By Meghan Bartlett, Catholic News Service
ARLINGTON Va. (CNS) — In June, rainbow-colored flags waved outside restaurants, signs with mantras such as “Love is love” rested in windows and parades wound through city streets, all in celebration of Pride Month.
The LGBTQ event grew out of the Stonewall Uprising, a conflict between police and a gay club in June 1969 in Manhattan that led to protests and further sparked the gay rights movement.
During Pride Month, another gathering was taking place as members of a church apostolate filtered into in a quiet, private room for their June meeting.
A chaplain heard confessions while members prayed the rosary, followed by a reading aloud of the apostolate’s five goals: chastity; prayer and dedication; fellowship; support; and being good examples/role models.
Then the chaplain gave a short talk and members took turns updating the group on how they have lived the goals.
“Most of the people who come do not miss a meeting,” said Father Richard E. Dyer, head chaplain of the apostolate in the Arlington Diocese.
The members belong to Courage, an apostolate of the church for people who experience same-sex attraction. They gather weekly or monthly, depending on the chapter, for confidential meetings. The group provides support and accountability for one another, said Father Dyer.
Courage began in 1980 in New York City under Cardinal Terence Cooke, who saw a need to support Catholics experiencing same-sex attractions and who sought to live chastely in accordance with church teaching on homosexuality.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains that homosexual acts are contrary to natural law, close the sexual act to the gift of life and do not reflect a sexual complementarity. Yet men and women with homosexual tendencies “must be accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity” (No. 2358).
The first Courage meeting was held in a Manhattan church. The following year, members identified the five goals and chose the name Courage. The apostolate expanded to other U.S. cities and Canada and now has chapters worldwide.
In 2004, the Arlington Diocese started a chapter and Father Paul D. Scalia, then parochial vicar of St. Rita Church in Alexandria, Virginia, was appointed head chaplain. He is currently pastor of St. James Church in Falls Church, Virginia, and diocesan episcopal vicar for clergy.
There was interest immediately. “Before I had even started the chapter, some men had approached me about seeking assistance,” Father Scalia told the Arlington Catholic Herald, the diocesan newspaper.
“We have the church’s teaching and we’re good at teaching that clearly, but we weren’t as good at providing a means for people to live that teaching,” said Father Scalia, who saw Courage as a way for the church to provide that support.
The first meeting drew around 10 men. Since then, the apostolate has grown to two chapters with around 20 members.
In the 1980s, as the Courage apostolate formed and grew, Joe (who asked that his real name be withheld) and his wife separated because of his same-sex attraction. He began to pursue men.
Raised Catholic, he knew his lifestyle was not aligned with church teaching. But he continued to attend Mass, and in 1992, he learned of a Courage chapter in the Archdiocese of Washington.
“I knew fundamentally I wasn’t happy,” he said. “I think everyone who comes into the apostolate and has been living in the lifestyle has acknowledged it is not a happy lifestyle.”
He decided to attend a meeting. Nervous that someone might see him, he went to the location early to make sure he wouldn’t be spotted entering.
After the initial meeting, the word that came to his mind was “hope.” But “I was in the lifestyle at the time and had a partner and so I didn’t really want him to know I was looking for the way out. … I didn’t have the courage at the time.”
The following year, his partner died of AIDS.
“After that, it began the process of my conversion of heart,” he said. He returned to the apostolate in 1998 and has been a member for more than 20 years. He’ now involved in an Arlington diocesan chapter.
“What I found was a fellowship of Catholics who wanted to live chaste lives,” he said. “I was led by the Holy Spirit to find the Courage apostolate.”
Garrett Johnson was working as a hairstylist, was openly gay and heavily addicted to marijuana. In his late 30s, he was struggling and losing clients.
“I was very isolated, I cut off most of my friends and family,” he said. “I kept thinking God could not have created me just to get by.” Raised Catholic “nominally” — his mother grew up Catholic and his father was agnostic/atheist — he said he stopped going to church around age 12.
He continued to struggle, his marijuana addiction making him physically ill. Around this time, his mother returned to the faith and gently encouraged him. He quit smoking and became more involved in the church. He told a priest about his same-sex attraction, and that’s when he learned about Courage. He felt resistant, but he committed to going to five meetings.
“What Courage was about was not very appealing to me,” he said. “I didn’t like the idea of being responsible for my behavior, I didn’t like the idea of being connected to people.” Yet, “I knew that I needed to be there,” he added.
He credits a Courage conference as the place where God made a change in him. Held annually, the conferences bring together members from different chapters for talks on holiness and faith, workshops and prayer.
At the end of the conference, another attendee put his arm around him in fellowship. Johnson was resistant to physical contact, especially from men. “I felt something happen inside of me,” he said. “It opened me up to being closer to men in a friendly, chaste, brotherly way.”
He has been a Courage member for nine years now, attending chapters in Arlington, Washington and Baltimore.
“I am drawn to truth, that’s what brought me back to the Catholic Church,” Johnson said. “What draws people to the church is … the truth, and love.”
This June, Father Dyer implemented a spiritual plan called C30: Courageously Countering Pride, to motivate Courage members to do additional prayer, fasting and almsgiving for 30 days.
Johnson said the church and fellow Catholics can provide support by upholding church teaching. “Tell the truth, but help us carry the burden,” he said. “The best way (Catholics) can be helpful is, be honest with us and walk with us,” he said.
Courage also has a ministry called EnCourage for family and friends of persons experiencing same-sex attraction.
These support groups began forming in 1987 to address the spiritual needs of spouses, parents, friends and others who had a loved one experiencing same-sex attraction. EnCourage now has chapters worldwide, including in the Arlington Diocese.
Joe said it requires courage to live a countercultural lifestyle.
“(The Courage founders) knew it would require courage — intellectual courage, spiritual courage, even physical courage — to defy the cultural whirlwind we’re in,” said Joe.
To Father Dyer, the Courage members are an inspiration.
“Members heroically live chaste lives,” he said. “(Courage has) been one of the great blessings of my priesthood.”
Bartlett is on the staff of the Arlington Catholic Herald, newspaper of the Diocese of Arlington.