Having attended last year's International Courage and EnCourage Conference for Catholic same-sex attracted (SSA) persons and their families, and then just attended this year's conference (29 July-1 August) 2010, I could see and feel how much these apostolates have grown and deepened over the preceding year.
There were more people with SSA present, many more parents and many more priests, including two bishops. The increase that struck me though, was the sense I got of an increase of holiness and the need for holiness in everyone. Something as essential as air and water!
The quality of reverence and attention to prayer and the sacraments offered throughout the conference was one area of note. All the presentations were in some way about the virtues and how we want them, practise them and are willing to suffer and struggle to get them into our lives.
The Conference was held at the University of St Mary of the Lake in the Archdiocese of Chicago. Among the noted speakers were Drs Janet Smith and Timothy Lock as well as workshops on differing topics on women or men with SSA, parents of SSA children, psychology, etc.
After the opening Mass celebrated by Bishop John M. Le Voir of Ulm, Minnesota, Fr Paul Check, International Director of Courage and EnCourage, dedicated the conference to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and opened by leading us in the Litany of the Sacred Heart. Each morning, afternoon and evening session centred us in the Heart of God with a recitation of this Litany.
In his opening address, Fr Check asked us to put out of our minds the worries and negativities we all encounter in the world with regard to the disturbing topic of homosexuality and rather ask for the great gift of peace that Jesus offers. The peace the world can neither give nor take.
He said the whole of the Gospel could be summed up in two words, compassion and redemption. The story of the woman caught in adultery and publicly humiliated showed these very well. Jesus did not say adultery was not a sin, he simply invited anyone present who was without sin to cast the first stone at her.
A powerful, personal testimony by "Dan" followed. It was a story of pain and struggle, hopes lost and regained, only to be lost again. It was a story of addictions, hope in God, rejection of religion, desire for marriage and a family, and gay partnerships. There was one in particular in which the partner released Dan from the relationship so he could pursue the love of a woman which seemed like a wonderful dream come true, only to have her change her mind.
Dan said the loving release given to him by his gay partner so he could possibly have a life free from the pain of same-sex attraction was the most Christ-like action he has ever experienced. He asked us to pray for this man.
Dan stopped asking for favours from God and started a study of suffering instead. Through the example of Christ in the Gospels, Thomas Merton and a movie about Trappist monks, and his own life history, Dan came to understand that God had always loved him and had used his same-sex attraction to redeem him from sin and draw him to Himself.
Fr Paul Check said repeatedly that Jesus came to convert each heart individually. And pointing to himself said, "That means my heart! The Gospel is not about social reform but about personal holiness through obeying Jesus and developing the virtues. Good social works grow out of that."
The Conference brought together hundreds of people from all over the United States, some from Canada, England, and the two of us from Australia. My companion was Dr Anne-Matie Diggins MD from the Focolare Movement and a member of EnCourage.
"People were approachable and able to share deeply of their pain," said Anne-Marie. "I was touched by the peace of the American National EnCourage Leaders, Bob and Susan, and the holiness they had come to over their son's SSA. I was astounded by the 'gift' this painful condition could bring in the way of graces to a family, and thus to other families. It is quite a journey! One mother found her faith through praying for her daughter."
The speakers covered the psychological and theological perspectives about how SSA develops, and from the theology of the body about the single life. There were ample opportunities for prayer, Eucharistic Adoration, confession, Mass and also time to socialise and share each other's stories, encouraging one another.
Our Melbourne experience of contacting the parishes in our Archdiocese was received with enthusiasm. The fact that we rang every parish priest to ask his OK to send our literature, which had the blessing of Archbishop Denis Hart, before posting it, showed respect they said. Later, some Melbourne priests advertised the Courage and EnCourage groups after each Mass on one Sunday. We received many calls because of this and Fr Check himself emphasised the crucial role of priests to the two apostolates.
Marie Mason B.Ed is a co-ordinator of Courage and EnCourage Melbourne. Enquiries: encouragemelbourne_at_yahoo.com, mobile: 0435 018 626. Fr Laurie Leonard SJ: lleonard_at_iprimus.com.au, mobile: 0439 864 188.