. We want to support and love our children. We want them to be happy, but we can’t go against our convictions in order to support life choices that are against God’s word.”
Phebus surmises that most – if not all – Catholics have a family member or acquaintance who is gay, and has questions about what that means for his or her relationship with God and the church. She thinks the church could do more to welcome gay Catholics and connect them with resources, such as Courage, to help them live holy lives.
“How else are we going to show them the love of Jesus?” she asked.
EnCourage meets on the fourth Monday of each month and respects participants’ confidentiality. For contact information and directions, call the chancery at 410-547-5446.
BY THE NUMBERS
1980 The year Courage was founded
2009 EnCourage chapter officially established in the Archdiocese of Baltimore
1500 participants in Courage online ListServs*
100+ Courage chapters worldwide*
13 countries with Courage chapters*
* Statistics from Courage’s website