“Coming out” at Christmas: A pastoral response to parents

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“Coming out” at Christmas: A pastoral response to parents

Amid the many joys of the Christmas season, we also come face to face with many challenges. It’s an incredibly busy time, for a start, which often leaves little time or energy for the kind of spiritual preparation that such an important feast deserves. There’s so much to get done, and then so many people to see – just as the last gift is wrapped and the last dish prepared, here comes everyone, including sons and daughters returning home for the holiday celebration. So much news, so much to catch up on. And then, in some homes – more and more these days, it seems – an unexpected announcement: “Mom, Dad … I want you to know that I’m gay.” 

Priests, deacons and pastoral ministers should be prepared, especially at this time of year, to encounter parents who have just received this news from their children, and are looking to the Church for answers and support.  How can we help them? How should we respond?   

First of all, don’t panic.  Parents will come to you with a great deal of emotion, but that’s no reason to be afraid of the situation or try to avoid it. Much less is it a reason to give a short, ambiguous answer, out of a desire not to make the situation worse – what we might call misplaced compassion. With some preparation and the ability to imagine what someone is going through, it’s entirely possible to speak clearly and compassionately, and to be of real help to these parents and, perhaps indirectly, to their loved one who has just come out.   To that end, I can offer a few talking points around which to build the conversation: 

“I understand what you’re saying, but in fact, your son/daughter did not ‘ruin Christmas’.”

It’s not possible to “ruin” the celebration of the Lord’s Nativity, unless we forget what that celebration is about: the Incarnation of the Son of God. At the heart of Christmas is the reality that God, in his great love for human beings, laid aside his glory and majesty to take on human nature.  This was not play-acting: when the Word became Flesh, he committed himself irrevocably to sharing every human experience except sin: our burdens, our weariness, our emotions, our desires, our joys and our sorrows.  He became a member of a real human family, and loved his family and friends with a real human heart, that felt real pain in the face of rejection, humiliation and loss.  The Incarnation means that no matter what shock or sorrow we are facing, Jesus Christ gets it, and desires to go through it with us. From this perspective, there’s no better time than Christmas to be going through something like this.

“I can tell that you’re hurting right now. Let’s try to understand that pain and what to do with it.”

The news that a son or daughter is experiencing same sex attractions and identifies as LGBT will certainly come as a shock to the parents.  All of the plans that they had for their children, the ideas they had about what the next few years would bring, even the basic assumptions they were making about the son or daughter’s thoughts, feelings and interior life, are all shaken by the news.  It’s important for parents to recognize where the pain is coming from if they’re going to be able to hand it over to God, and again the Nativity provides a framework for gently broaching the subject. At every turn in the Nativity story, Joseph and Mary thought they had things figured out, and then a change in plans was announced without warning.  Mary is expecting!  Off to Bethlehem!  No room in the inn!  Flee to Egypt!  The Holy Family models a docility and peace of heart that come from accepting that, while unforeseen circumstances often thwart our plans or assumptions, God also has plans for our lives and for our loved ones.  The temptation, when life seems out of control, is to cling to what power we have left and fight to have our own way. But God invites us to surrender control to him completely, and to trust him to accomplish his plans for us and our families.

“No, I’m afraid I don’t have the article/book/website/video that’s going to convince your son/daughter.”

All good parents want the same thing: to know that their children are safe and happy.  When they perceive a threat to a son or daughter’s happiness or safety (physical, emotional or spiritual), they very rightly have an instinct to fix the situation, to solve the problem, to heal the wound.  While this works very well for playground accidents, such an emergency room mentality is not a good fit for a situation like a son or daughter’s coming out. The reality of same sex attraction is profound and often complicated, a deep part of a person’s perception of self and of relationships, and is not a simple problem to be “fixed.” Indeed, there are many good resources that could help parents, and sometimes even the son or daughter who identifies as LGBT, to understand the Church’s teaching and the experience of same sex attraction – this website, for a start; the documentary Desire of the Everlasting Hills; Dan Mattson’s book Why I Don’t Call Myself Gay; and many others. However, this is not the right moment for parents to load up their child’s arms, inbox, or Christmas stocking with lots of material, hoping to talk them out of it.  To do so risks alienating the son or daughter by externalizing what is really a very personal situation, and in the process losing the opportunity to do the most important thing: to listen.

“I know it’s difficult, but let’s try to put ourselves in your son’s/daughter’s shoes, and understand what this experience is like for him/her.”

Parents don’t often consider that, although they’re just now finding out this surprising news, their son or daughter has been living with it for a long time – often, since adolescence or earlier.  Same sex attractions don’t come from God, but they also don’t come from nowhere, and very often people who experience same sex attractions are carrying other burdens: questions of self-image, of being loved and accepted, of fitting in and belonging.  It’s significant, I think, that we celebrate the Birth of Christ as happening in the middle of winter, in the middle of the night. It’s when our lives seem darkest, coldest, loneliest, that Christ enters to bring light and love.  We can help parents to share the love of Christ by encouraging them to listen patiently to the stories that their sons and daughters have to tell, and by asking gentle follow-up questions: “Are you happy?  What’s making you happy? What are you looking for? Are you finding it? How can I help?”  Compassionate communication is essential from the beginning, if parents hope to keep having an influence on their child’s life of faith.

“Work on keeping the Faith for now. There will be time to share it in the days ahead.”

One of the things that worries faithful parents the most is that, in many cases, the son or daughter who identifies as LGBT may be angry at the Church and its teachings, and may have started or threatened to abandon practicing the Faith.  At the very least this can make parents feel that they have failed in handing on the Faith, and so their instinct is to reinforce it quickly and forcefully.  But the immediate aftermath of a son or daughter’s coming out is not usually the most effective time to discuss the Church’s teaching on homosexuality and chastity in great detail.  It’s enough in many cases to say what any parent of a teenager has had to say many times: “I love you very much, and I think you’re making a bad choice here” (We’re referring to the choice to pursue same sex relationships, which involve sinful actions. Experiencing same sex attractions is not a conscious choice, and is not itself a sin).  A parent is not betraying the faith if he or she isn’t quoting the Catechism at every possible opportunity – in any case, the son or daughter is usually aware of the teaching already.  Approaching the situation from a position of listening, rather than lecturing, maintains and builds trust and mutual respect, and lays the foundation for more specific conversations in the future. 

This initial conversation with parents is just the beginning of the pastoral care that they need and deserve. Here the pastoral minister enters into a relationship of accompaniment, which requires a commitment to be available to the parents in the days, weeks and months to come, which will often bring new questions and new pain.  A support group like the EnCourage apostolate is an excellent resource to offer to parents; in an EnCourage group they will receive support and advice from other parents who have been down the road they’re just beginning to walk.  Most importantly, we need to teach them how to pray – not just vocal prayers but real reflections on the events of each day, which allow them to recognize God’s presence even in the midst of troubled situations, and to entrust themselves, their children, and all their concerns to Divine Providence.  The Incarnation teaches us that no detail of our daily lives escapes the notice and care of Almighty God. He has made himself weak in order to make us strong, and it’s in a deep relationship with him that we find healing and transformation for ourselves and those we love. 

Fr. Philip Bochanski, a priest of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, assumed the role of executive director of Courage International in January, 2017, following his tenure as associate director of the apostolate. Previously, Fr. Bochanski has served as chaplain of Philadelphia’s Courage chapter.

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