By the grace of God and the financial help of a good friend, I was recently able to attend the US National and International Courage and EnCourage Conference held in Philadelphia from 9-12 July.
Courage and EnCourage are movements of the Spirit within the Catholic Church to support, and inspire to holiness, persons experiencing same sex attraction (SSA) and their families. Absolute confidentiality is assured and both groups have priestly guidance.
Courage comprises both men and women who seek to live out their lives in fidelity to the teachings of the Catholic Church. They mostly meet once a week. EnCourage is a support group for families and friends giving each other a chance to share experiences and receive guidance on a very controversial and often confusing issue for families.
The Melbourne EnCourage group has grown from the initial five people to a monthly meeting of fourteen or fifteen drawn from about twenty-two active members. We produce a newsletter of anonymous experiences shared at the monthly meeting which is gaining in popularity with a mail-out of fifty. Keeping a record of these heartfelt stories helps us remember them along with the guidance given by our chaplain and to one another.
At the US Courage and EnCourage Conference, there were many inspiring talks and homilies given by priests, psychologists, counsellors and other experts in the field of the homosexually-oriented and their families. Of the 300 present, about three-quarters were people who struggle with this condition and the rest were family members.
Each day Mass was concelebrated by at least a dozen priests with the main celebrant for the opening Mass being Cardinal Justin Rigali, Archbishop of Philadelphia.
I expected the emphasis of the conference to be on homosexuality, and it was to a great extent, but the overriding theme was the determined struggle by men and women to follow Jesus, suffering and crucified, risen from the dead and present in the Holy Eucharist and in each person on earth.
One priest spoke on the anguished cry, "Why did God let me be homosexual?" The speaker drew our attention to Jesus' curing of the man born blind and the Apostles asking was he blind because of a sin of his parents? Jesus' answer was, "No. He was born blind so the work of God could be shown in his life" Jn 9:3.
I understood from this the meaning of that quote from St Irenaeus, "The glory of God is man fully alive." The more we carry our particular cross with sacrificial love for God and our brothers and sisters, the more we feel God's love and manifest it to the world.
We women were the only Australians at the conference and were given special opportunities to spend time with the founder of Courage, Fr John Harvey, 94 now, and his recent successor Fr Paul Check. This was to prepare for Fr Check's forthcoming visit to Australia starting with the National Courage and EnCourage Conference in Brisbane, 16-18 October 2009, and continuing to Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth.
Fr Check especially wants to share his knowledge and experience with his brother priests, SSA individuals and families. Flyers will be going out to parishes as soon as the dates for each city are finalised.
According to the Australian Census figures, around three percent of the population is homosexually oriented; but it affects the whole of society by its social diversity and political ramifications.
Fr Paul Check is a clear, measured, well-prepared, inspiring preacher. His homily at the closing Mass, entitled, "Freedom and Slavery", addressed the universal struggle we all have internally between good and evil, freedom or slavery.
We met other Catholic parents and talked with them about our shared struggle to "let go, and let Jesus" bring our SSA children back to Him. We also met many chaste SSA men and women from Courage groups in America, Canada, Wales, Italy and Mexico, to name a few.
Two persons, a man and a woman, gave their testimonies of finding God, chastity, freedom and peace after long struggles with the temptation of same sex relationships. I shed a few tears when the woman spoke, as her story made me think of our lovely daughter who also has this orientation.
Neither Courage nor EnCourage expect any SSA people to change their orientation, nor does the Church. They foster an authentic, chaste, Christian life to which we are all called. We do not condemn persons who refuse to, or cannot, attempt the struggle for chastity, but for those who wish to undertake reparative, and/or psychological therapy, Courage and EnCourage members try to support their efforts.
During our many years as Catholic parents of a SSA child living what appears to be a gay lifestyle, our advice to parents is this: affirm a child's gender early and often. For example, "You are a lovely girl, etc. Or for boys, "You are a strong and dependable boy", etc. Teach the truth about sexuality in all its diversity.
Any divergence from this truth too often leads to ruined relationships and self-degradation.
But a child's choice of lifestyle should not be allowed to consume us with worry. Rather, give all to Jesus crucified and develop a joyful life in God. In time, love and the truth can set one's child free.
Marie Mason is a retired senior primary school teacher and art teacher of 40 years experience who is now a co-ordinator of Courage and EnCourage Melbourne, tel (03) 9847- 0713, email: encouragemelbourne_at_yahoo.com, website: www. Encourage.cam.org.au and Courage International website: www.couragerc.net