This is a love story, shaped by sadness, pain and hope,
and it began in November 1983 when a 19-year-old boy sat down with his mother
on their living room sofa and with tears in his eyes, said, “Mom, I’m lonely.
I’m lonely for another man.”
As the mother, Mary Ellen Lopata of Rochester, N.Y.,
tells the story, her son, Jim, wasn’t referring to any man in particular. His
words, “I’m lonely,” simply described his experience of longing for
companionship as a gay man. Lopata recounts that it took years from that
encounter for her to face and process her pain and years longer before she had
the courage to share her story with others. “I was shocked and confused. I
cried and cried.”
That moment marked the beginning of what for Lopata has
been a 25-year journey that has done nothing less than revolutionize her life,
and give solace to countless other gay and lesbian children and their parents.
Lopata’s conversion -- and that’s what it was -- has, by the accounts of many,
reshaped the way countless Catholics, and in some cases their bishops, view
and receive gay and lesbian persons.
At first Lopata, echoing stories of other Catholic
parents of gay and lesbian children, felt isolated. Her son, she said, was the
first gay person she had ever known, and just by being himself he challenged
the stereotypes she had of gay people.
“The only thing I knew for sure was that I loved my son.
Everything else was confusion. Why did this happen? How did it happen? Am I to
blame? What does this mean for Jim ... for his family? Is this a sin? What
about church? How can we ever tell our friends?”
If knowing other gay persons was a stretch, knowing their
parents seemed a further impossibility. She started to research the subject at
her local library, being careful not to be too public about the books she was
checking out. She said little to outsiders.
-- NCR photo/Thomas C. Fox: Casey and
Mary Ellen Lopata offer information about Fortunate Families at the 2008
Call to Action conference in November.
It was in 1987 that Lopata took another step. Her parish
decided to hold a workshop on homophobia and homosexuality. She worked behind
the scenes to publicize it. “The most important thing that workshop did was to
break the silence around homosexuality. I came away from that experience
knowing that if I loved my son as I said I did, I could not remain silent.
Somewhere along the way, I began to realize what a special gift Jim is to me,
to our family, and the whole body of Christ -- not in spite of, but because he
That’s the conversion, or core insight, that comes to
most parents of gay and lesbian children.
Lopata and her husband, Casey, got increasingly involved
in gay and lesbian organizations: New Ways Ministry; Parents, Families and
Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG); and Dignity.
In 2004, the Lopatas, attempting to fill a gap in the gay
and lesbian persons network, formed Fortunate Families, based in Rochester,
with the mission of ministering to Catholic parents of lesbian, gay, bisexual
and transgender children. It has grown since, becoming a national network that
reached out with support and encouragement. As Fortunate Families states: “We
connect parents to work for welcome and justice in the church for their
lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) children.”
Fortunate Families offers counseling, retreats and days
of reflection for parents of LGBT children. It sends out a monthly newsletter
that reaches some 2,100 people in seven countries on the Internet and by
postal mail. It maintains a Web site, the hub of its networking information
Catholic parents of LGBT children are not just grateful
for the organization, they are fervently so.
Terri and Rich Dalke, parents of a gay son, wrote in an
e-mail: “Fortunate Families supports us as we value and treasure our family
story, learn to speak it and share it with our friends, our family and our
faith family. ... Casey and Mary Ellen are the lifeblood of Fortunate Families
... prophets of our day.”
Deb Word, mother of a gay son, wrote: “Casey and Mary
Ellen have great insight and a wealth of resource materials. By keeping in
touch with Catholic parents on a monthly basis through their newsletters they
remind us that the struggle still goes on in other homes. They remind us of
the need to reach out to our church fathers, to tell our stories, to ‘put a
face’ on the issue that our church would sometimes like to sweep under the
Part of the Fortunate Families culture involves
encouraging parents to honor, value and share their stories to break the
silence of isolation and oppression. “Once parents reach a point of
understanding and affirmation of their LGBT daughter or son,” Mary Ellen
Lopata said, “we encourage them to channel their frustration and anger --
which is part of the journey -- into constructive action to educate others,
especially in the church, about the whole and holy lives of gay and lesbian
people, and then to stand together for justice.
“Parents are in a unique position to make a difference.
Others may not agree with us, but no one, no institution can deny our
experience. It is essential that parents first let those in authority know
what it is like for parents of LGBT daughters and sons in the Catholic church;
and second, be out-and-proud role models for other parents who may not yet
know they have an LGBT daughter or son.”
Word says her son is a musician who teaches in urban
minority schools. She writes that having a gay child has opened her eyes to
other gay children in her parish and diocese who “can’t be out with their own
parents.” She is more “out,” she adds, than her son, “because I feel like I
can be an activist in ways a gay schoolteacher can’t.”
The Dalkes say that their son has provided “endless
blessings,” among them “a deeper level of intimacy and trust among the three
of us, an opportunity to face our own homophobia, to become educated, to live
our own ‘coming out’ process as parents, a deepening of our faith, and
experiences unlike any others we had ever taken.”
“The greatest burden,” they added, “was to learn that our
son was in so much pain and we didn’t know it. That he felt his choices were
to come out to us or to commit suicide. He said he felt that by coming out to
us he risked losing us forever, due to our active involvement within the
Catholic church, basing that on things he read and heard the hierarchy of the
church write and speak regarding homosexuality.”
Ten years ago, the Dalkes began their own parish ministry
called “Outstretched Hands,” ministering locally to the parents of gay sons
and lesbian daughters. “What we have learned is that there are families
further along in this process and others just beginning.”
Fortunate Families encourages Catholic parents of LGBT
children to share their stories as a means of breaking their silence. In 2003,
Mary Ellen Lopata wrote a book called Fortunate Families, a resource
book that tells parents’ stories.
To get a wider understanding of the situations of these
Catholic parents, Fortunate Families took a survey last year. Through its
growing network it sent out forms that were completed by 229 parents reporting
on 242 LGBT children. Among the principal findings were these:
* Parents are significantly more comfortable now than
when they initially learned they had a LGBT child.
* Parents who know at least one other parent of a LGBT
person are significantly more comfortable now.
* Parents with higher comfort levels are more likely to
share their stories.
* Parents said that advocating for justice in society and
church were helpful experiences.
* About half the parents said they were willing to
counsel parents of LGBT children.
* Asked if anything else would be helpful to them, one
theme eclipsed all others: Parents want the institutional church to be more
accepting of LGBT persons.
The pain and discouragement many Catholic parents of LGBT
children feel is difficult to measure from the outside. That’s why
storytelling has been so important to them. To those on the outside, some
The church has taught that homosexual acts are immoral,
and until only recently the church held that homosexuality was a chosen
lifestyle. In recent years, most scientific evidence has shown it is not
chosen, but the product of one’s genetic makeup, part of nature itself. No
matter what, the church holds that homosexual persons must remain celibate
throughout their lives.
Through the 1970s, as new understandings on homosexuality
were entering the culture, Catholic leaders issued various statements that
showed deeper understanding while offering more apparent compassion to gay and
lesbian persons. Then, in October 1986, Pope John Paul II made his first major
statement on homosexuality, marking a departure from some of the more hopeful
statements coming out of the church in the decade before.
The statement was written by then-Cardinal Joseph
Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of Faith, now Benedict
XVI. In harsh and uncompromising language, the document, “Letter to the
Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons,”
written in English (not Latin) and aimed at the U.S. church, stated: “Although
the particular inclination of the homosexual person is not a sin, it is a more
or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil; thus the
inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder. Therefore special
concern and pastoral attention should be directed to those who have this
condition, lest they be led to believe that the living out of this orientation
in homosexual activity is a morally acceptable option. It is not.”
The key is the phrase “objective disorder.” The Vatican
had not used such language before, and it outraged many. The word, in effect,
from the Vatican was that even if homosexuality is not freely chosen by each
individual, it is nevertheless inherently and objectively wrong. It’s not
merely that homosexual activity is wrong, but homosexuality itself -- the
orientation of being emotionally, psychologically and physically attracted to
members of the same sex -- that is objectively wrong.
In the years that followed, many U.S. bishops used the
document, taking a hard line on any gay or lesbian organizing in church
institutions, further marginalizing the already marginalized.
In October 1997, in part reacting to the seeming lack of
compassion toward LGBT Catholics, and getting input from people like the
Lopatas, the U.S. bishops issued a 20-page pastoral message called “Always Our
Children,” aimed at the parents of LGBT children. It is the most compassionate
and welcoming statement of its kind. It reads in part:
“Every person has an inherent dignity because he or she
is created in God’s image. A deep respect for the total person leads the
church to hold and teach that sexuality is a gift from God. Being created a
male or female person is an essential part of the divine plan, for it is their
sexuality -- a mysterious blend of spirit and body -- that allows human beings
to share in God’s own creative love and life.”
Especially encouraging to the Fortunate Family network of
parents were words that described their children as children “of God, gifted
and called for a purpose in God’s design.” The statement was supportive and
compassionate, welcoming and embracing, and came under fire from conservatives
in the church.
But the Catholic church’s continued official ambivalence
in its response to gay and lesbian persons became clear in November 2006, when
the U.S. bishops voted overwhelmingly in favor of a new document called
“Ministry to Persons with a Homosexual Inclination.” In that declaration they
asked Catholics again to welcome gay and lesbian persons into their
organizations while using words taken from the 1986 Vatican statement about
Adding to the pain felt by Catholic parents, their LGBT
children and others, Bishop Arthur J. Serratelli of Paterson, N.J., chairman
of the doctrine committee, which developed the document, admitted his
committee never consulted a gay or lesbian person before writing the paper.
To get a sense of how it was received by parents,
consider a letter written by a mother of a gay son, sent to the Lopatas about
the same time.
“This has been a 10-year journey,” the mother wrote.
“With the love and respect of those who came before us, we have been able to
move from the pain and sadness, loss and grief, to joy, courage and passion,
to have a voice in places that our son cannot, to carry the message that God’s
love is given to every person, that this precious son of ours is the same son
that we and God conceived, carried, gave birth to, and had baptized into the
Catholic family. Although he feels too tired to fight for a place at the
table, we will spend our last breath carrying the message that God loves each
of his precious children and we do too.”
In the final analysis, it’s difficult to gauge the impact
of the Fortunate Families network, the Lopatas say. “Impact is not always
tangible. We talk with people in person, or on the phone, or have e-mail
exchanges. Sometimes, not often, we hear back from them that our conversation
or the resources we had to offer were helpful in healing a relationship
between a parent and a child. Sometimes, often years later, we learn that a
parent has attained the knowledge, wisdom, confidence and tenacity to start or
be a part of a local Catholic parents of LGBT children’s group, for
faith-sharing and community. Most often we don’t know how the story ends.”
But the Lopatas are hopeful. “In the 24 years or so that
we’ve been attending and facilitating parents’ retreats and days of
reflection, the atmosphere has changed significantly. In the early years,
Kleenex stock must have done well as most parents cried and expressed their
fears. Now, stock of companies dealing in blood pressure pills must be doing
well as most parents express anger, primarily at the institutional church, for
how it treats their LGBT daughters and sons.”
Asked what parents without LGBT children do not know
about families with them, the Lopatas were quick to offer a hefty list. On the
list were these:
* Families without LGBT children may think of sexual
orientation only as a “sexual issue.” In fact, this is not about an “issue,”
but about who they are.
* They might not know of all the injustices suffered by
LGBT persons. They might not realize their duty to stand up for the rights of
all God’s children.
* Families with LGBT members know that “gay rights” are
not “special” rights, but equal rights.
* Parents without LGBT children will never know that
unique assurance that God’s love, of course, extends to an LGBT child exactly
as he or she is -- without footnotes or an asterisk. Parents of LGBT persons
experience the revelation of God’s love in unexpected ways.
* Families not blessed with LGBT children do not realize
that families with known LGBT members are fortunate families. Indeed, if you
spend much time with a group of Catholic parents of LGBT persons, a whole new
stereotype of gay people emerges -- one where gay people are paradigms of
love, caring and spirituality.
A love story, indeed.