On Thanksgiving weekend of 1983, Casey Lopata and his wife, Mary Ellen, began a spiritual journey that ultimately strengthened their family and their lifelong commitment to Catholicism.
They discovered they had to navigate an emotional minefield: Their eldest son, Jim, a college sophomore home for the holiday, told Mary Ellen: "Mom, I'm lonely. I'm lonely for another man."
The next 10 minutes were an agonizing blur of fear and grief for Mary Ellen, who cried as she told Jim she loved him and assured him being gay didn't change that.
"Then why are you crying?" he asked.
"I don't know," Mary Ellen confessed.
The next morning, Jim told his father, a self-described "thinker" who uncharacteristically ran out of questions after "Are you sure?" and "Can you change?"
"For me, as a thinker," Casey recalls, "the key question was, 'Can Jim be gay and be Catholic?'"
It took the Rochester, N.Y., couple nine years to become comfortable being open about having a gay son. They never abandoned their son or their church.
Eventually, Mary Ellen wrote a book, "Fortunate Families," to share the stories of Catholics coming to terms with their gay children. She and Casey founded a group, also named Fortunate Families, to help such parents feel less alone and to transform their church.
"We believe we are the church. And if we didn't work to have our children recognized as whole and holy members of the church, then we are complicit with the injustice," Mary Ellen says of the Catholic Church's official anti-gay position. "So if we stay, we must speak."
A groundbreaking report by Fortunate Families, based on its survey of 229 Catholic parents with gay children, concludes: "Parents love their (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) children, and they love their church. But they do not see their love, or God's unconditional love, reflected in how the institutional church relates to their LGBT sons and daughters." (Go to: fortunatefamilies.com.)
Catholic parents now learning their child is gay report higher initial levels of comfort than parents who learned five or more years ago. And Catholic parents who know another parent with a gay son or daughter are "significantly more comfortable" with their child's orientation than are isolated parents.
The parents are far more likely to call gay-friendly P-FLAG, New Ways Ministry and Fortunate Families "very helpful" than to say that about their parishes.
One mom with a gay son lamented: "I do not feel the Catholic Church offers any support with our children. I remain a Catholic only because of the Mass and the Eucharist."
The survey found that "through their journeys to understanding, parents' initial fears and tears have been transformed into ire and fire." That change is reflected in one mother's vow that she and her husband "will spend our last breath carrying the message that God loves each of his precious children — and we do, too."
Casey Lopata encourages Catholic parents of gay children to "never to stop telling your story. That is the greatest witness you can make."
Having a gay son is a gift, he believes, one that made him a more loving dad and vibrant Catholic.
As countless Catholic parents embrace their children's homosexuality, they are learning to see their families as fortunate indeed.
Deb Price of The Detroit News writes the first nationally syndicated column on gay issues. To find out more about Deb Price and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at www.creators.com.