For gay Catholics, diverging paths
Maria Elena Baca, Star Tribune
Published August 8, 2003

Demonstrators representing gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered Catholics and their families were turned away Thursday when they tried to enter a mass at a conference for people struggling with homosexual impulses.

The private service at the Chapel of St. Thomas Aquinas was part of the opening of the annual Courage conference, being held through Sunday at the University of St. Thomas campus in St. Paul. Courage is an international organization that offers spiritual support for gay and lesbian Catholics seeking "an interior life of chastity."

Courage has been criticized for referring to gays and lesbians as "objectively disordered" and for advocating reparative therapy, which holds that homosexuals can become heterosexual through therapy, prayer and support.

Gay catholics
University of St. Thomas official asks protesters to leave university's chapel
Richard Tsong-taatarii
Star Tribune

Participants say the group helps them balance their lives and abide by Catholic Church teachings, which bar sexual contact outside of marriage; it also offers fellowship with others experiencing similar struggles, they say.

When members of the Dignity Coalition, which includes gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered (GLBT) Catholics and their families, tried to enter the chapel for a 5 o'clock service, they were met by campus security officers, along with officials of the university and the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.

Gay Catholics
A security guard at the University of St. Thomas asks a protester to leave the chapel area
Richard Tsong-taatarii
Star Tribune

Courage participants are "on their own faith journey, and we have to respect their wishes," said Doug Hennes, a St. Thomas vice president.

"Their needs are more important than our children?" responded Mary Lynn Murphy, representing Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG), who has a son and several relatives who are gay. "We're not here about their children. They're here about ours."

Dennis McGrath, spokesman for Archbishop Harry Flynn, told protesters that he shared Flynn's concern that protesters would use the mass to disrupt the conference.

Gay Catholics
"I always knew that what I was doing was wrong," said Courage member Richard Gerst, of Wenonah, N.J.
Richard Tsong-taatarii
Star Tribune

"Not the archbishop, nobody, allows the eucharist to be used as a vehicle for protest," McGrath said.

What followed was an emotional and wide-ranging discussion. McGrath and several protesters touched on topics that included gay marriage, birth control, adoption by gay couples, heterosexual chastity outside of marriage and pedophilia among clergy.

Emotional exchange

A few passers-by stopped to listen and debate, including Jon Springer of White Bear Lake. "You don't care that the church is being crucified," he told Murphy.

"Our children are being crucified every day," Murphy responded.

"Why don't you go to a different church?" Springer said.

"Because we are the church," chimed in Michael Bayly of Minneapolis.

Despite a previous arrangement with St. Thomas to remain on the lower quadrangle, away from the chapel, demonstrators stayed outside the west entrance until the service ended. Conference participants exited on the opposite side of the chapel.

Afterward, Jane McDonald of Minneapolis reflected on the exchange.

"They tried to strip us of our Catholicism," she said, adding that she believes barring Dignity members from the chapel was an abuse of power by the archdiocese and the university and something Jesus would not do.

Why does she stay in the church?

"Because I would be losing my own flesh and blood and bones," she said. "I was born Irish Catholic. It's my birthright."

A mighty struggle

Conference participants also say they're rediscovering their Catholic birthright.

Richard Gerst, 72, of Wenonah, N.J., is facilitator for Courage groups in the archdioceses of Philadelphia and Camden, N.J.

"I was never happy," he said. "I always knew that what I was doing was wrong. At a certain point, I decided it wasn't me, and I had to turn my life around. . . . I know I cannot achieve chastity alone, because it's not a natural virtue. It is a supernatural virtue, and I need Christ to achieve chastity."

Since joining Courage in the mid-1990s, he has attended daily mass and weekly confession. He prays to Mary and "St. Michael the archangel, who defends us in battle."

Julie, 42, of Tucson, Ariz., who asked that only her first name be used, said that while relationships with women satisfied a need, they felt addictive, obsessive and unhealthy.

She returned to her hometown and tried chastity on her own. Her mother gave her an article about Courage, but it was four years before she wrote her first message on the group's Internet discussion board in 1999.

She said she has found healing online, both from her friends and from the newcomers she goes in to welcome.

She said she doesn't preach the Courage message to people who aren't ready to hear it.

"I apply the 12-step line and live and let live," she said of her gay friends. "I pray for them. . . . They claim to be happy. I don't know. The only thing I know is my own experience. I know the church is a loving, gentle parent to me, and I am able to listen to that church and accept what it is teaching me."

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