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Today’s post is written by a guest blogger: Deacon Ray Dever of St. Paul Catholic Church, Tampa, Florida.
On this first Sunday after Christmas, the Church observes the feast of the Holy Family. And with that observance inevitably comes reflection on the nature and meaning of the Catholic family today. Many within the Church still seem to hold an idealized and increasingly inaccurate vision of what a Catholic family looks like, in spite of the growing diversity of the families that comprise the people of God. As one who would count my own family among that diversity, the topic of Catholic family holds considerable personal interest for me.
In the fall of 2013, at the beginning of our son’s sophomore year at Georgetown University, Washington, DC, he came out as transgender. In doing so, she became one of only three openly trans* students at Georgetown at the time. This happened just a few weeks after the now famous Pope Francis interview that made “Who am I to judge?” part of our vernacular. And with those events, my family found ourselves plunged into all the questions and issues that Catholic families with LGBTQ children face. [Editor’s note: The term “trans*” is used as a “catch-all” word for the diverse forms of gender identities (other than the traditional male/female binary) that exist in humanity.]
In our case, there was at least one notable difference. Besides being a husband, father, and professional engineer, I’m a permanent deacon in the Catholic Church, having been ordained in 2009. When the topic of married clergy comes up, many Catholics are taken aback when they’re told that the Church already has married clergy, mostly in the person of the approximately 18,000 permanent deacons in the US. I can’t imagine what they would think if they realized there are Catholic clergy whose families include LGBTQ children!
Our journey has probably not been very different than the journey of any family with an LGBTQ child. It really began with our daughter descending into a deep depression during high school. We would learn more about depression and mental illness, about suicidal ideations and self-injurious behavior, about therapists and anti-depressant medications than we ever could have imagined or wanted. That journey would eventually lead to questions of gender identity that were intimately connected with her mental health struggles.
When our daughter came out, my wife and I experienced the full range of thoughts and emotions that any parents do in that situation – shock at the news, a lack of understanding of gender issues, conflict with what the Church teaches about human sexuality, confusion and guilt about what we should do as parents, profound sadness at what felt like the loss of our son, fear and worry for what the future would hold for her. There were arguments, sleepless nights, and prayers – lots of prayers.
We slowly came to the realization that we hadn’t lost the person who had been our son. In fact, in many respects we got our child back, as she embraced her gender identity and emerged from the depths of depression. All the creativity, humor, empathy, and intelligence that make her an exceptional person are still there and are shining through stronger than ever. And I’d like to think that the acceptance of her immediate and extended Catholic family have played some part in that positive transformation.
However, family support for LGBTQ children is obviously not the rule, and is often problematic for Catholic families in particular, given the mixed and often confusing messages they hear from the Church regarding LGBTQ issues. A few months ago I had the privilege of visiting with the LGBTQ Resource Center and the Catholic chaplain’s office at Georgetown. While I was surprised and gratified by the warm welcome that I received as an interested, supportive parent of an LGBTQ student, I was saddened to hear that I was the exception and that there were far too many stories of families rejecting their LGBTQ children and of causing tremendous pain and family divisions.
While I am certainly not qualified or authorized to speak for the Church on LGBTQ issues, I have been commissioned by the Church through ordination to proclaim and to preach the Gospel. And if one thing is crystal clear in the public ministry and teachings of our Lord, it is that everyone is included in His love and mercy and forgiveness, and that we are all called to do the same. For those Catholic families with LGBTQ children that are struggling with what they should do, I would suggest that they look to the Holy Family. Look to the love embodied in the Incarnation, a love like no other, and embrace your children. As the Church calls us to do first and foremost, follow your conscience, love own another, and especially love your children.
–Deacon Ray Dever, St. Paul Catholic Church, Tampa, Florida
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