Mary Ellen and Casey Lopata's lives changed drastically during Thanksgiving weekend 1983. That's when their oldest son, Jim, came home from college with the news that he was gay.
After a hectic holiday with four children, Mary Ellen Lopata remembers just sitting down that Saturday night when Jim walked in and asked to talk. As he started to cry he told her, "Mom, I'm lonely. I'm lonely for another man."
"It was his way of articulating how he felt as a young gay man," says his mother.
Mary Ellen Lopata cried, too. She couldn't even say the words "gay" or "homosexual" when she finally got up the courage to call a local Catholic priest in whom Jim already had confided.
Jim told his father the next day in the car as the two were driving to the airport. "My first reaction was to ask, 'Are you sure?'" said the retired Xerox executive.
"Yes,'' his son answered.
"Then I said, 'Can you change?' He said, 'No.' That's as far as I got. I ran out of questions."
The Lopatas are cradle Catholics who met in high school in Detroit, married young, and raised three sons and a daughter outside of Rochester, New York. They had no inkling Jim was gay and no idea how to deal with homosexuality within the context of their faith.
The thought of rejecting Jim, though, never occurred to them. "I was more worried that when he left to go back to college that somehow he had become a different person. I was worried about my relationship with him," says Mary Ellen. She knew something would be different. It turned out to be her, not Jim.
It was three years before the Lopatas told anybody else that Jim was gay, even their closest friends. "Some people have to talk about it right away. I needed to have a certain confidence in my own reaction to bad reactions. And I had to know more. I was so ignorant; I just knew nothing,'' says Mary Ellen.
She and her husband first found their way to a secular group called Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) where they received support from other parents of homosexuals, along with condolences from those who considered the Catholic Church to be intolerant and homophobic.
Last year Mary Ellen Lopata wrote a book about her experiences as a Catholic parent of a gay child. In Fortunate Families: Catholic Families With Lesbian Daughters and Gay Sons (Trafford), she describes the lack of accurate information and sound pastoral resources for parents and families of gay and lesbian Catholics 20 years ago.
"Not for a moment did I doubt God's love for him," she writes. "I was taught that God loves everyone, no exceptions. On the other hand, I read church documents that called Jim's orientation 'disordered' and insinuated he was somehow morally suspect and carried a heavier moral burden than the rest of us simply because of his sexual orientation."
Today the Lopatas are among a contingent of Catholic parents nationwide who have established ministries, provided resources, and sought to make the church more welcoming to gays and lesbians.
Their cause was championed by the U.S. Catholic bishops in 1996 with the release of Always Our Children: A Pastoral Message to the Parents of Homosexual Children and Suggestions for Pastoral Ministries. In the document, the bishops acknowledged the struggles of Catholic parents of homosexuals: their relief, anger, mourning, fear, guilt, shame, loneliness, and desire to be protective of their children. The bishops urged parents not to reject gay and lesbian children and encouraged church ministers to be available to parents and to welcome homosexual Catholics into the faith community.
Church documents acknowledge that homosexual orientation is not a choice, but say that homosexuals are called to lead the same chaste lives as non-married heterosexuals. Sex, according to the church, is reserved for procreation and fostering mutual love in the sacrament of marriage between husband and wife. Many gay and lesbian Catholics-and their families-say they find it confusing to be told their sexual orientation may be God-given, but that God doesn't want them to act on it.
The Lopatas prefer to move beyond the issue of sex and focus on what they see as the broader message of the 1996 pastoral letter from the bishops, which says, "All in all, it is essential to recall one basic truth. God loves every person as a unique individual. Sexual identity helps to define the unique persons we are, and one component of our sexual identity is sexual orientation. Thus our total personhood is more encompassing than sexual orientation. Human beings see the appearance, but the Lord looks into the heart."
Jim Lopata, a graphic artist for a New England gay newspaper, is still a practicing Catholic.
Connecting with other parents
When people used to ask Florence Balog if her college-age twin daughters were dating anyone or married yet, she would politely say, "Oh, they're doing their thing, you know."
Balog and her husband, Steve, of Portland, Oregon knew their daughters, Evelyn and Sharon, might be lesbians. Both were spirited, athletic young women, avid readers in high school. They had lots of friends, but no boyfriends or prom dates. They also had once left pamphlets about lesbians around the house.
When the girls were 20, Florence Balog finally asked Sharon one day during a shopping trip if she was a lesbian.
"She just stopped and she looked right at me and just was very serious for a moment, and then her whole face lit up-her eyes sparkled and she smiled from ear to ear."
Evelyn came out to her parents the next day in a phone call from the army base where she was serving.
As lovingly as they accepted their daughters, the Balogs-like the Lopatas-could not bring themselves to talk about their daughters' sexual orientation openly, especially at their parish. "It's been in our society-and especially in the Catholic Church-the big elephant in the room that nobody talks about,'' says Steve Balog, who guarded the secret for five years.
Florence Balog finally got the courage to share the information at her church when she met a woman wearing a pink, triangle-shaped button that read, "Person of Faith Against Bigotry." She boldly told the woman she had twin lesbian daughters, and they both broke into tears. With the help of what the Balogs describe as a very social-justice-oriented priest, they held a meeting of other like-minded parishioners.
The "Welcoming the Whole Family" committee was launched at St. Andrew's Parish by 12 people who continued through the 1990s to educate themselves on church teachings, set up a library of parish resources on homosexuality, and present parish and diocesan workshops on the subject.
"I credit our daughters for making me Christian,'' says Steve. Though his daughters, now 34, have left the church, Balog says, "Their sexual orientation taught us about God and Christ and inclusive love and really what the gospel is about. They kind of brought me into the heart of Christianity."
The Lopatas also set out to educate themselves and their Catholic community about homosexuality. Even before they talked openly about Jim's sexual orientation, they participated in a parish workshop on homosexuality, and in 1992 they attended a conference on the subject along with other Catholic parents of gays and lesbians from the Rochester area.
"The last night we gathered in a hotel room and said, this is great, but we can't just go home and do nothing," says Mary Ellen Lopata. "It was a part of our own growing process that we came to realize there needed to be something for Catholic parents-just to know that they weren't alone. That sense of being isolated and having no one to talk to was probably the hardest part for us." The Catholic Gay and Lesbian Family Ministry became officially recognized by the Rochester diocese as an independent ministry in 1996.
The following year Rochester Bishop Matthew Clark celebrated a Mass at the cathedral for gay and lesbian people, their families, and friends. The cathedral was overflowing with more than 900 attendees. Police had to be stationed outside the church because of both Catholic and non-Catholic protesters who opposed the celebration.
"It was probably the highlight of our experience," says Mary Ellen Lopata, adding that the bishop, in his homily, gave pastors permission to publicly welcome gay and lesbian people to their parishes. "Breaking that silence is really the key to any ministry."
Since then, the Lopatas have seen interest in the ministry on the diocesan level wane, while the numbers of families and parents learning of a family member's homosexuality has not diminished. The Lopatas are leaving their diocesan ministry this summer but are looking for a way to continue projects on their own.
The challenge of chastity
Since 1980, Father John Harvey, O.S.F.S., has led Courage, a movement he founded in New York, designed to help homosexual people live outside what Harvey terms the "gay and lesbian lifestyle." Courage, endorsed by the Holy See, has 95 chapters worldwide.
"Our job is strictly within the confines of the church, and we hold to it,'' says Harvey. "We try to stress the need to learn how to be chaste and to learn how to pray with the heart." To have homosexual tendencies is not a sin, says Harvey. "Nevertheless, it is an objective disorder. If you give in to it, you end up in an act which is intrinsically wrong."
Through prayer, meditation, and friendships, Courage members support each other in the belief that it's more important to be chaste than to try to change the condition of homosexuality. "We know that chaste friendships have limits. The only type of friendship in which there is a true union of bodies is marriage," says Harvey.
Harvey will be a featured speaker at Courage's 16th annual conference this month at the University of St. Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, Illinois, addressing "The Value of Friendship in Courage." Other topics during the conference include "Chaste Friendships and Healthy Boundaries" and "Psychological Dimensions of Same-Sex Attractions and Addiction." Participants at the national conference also will include parents and family members of gay and lesbian Catholics, many of whom belong to a support group called Encourage.
Bob and Susan of Lansing, Michigan, members of Encourage who asked that their last name not be used, were stunned about 15 years ago when their son, one of four children, told them he was gay. They sought out the Courage group because they wanted something completely grounded in Catholicism.
"How do you affirm your child but not support what he is doing?" says Susan. "I wanted to keep the lines of communication open, but he knows where we are and what we believe." Susan presumes that her son continues a gay lifestyle, and she continues to pray constantly for his chastity.
"It's not that we don't accept the person, and we understand there is a legitimate struggle," she says. "I instinctively knew that this couldn't be part of God's plan for the best. I don't know if you can change, but I definitely think it's possible to lead a chaste life."
Encourage was formed by parents who love their children but could not approve of the lifestyle, Harvey says. "So many parents just cave in."
The Lopatas and the Balogs don't see it that way. They are frustrated with what they perceive as pressure from the Vatican to downplay ministries that offer any affirmation to Catholic gays and lesbians. The recently publicized marriages of gays and lesbians have prompted the church to assert more strongly its position against homosexual unions. The sex scandals involving priests haven't helped the gay and lesbian cause either.
Many families in gay and lesbian ministry say they are well aware of the church teachings. It's the language of some of the recent documents they find offensive. In particular, they cite a June 2003 document from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome regarding the legal recognition of homosexual unions, which states for a Catholic lawmaker to vote in favor of allowing such unions would be "gravely immoral." It also reiterates the church's position that homosexuality is "objectively disordered." Most appalling to those who minister to gay and lesbian Catholics is a statement about homosexual couples adopting children that says, "Allowing children to be adopted by persons living in such unions would actually mean doing violence to these children."
Even some of the church's most loyal followers have problems with the statements in the document. "We see what's going on as the continuation of abuse of our children,'' says Steve Balog. "It is as though our sons and daughters are collateral damage. I think that's why parents need to speak up, and I would almost hope that one way or another we parents would organize and become more vocal. It's pitiful. It's just really sad."
A difficult balancing act
The National Association of Catholic Diocesan Lesbian and Gay Ministries (NACDLGM), based in Oakland, California, is a network and resource for individuals, parishes, families, hospitals, and dioceses throughout the country. Founded in 1994, the organization hosts annual conferences in various dioceses and supports gay and lesbian ministries with resources, ideas, and fellowship. Its pioneer, Father Jim Schexnayder, 66, is now the organization's resource director. He says the purpose of the association is to provide support rather than to offer criticism.
"Part of the challenge to the ministries is while there has been a lot of support for gay and lesbian Catholics, extremist Catholics and Protestants have attacked these ministries, attacked bishops who've had them, and tried to do all kinds of things to undermine them," Schexnayder says. "That is something that many ministries face. Our network does not take positions because it's really a network of local ministries, and they all operate within Catholic teachings."
Personally, Schexnayder supports neither gay and lesbian marriage nor "the political process of redefining marriage." But, pastorally, he says, "I don't reject people." Issues such as homosexual unions, however, do not help the larger picture, he allows. And Michael Harmuth, executive director of NACDLGM, sees his own lesbian daughter, Heather, estranged from the church; he also senses the hesitation by many diocesan leaders to develop gay and lesbian ministries.
Some parents of gays and lesbians have found support at New Ways Ministry, a national organization founded in 1977 that states that it provides "a gay-positive ministry of advocacy and justice for lesbian and gay Catholics and reconciliation within the larger Christian and civil communities." New Ways sponsors retreats and seminars for both gay and lesbian Catholics and their parents.
Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways, says it's a natural progression for parents grappling with the issues of gay or lesbian children to want to study the teachings and roots of their faith. "Many of the parents are repeaters-they come back time and again because they don't have any other means of support. A lot of them are struggling not only with accepting their children but dealing with a bishop or a pastor who doesn't want to discuss this. They are starting to become more sophisticated in their faith. Dealing with a gay or lesbian child has helped them mature in their faith. I always think that's the gift of lesbian/gay ministry and lesbians and gays in the church-the call to have more integrity."
New Ways Ministry ran into serious trouble with the Vatican in the late 1990s. Its founders, Sister Jeannine Gramick, S.S.N.D., and Father Robert Nugent, S.D.S., were permanently barred from New Ways and from any other ministry to homosexuals by the Vatican. The church's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith accused the two prominent ministers of not assenting to Catholic teaching on homosexuality and not presenting accurate Catholic teaching in their public statements or their pastoral work with gays and lesbians. Both have disputed the Vatican's ruling.
The pressure from Rome is real, says Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Gumbleton of Detroit. It saddens him to see the ministries to gays and lesbians stifled. Gumbleton, who has been outspoken about having a gay brother, says he tells Catholic parents they, too, can work their way through the journey of having a homosexual child.
"What I tell parents and other people is that a homosexual person has to come to terms with what being gay means for him or her and has to try to come to understand in their own conscience what is the right thing for them. That means taking into account the teachings of the church. Yet there are times where a person would in conscience make a different decision than what the church teaches. Primacy of conscience is a very important part of the church.
"Gay and lesbian Catholics have to be accountable to God for what they do in their conscience. No one else can know what is the state of their souls. St. Thomas Aquinas said if you have a misinformed conscience, you still have to follow that."
Gumbleton prays that the Catholic Church in the U.S. will not retreat too far from the mission of gay and lesbian ministries. "These are human persons who are experiencing such difficulty, and I just don't understand why we in the church would turn them away or create such an atmosphere that they would feel totally unwelcome," he says.
Schexnayder estimates 30 to 40 dioceses in the United States have designated programs or ministries for gay and lesbian Catholics, and about 50 dioceses send representatives to NACDLGM's annual conference. The national association is expecting to complete a survey of existing ministries soon, with a goal of finding out what makes certain programs more successful than others.
Some diocesan programs have thrived through the years with support from bishops. Members of the Archdiocesan Gay and Lesbian Outreach (AGLO) Chicago meet every Sunday night for Mass at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church and regularly for dinners and social events.
One parish's vision
St. Bernadette Church in Severn, Maryland, has one of the most successful ministries to gay and lesbian Catholics in the country. Each year for the past six or seven years Pastor Domenic Cieri and his pastoral associate, Ann McDonald, have offered six-week programs to talk about "the good news the church has to offer, areas of church teaching that cause pain for homosexuals, and what they need in order to feel they can come home to the church."
"We felt really strongly that this was the call of the gospel," says McDonald. "We needed an actual process by which we reached out to gay and lesbian Catholics because they weren't necessarily coming to church. We invited them to reclaim their rightful place in the church." Hence the program is christened Reclaim.
At first McDonald had to educate the 1,200 parish families about making the community more welcoming. She put notes in the bulletin and hung a rainbow flag in the parish office, the rainbow symbolizing respect for gays and lesbians.
"In the beginning there were a lot of people who weren't too sure about it,'' says McDonald. To date, however, more than 200 gay and lesbian Catholics have completed the Reclaim series. The parish also offers a program called Beginnings for the parents of gays and lesbians; Rainbow Families, a support group for gay parents and their children; and Teen Haven, a program for gay and lesbian youth of high-school age.
"I think a process is better than just bringing people together," says McDonald of her programs. "As a person who represents the church I need to be teaching that sex outside of marriage is wrong. There are a lot of people who have sex outside of marriage. But my place is to walk with people and to journey with people.
"The issues aren't any different because someone is gay or lesbian. How do people live chaste lives?…Those are issues that people need time to look into."
As for gay and lesbian Catholics who are wounded by the language of the church, McDonald says, "Those are very painful situations, but what we try to do is remember that the church is not just an institution. We need the institution, but the church is also a community, it's also a church of service, it's also a church of proclaiming the gospel. To look at those things in isolation from the others is not the wholeness of the church."
A board member of the NACDLGM, McDonald will be presenting a model of her parish program at the organization's convention in September, the theme of which is "Gifted and Called…For a Purpose in God's Design."