By Lou Baldwin
Special to The CS&T

VILLANOVA – The 21st annual Courage Conference got off to an excellent start at Villanova University on July 9 with a Mass celebrated by Cardinal Justin Rigali.

“Please accept my deepest admiration and appreciation for your presence here today,” the Cardinal told the delegates at St. Thomas of Villanova Church. “Let this be days of grace for you, days of joy, days of resting in the Lord who is ever close to you and sustains you by the gift of the Eucharist.”

Courage, founded in the Archdiocese of New York in 1980 with the encouragement and support of the late Cardinal Terence Cooke, ministers to men and women with same-sex attraction, assisting them and encouraging them to live chaste lives in accordance with Church teaching.

The conference also invited members of the related group Encourage, a ministry within Courage dedicated to the spiritual needs of parents, siblings, children and other relatives of persons with same-sex attractions.

When the organization was first founded, it was mostly centered on the East Coast in New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Washington, according to Oblate of St. Francis de Sales Father John Harvey, the founder and long-time executive director and guiding force for the group.

Growth was slow, but gradually new chapters developed around the country, with new groups springing up.

New York has three groups; there are a number in the South, and a very strong group in St. Paul, Minn., he said.

Canada also has some very active groups, and “Courage is moving ahead, especially overseas,” said Father Harvey. “We’re doing very well in Australia, Melbourne especially.

“I’ve been to England, Ireland, Hong Kong, Singapore, Mexico, Trinidad and Slovakia,” he said.

“Bill,” a Philadelphia member who worked on site selection, said there were about 270 people in attendance at the conference, including delegates from as far away as Australia.

A 10-year member himself, he said, “It helps me keep my life in order. It helps me deal with what I have to deal with in a religious way.”

Father Vaughan Quinn, an Oblate of Mary Immaculate who has been director for Courage in Toronto since 1992, termed Courage “a tough ministry.”

“Its strength isn’t in great numbers,” he said, but “it is the faith of the few people. The grace is the joy that comes from within. It is really needed in Toronto where we have the biggest Gay Pride parade in North America.”

The conference itself “is a battery charger,” Father Quinn said. “The Cardinal’s presence here gives recognition and shows support for the people who come here.”

“The Mass was beautiful,” observed “Jonah,” who came down from New York.

“The conference got off to a good start with the Cardinal. I’ve been involved with Courage since 2002,” he said. “It’s a marvelous organization. We are just trying to live out the teachings of the Church with good conscience.”

“Jerry,” who flew in from Dallas, has been a Courage member for about the same length of time. “Our group is thriving. We have about 15 members and meet twice a month,” he said. “It’s more than uplifting; it’s a way of life. Courage is my rock.”

The keynote address for the conference was given by Father Paul Check of Bridgeport, Conn., who is the incoming executive director for the group. He focused his talk on St. Joseph, the chaste spouse of the Blessed Virgin and foster father to Jesus as a role model. “How much we need him as a strong father,” Father Check said. “In him we find all of the virtues.”

Other speakers at the three-day conference included Father Harvey and Father Benedict Groeschel of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, as well as other experts who minister or work with the homosexual community.

Lou Baldwin is a member of St. Leo Parish and a freelance writer.