The Ups and Downs and Ups of a Parents’ Support Group

Today’s post is by guest blogger Paula Mattras, a 77-year old grandmother from Fort Myers, Florida, who is also a retired U.S. State Department employee and the mother of a gay son.

The dawning of a new reality came into my life in 1991 when my older son told me that he is gay.  Gay!  How could that be?  My husband (deceased 6 years prior) and I were cradle Catholics and I was totally ignorant of the subject of homosexuality.  I did not know it was possible that we could have produced a gay son.

My first instinct was that I needed to protect him (somehow) from people at his work who might hold that against him and either hurt him or get him fired; from relatives and friends who might find out and then shun him and/or all of us; from my co-workers who would turn their backs on me and get me fired from my own work.  With the exception of one of his aunts, none of this ever happened, and in time she has come around.  But it took a long time for me to confide in anyone, as the only reference in church I had heard came from a priest who said homosexuals go to hell.

After about four years, I confided my “secret” to a good friend who led me to PFLAG which is dedicated to educating parents and friends of GLBT people–a real lifeline.  40-45 people attended each meeting and a minimum half of them were Catholics.  We met at the Jewish Confederation office where we were warmly welcomed.  It was a relief and refreshing to be in a group where we all had experienced the same phenomenon in our families.

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Paula Mattras

For several years, though, the thought kept nagging me that a support group for families was needed in my own Catholic parish.  I still longed to hear positive statements in a Catholic setting, from a priest, on Catholic property.  Eventually I worked up the courage to approach my pastor.  And guess what?  He agreed with me!  “Yes, start such a support group,” he said.

Attendance was small and varied, but we were all happy to get to know one another and share our stories.   Some gay couples attended, and they answered any questions we had.  When a new set of parents would arrive, they would glance around nervously, but once the personal stories began, tensions simply melted away.  Sharing honestly is very healing.  Our pastor participated a few times and reassured parents that God loves all His children–all.  Who had ever heard that in a Catholic setting before?  We hadn’t.

Once Blessed Pope John (now St. John XXIII) parish was established in my Fort Myers, Florida, neighborhood, I transferred to it.  After waiting to hear what sort of messages would be received regarding our GLBT population, and hearing none, I once again drew up the courage to pursue establishment of another support group.  Based on the message of the USCCB document, Always Our Children, our pastor gave me the green light to proceed.

Again, the group was always small, anywhere from one to five couples, but parents were thrilled that we had such a group in our parish that was non-judgmental, truly listening, accepting and reflecting the love that our Lord has for all his children.  New parents came with worried faces and left with joyful faces.  Love and acceptance are transforming.

The first question parents usually ask is “What did we do wrong?”  Hearing the answer to that question is the first step in parental healing.  The answer:  “Nothing.  They are always our children, created in the image and likeness of God.”

Three years later, a woman who had a lesbian sister arrived at our meeting.  Within minutes it was evident that she did not come for support but rather to tell us how sinful homosexuality was and how wrong we were about the issue.  She wanted to be able to hand her sister a note outlining the steps she needed to take to rid herself of the notion that she was lesbian.  She took up most of the evening.

Not long after that that our deacon and I went to the diocesan office to discuss broadening the scope of support groups like ours to other parishes in our diocese.   I was asked if I “taught” church teaching on the subject and I said that our group was a support group for parents and families, and that I would ask them to speak with a priest about the teachings.  Our mission was to listen to lived experiences and to confirm that our Lord loves ALL His children – no exceptions.

In the meantime, the woman who thought homosexuality was sinful wrote to the bishop about our group, and her opinion was that we were not offering proper church teaching on the subject.  Shortly thereafter, our pastor received a letter from the bishop effectively shutting down our group. The priests were to have nothing to do with our group, which could no longer meet at the parish.

So once again Catholic parents of GLBT children here have found themselves with no parish-sponsored support group.  Word has gotten around about our former group, though, and so when some parents learn about their children’s orientations, they call me, and we meet in my home.

My faith in God’s goodness is unshakeable.  My faith in some Church representatives here on earth is badly shaken, however.  It saddens me that I can hold such a thought but I have to be honest about it.

The good news is that there are many prelates in the hierarchy who have been listening, hearing, observing and learning.  They, too, have begun to question past pronouncements and judgments, their own included.  The recent vote in Ireland, where 90% of the population received their education from Catholic institutions, clearly demonstrates the awakening of honest, personal conscience.

Yes, the Spirit is alive and well and I take heart that one day–hopefully soon– our little support group will be reinstated.  Until then, we continue to minister as we can.

–Paula Mattras

15 Responses to The Ups and Downs and Ups of a Parents’ Support Group

  1. Jerry Baumeister, PhD says:

    Dear Mrs. Mattras, on behalf of all the gay sons and daughters who have been shunned, cut off and abandoned by their families, I want to thank you for standing up for your son and even going one step furthur. I know it wasn’t easy for you and I applaud you for putting the love for your child first. Your son is a very lucky man to have you for a mother. God bless you.

    • Paula Mattras says:

      Dear Jerry – How precious of you to write such a thoughtful note. Thank you………..and keep the faith. The spirit is a movin’………… Joy and gentle blessings…… Paula

  2. Joanne MacPeek says:

    Dear Paula,
    Today’s gospel is about the deaf man that JESUS heals…may you continue to hear the Word of God and live it as you reach out and share Christ among us! Thank you for your being a witness of the love of God present here and sometimes in the formal setting of church.

  3. Erma Durkin says:

    An excellent story of a mother’s love for her gay son that led her to want to organize a support group for other parents of GLBT children. It took courage to speak to her pastor, asking permission to do this in their Parish.
    And, it took Faith and courage again when one negative letter to the bishop about her meetings with parents resulted in the closing down of the support group. The story gives evidence of the power of one person to organize a force for Good, or, the ability of one poorly informed person – along with the bishop’s fears – to destroy this path to understanding. Thank God for good parents like Paula Mattras who know and love their children as God loves them, and are willing to stand up for them.

  4. SFPalladin says:

    Brilliant article!

  5. Loretta Ftzgerald says:

    Dear Paula,
    You’ve encouraged me to approach my pastor about forming a group here in Greensboro. I recently resigned my teaching position in the Catholic high school because I could not share that my son had married his partner of 14 years. Like you, I yearn to meet on Catholic grounds to listen and share with Catholic parents who have been so blessed with a gay son or daughter.
    Thanks so much for your story.

  6. Paula Mattras says:

    To all of you wonderful people who are making comments: thank you so much. While I am not so savvy with modern technology, it is heartening to hear your words………I hear the “experience” of hurt, of injustice and of longing for a day when these causes are a thing of the past. Be strong and be joyful knowing that the Good Lord loves you just the way you were created. It just seems to take some folks longer to understand since the first step is wanting to understand through study, listening and truly hearing and learning. Strong opinions about issues aren’t always opinions based on knowledge, but rather “that’s what I think.” Be kind to one another, there are many who now do understand. Joy and gentle blessings, Paula

  7. Susan says:

    A great article. I am trying to start a support group in my parish. You are an inspiration!

    • Paula Mattras says:

      Good luck to you, Susan. I hope that you will be pleasantly surprised by the reception your idea will generate. Keeping you all in my prayers. Joy and gentle blessings…….. Paula M.

  8. Karyn Jacobs says:

    Thank you so much for your article, Paula. We have had a support group for parents at Santa Maria del Mar Catholic parish in Palm Coast, FL (Diocese of St. Augustine)
    You are a long way from us, but if you are ever in this area, please get in touch. I would love to meet you.

  9. Andrew & Kathleen Conneen says:

    Dear Paula, 10 years ago, as parents of a 23 year old gay son, my husband and I joyfully started a parish support group for parents and families of Catholic LGBT children. We had the backing of our pastor(s) and even advertised the meetings in the weekly bulletin. We, too, took steps to introduce this concept as a model for the Archdiocese, but our efforts never went beyond the initial meeting with Archdiocesan representative priests.
    Our story is almost identical to yours, small group of single parents, usually mothers, parent couples and gay parishioners. The parents/family usually first arrived worried and often embarrassed, but left our meetings with joyful, optimistic hearts. We, too, had the experience of a very conservative Catholic couple who came looking for support to help get their adult son “back on the path to God.” This visit also resulted in their complaints to the Archbishop and the same process of banishing our group for not holding to the strict Church teachings about our “disordered” children.
    Happily the ad for our group continued to be carried, somewhat buried, on the parish web-site and we were occasionally contacted by other parents seeking listening hearts and sincere encouragement. We take comfort that during the 7 years of our group meetings, hearts were opened and lives touched, realizing God loves ALL His children with no exception.
    It pleases us to read of recent and current support groups in other parishes throughout the country. We encourage these group leaders and participating members to remember that “It Only Takes a Spark to Get a Fire Going.” The local hierarchy tried to extinguish our fire, but the Holy Spirit has kept the embers smoldering. Recognition, inclusion and acceptance remain our hope and prayer for the “future” church.

  10. Paula Mattras says:

    Dear Andrew and Kathleen, Thank you for your encouraging words……..and great good luck to you as you continue to “follow the call” to support our beloved GLBT members and their families. Your note echos my sentiments exactly. And I am certain that it resonates with all GLBT families who are open to learning that what they already know about their loved ones is a universal truth. Wishing you and your group showers of gentle joys and blessings. I loved your analogy of the “spark” as I spent two months out west this summer. So appropo. Paula M.

  11. Dena Walter Reger says:

    Paula:

    Last year as the proud mom of a wonderful gay son, I started an LGBT ministry at the Church of the Precious Blood in Monmouth Beach, New Jersey with the support of a very accepting pastor. We have experienced further acceptance from the parish and especially the parish council. We publish the monthly meeting in several local bulletins but realized that despite being present at the 2015 New Jersey Pride festival, we had not really done much to reach out to LGBT Catholics and their families who may have stopped going to Mass as a result of hearing negative messages. We needed an event that could be publicized.

    With that in mind, we have invited Father Warren Hall to speak at our next meeting. Father Hall, a gay Catholic Priest who is the former Campus Minister at Seton Hall University at the center of university’s LGBT controversy will be speaking in the Parish Center located behind the Church of the Precious Blood, 72 Riverdale Avenue, Monmouth Beach, NJ 07750. His message is one of positivity and encouragement. He is currently assigned to St. Peter and Paul Church in Hoboken, New Jersey, as parochial vicar.

    Precious Blood’s LGBT Faith Sharing Ministry welcomes and supports lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) Catholic persons, their family and friends. We share our faith through prayer, scripture and dialogue. We seek to engage the larger community in recognizing that we are all members of God’s family and that we each have a place at the Table of the Lord.

    We pray that our group will make the difference in someone’s life!

    Thank you for sharing your story!
    Dena Walter Reger

    • Thanks for sharing this news, Dena. Would you like to offer the date and time so that any blog readers nearby might attend?

      • paulaczech@comcast.net says:

        Thank you so much for your beautiful letter and congratulations on your successes……..you are lights to the world. I shall pray for you and trust the the loving words and deeds that you and your parish continue to lavish on your community will be felt throughout our country. The Spirit is movin’………….. Joy and gentle blessings. Paula M.

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