(OSV News) — In the spring of 2016, Susan — a social worker in Florida — made a crucial decision.
“I said to myself, ‘I will never date another woman again. I’m done. I’m absolutely finished with it,'” she told OSV News.
The resolution came after what she called “31 years of life in and out of (same-sex) relationships,” as well as “all the lifestyle and many, many gay pride events” — including a pride parade she’d helped organize in a major city.
Raised Catholic, Susan, 61, had experienced same-sex attraction since junior high school, she said. Jesuit priests at her college counseled her to practice chastity and celibacy, and while a student, she threw herself into campus ministry as her faith “started coming alive.”
But after graduation, the pull of attraction to her female friends led to her first same-sex dating experience. For the next three decades, she found herself torn between two very different worlds.
“I loved Jesus, but I loved the lifestyle too,” said Susan, who asked OSV News to withhold her last name for work reasons. “And I didn’t know how to make the two meet.”
After a long struggle of trying to do just that — juggling same-sex relationships with at least monthly church attendance — she ended up single and starting over at a new job in Florida, where it was “just God and I,” she said.
A parish subscription to Formed, an online Catholic content platform, led her to a video describing an organization she’d never come across before: Courage International, a Catholic apostolate that supports same-sex attracted men and women living chastely according to church teaching.
“I watched the video, and I was like, ‘That’s me,'” said Susan.
Founded in 1980 by Oblate Father John Harvey, the Connecticut-based Courage organization has 340 chapters worldwide and 236 priest chaplains.
In November 2016, the apostolate — which was formed at the suggestion of Cardinal Terence Cooke of New York — received canonical status in the Catholic Church as a diocesan public association of the faithful, making it the only canonically approved apostolate of its kind.
The EnCourage apostolate was established in 1987 to provide pastoral care to families of loved ones with same-sex attraction and gender dysphoria. Both Courage and EnCourage have significantly expanded into Latin America in recent years, creating more than 40 chapters for Spanish and Portuguese speakers.
Through prayer and fellowship, both apostolates assist members in living out Catholic doctrine, which holds that humans are created as a profound unity of body and soul.
The church teaches that “men and women with homosexual tendencies ‘must be accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided,'” according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church. It also teaches that sexual love is reserved for marriage between a man and woman.
According to its website, Courage “understands the complexity of same-sex attraction” and describes itself as a “pro-chastity ministry” rather than one that attempts to “pray away the gay.”
Courage participants focus on five key goals developed by the apostolate’s founding generation: to live chaste lives; dedicate themselves to Christ and others through the sacraments, prayer and service; foster a spirit of fellowship; cultivate chaste friendships; and set good examples for others.
In the process, members realize “we are all broken,” and that “one thing unites every Catholic across the world: We have an experience of the cross,” Father Kyle Schnippel, acting director of Courage and a Cincinnati archdiocesan priest, told OSV News.
The ministry helps members to overcome feelings of being “singled out” by the church, and to see their struggles for chastity in solidarity with the sufferings of others, he said.
“I’ve had people say to me, ‘You chose celibacy, but this was foisted upon me,'” said Father Schnippel. “But I have had problems foisted upon me, as have others. Yet whether you’re single, married, widowed or divorced … (the question is) where is Jesus bearing fruit in chaste living according to your state of life?”
Member Paul Darrow — a former fashion model who admittedly lived in the fast lane and who has become a prominent ambassador for the ministry — told OSV News that while “you don’t become chaste overnight,” Courage “gave (him) hope.”
“I was a sex addict to the nth degree,” said Darrow, who was drawn back to the Catholic faith in which he’d been raised after stumbling upon broadcasts by the late Mother Angelica, the Poor Clare who founded the Eternal Word Television Network.
Through Courage, Darrow began to see a means of “(breaking) free of the chains of lustful desire.”
Garrett Johnson, a 50-year-old hairstylist in the Washington area, told OSV News he was not “living the life anymore,” but “still had problems with pornography” when he learned of Courage.
“I realized that was incompatible with my faith,” he said, admitting that he “really wasn’t comfortable at first” with “the idea of being accountable to men and being friends with men,” from whom he had insulated himself to avoid further hurt.
“Over the past 10 years, I’ve just gone through many different stages of learning what that means and learning how to let God love me and learn to love people and accept them,” said Johnson. “It continues to be very difficult and challenging, but I know it’s what God wants for me … to learn how to love and be loved.”
“Courage provides us with truth and the tools to live the way Christ has always taught us to live,” said Darrow.
The ministry’s meetings and retreats “are like going through the seminary,” and its catechetical approach is infused with “expressions of love and acceptance,” he said.
“Listening to men and women speaking with such raw honesty about battling their deepest, darkest desires can be pretty emotional and intense,” Darrow admitted. “But it’s so gloriously uplifting to be with those making such huge sacrifices — and not for any other reason than their enormous love for God.”
“Courage has literally saved my soul,” said Susan. “The unconditional love we get from the priests is absolutely amazing. They want to help us, to hear our stories and to minister to us. … It’s unconditional love like you’ve never experienced in your life.”
Gina Christian is a national reporter for OSV News. Follow her on Twitter at @GinaJesseReina.