by Cathy Pankiewicz – originally published in New Wine Press
A few years ago Facebook led me to a lovely post from a woman who wrote about the travels she had anticipated upon the birth of her first child and the one she actually took. Her child was born with Down Syndrome, and the figurative trip to Paris she imagined quickly became one just as lovely, but entirely different. She had fancied a voyage she and baby would take together. It would be one with a mix of blue skies and choppy waters for sure, but nothing the love boat she was in with her daughter couldn’t weather well. It would be like cruising the Seine and seeing the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre on the shore. They would enjoy croissants and cafe au lait on deck. It would be nothing short of “magnifique.” As time went on, the mother realized that her boat had been blown far off course. Instead of saiIing the Seine through Paris, she was heading into the canals of Amsterdam. She felt unprepared. The climate was different than she had anticipated. She had none of the right clothes. The map she had packed was useless and she became frightened. She was lost.
I could relate. Parenting took me in directions I did not understand and into choppy waters much too deep for my daughter, Julia and me. It was a far different journey than I had anticipated when I held her in my arms after her birth.
On February 20th, the LGBT committee of the Missionaries of the Precious Blood offered a daylong workshop on LGBT issues in light of the Synod on the Family. Having attended with approximately 40 others, I was invited to reflect not only on my parenting journey with a gay child, but also on the journey my Catholic Church is on. Here are some of my thoughts.
A quick peek into our traditionally untraditional family shows Tom and me in a boat with our five children. This boat has sailed to and docked in many places. Some were beautiful. Some were terrifying. Some we handled well and others we did not. But we always knew that our family had to get back in the boat, that the journey was not over, and that we could never be sure in what direction the winds would blow us. In fact, though the kids are gone from the house, we seem still at sea. The currents continue taking us into new waters as in-laws have joined us in recent years and a son was ordained a priest. They are “Always our Children,” as the Catholic bishops say, gay or straight. And the rough waters our children face as adults often bring us to the edge of the family boat, watching them gasp for air as we try to toss life jackets, because we will always love them whatever their age or difficulty.
This past weekend my husband Tom and I set sail for a Day of Reflection and Prayer sponsored by the LGBT committee of the Missionaries of the Precious Blood. We boarded a slightly larger ship than our own. We found it filled with parents, priests, nuns, and the holy lay faithful who love the Church and love a gay person, or are gay themselves. We boarded the ship that is the Church—the one that seems to float along peacefully one day and nearly capsize the next in the choppy seas that are Catholic life for LGBT families. It was a day of calming sounds, of bird song and storytelling, of sharing experiences and being the Church that Pope Francis calls, ”a place where families of origin and families of choice are celebrated as an integral part of God’s family.”
Steering the boat were Frank DeBernardo, and Sister Jeannine Grammick of New Ways Ministries. Though smiling and full of enthusiasm, the course they have sailed has not been without stormy seas, especially within the very Catholic Church they still belong to and love. I found myself thinking how easily both could have walked away, how both have been denied Holy Communion, how painful it must be to be portrayed by some as heretics and infidels. Yet there they were, working hard for people like Julia, for parents like me and Tom, and for priests and lay people who are in the “field hospitals” Pope Francis talks about. Their holiness and love of the Lord was clear. The tempests they have endured so patiently seemed only to have strengthened their resolve. There was no anger towards the Church, no snide comments, nothing but their selfless dedication to the belief in the preciousness of ALL blood. Saturday we sailed in the gentle breezes of conversation, prayer, and education. Before our session, I googled New Ways Ministries and, as expected, found a range of reactions, everything from condemnations from some clergy and laity to and miles and miles of postings from Catholic families expressing deep gratitude for the bravery and persistence of Frank and co-founder Sister Jeannine—who continue the work of Father Robert Nugent, who has gone to the Lord.
Several years ago, our daughter’s life nearly ended, not with cancer or a car accident, but by her own hand. She had lived too long with the fear that there was no safe space, no safe ship, no safe port, and no room for her in the Catholic Church. I have no idea whether she will ever want to be part of our Catholic Church again. It makes me sad to think that she probably won’t. And the situation has had a dramatic effect on her brothers and sisters who struggle to know the roles they are to play in the Church. If the storms like those that Julia faced a few years ago lead others to safe harbor, it will be only be because people like Frank and Sister Jeannine never stopped sailing their own ships of reconciliation, allowing her story to be told in our Church and world—despite the Mayday warnings of many.
Tom’s and my boat is back in the normal waters that are daily life. Saturday was a lovely respite from feeling like we should be doing more…or doing less…or doing something else with regard to the LGBT issue. It was a trip into a safe space where we knew our daughter and all like her would have felt the love of extended family. I must say, after Saturday, our little boat seems a bit roomier. We are blessed to be part of the Precious Blood Family. Far from standing on the pier with cold drinks in their hands and waving “Bon Voyage!” our Precious Blood family is in the boat with us, helping us stay afloat through blustery doubts and fears that all LGBT families face. Our Precious Blood Fathers and Sisters could simply throw us a copy of the Catechism and tell us to get to Mass this Sunday. Fortunately, like Saint John the XXIII and Pope Francis, they remind us that they are on the journey WITH us as they extol the “ancient teaching of the medicine of mercy in an era when many in the Church prefer the narrow path of severity and condemnation.”
Oh yes, I almost forgot. Sister Jeannine would want me to remind all of us that the Sisters of Loretto are the boat with us, too, along with the Adorers of the Blood of Christ, the Mercy Sisters and others. This boat just keeps getting bigger and bigger. And I thank God for that.