Shannon Ochoa remembers recognizing that she was attracted to women from a pretty young age.
Starting around the age of 13, Ochoa said she was “all gung-ho” for chastity talks and signing a purity promise. But she also realized that the talks she was hearing only addressed sexuality from a heterosexual perspective.
“A lot of the advice you'd get was about the opposite sex, and so when you're sitting there, crushing on your friend next to you at the women's talk, you're like, ‘Oh, what do I do?’”
For a while, Ochoa said, her strategy was to say nothing. By and large, her experience of people talking about same-sex attraction was within a political context - this was around the time that California was voting on the legalization of gay marriage.
“So I was like, ‘Well, I’m just going to shut up; not tell a soul about this,’” Ochoa told CNA.
“Because that's always helpful, right?” she joked. “Not to have a space to process?”
Eventually, through her relationship with God and others, Ochoa would come to confront her same-sex attraction and to grapple with what that meant for her as a Catholic Christian.
Today, Ochoa is one of the founders of Eden Invitation, a relatively new ministry in the Catholic Church that seeks to provide community, accompaniment and resources for people who experience same-sex attraction or gender dysphoria and who want to follow Christ and Catholic Church teaching.
“We exist to create spaces to receive the whole person, to grow systems of mutual support, and to empower for mature Christian discipleship,” Ochoa states in an introductory video for the ministry.
Both Ochoa and Anna Carter, the other founder of Eden Invitation, credit their strong faith backgrounds with providing them the framework and the love for God necessary to stay and thrive in the Catholic Church as people who experience same sex attraction.
It wasn’t really until Ochoa’s involvement with ministry on her college campus at the University of Madison Wisconsin that she “encountered the person of Jesus, in a really raw way. Where I just knew that he saw me, he knew me and he had a place for me in his Church,” she said.
While some might see Church teaching as oppressive, since it calls people with same-sex attraction to live chastely, Ochoa said she knew she could never leave the Church.
In a way, she said, she “knew too much” - she could not deny the love of God or the truth of his Church’s teachings, she said.
“I just had so many prayers where the Lord has spoken over me in intimacy, or encountering the tapestry of a Christian apology, unpacking natural law and its impact on the human person and our society, as well as our environment. It's just so deeply woven together...that’s just hard for me to deny,” Ochoa said.
Speaking about living as a Catholic with same-sex attraction had slowly become a part of her ministry. She would incorporate the Church’s teaching on this subject into bible studies she was leading, and she slowly started attracting bible study members and friends who were wrestling with the same questions she was, about how to live a fulfilling life in the Church as a Catholic experiencing same-sex attraction.
“There was a longing in my heart to know and understand my experience that didn't feel like it was being talked about in the Church, but there's also a longing in more secular spaces,” she said.
After graduating college, Ochoa worked in different ministry positions, and it was then that she met Anna Carter, who shared with her a vision for a ministry that would accompany Catholics experiencing same sex attraction or gender discordance who wanted to follow Church teaching.
“I was like discerning this and bounced it off of a few friends of mine, one of whom was Shannon, a friend from the local area,” Carter told CNA.
“And then (Shannon) said, ‘That's funny that that's what you're discerning. Let me tell you about my life,” Carter recalled.
“And it was just so beautiful, because it immediately shifted the perspective,” Carter said. “I think initially my idea was like, I'm going to speak and write about this.”
Instead, Carter and Ochoa started thinking about their experiences, and what kept them in the Church.
“Why did you stay Catholic? Why are we still here? What did we have that maybe some other people who have left the Church didn't have? What do we wish we had?” she said.
Both Carter and Ochoa agreed that they had both experienced a solid foundation of theology and formation in the Christian life, but what they longed for more of was other people who understood that experience and who would support them as friends and as Christian disciples.
“And so really out of that space came this dream and this desire to give people community, in addition to formation,” Carter said.
Eden Invitation establishes community through its weekly book clubs, which meet virtually to discuss books on various aspects of the human person from the perspective of a Christian anthropology. Currently, they are reading Pope St. John Paul II’s Apostolic Exhortation, Christifideles Laici, or “The Lay Members of Christ’s Faithful.”
They also have an online community platform, as well as occasional spiritual retreats, among other more casual gatherings.
The ministry takes what Ochoa and Carter call a “whole person” approach to human formation. The tagline on the ministry’s website reads “Eden Invitation: original personhood beyond the LGBT+ paradigm.” They want to explore not only what the Church teaches about same sex attraction, but also, “what does it mean to be human?”
“Being a member of the body of Christ, being a temple of the Holy Spirit - that is our deepest identity,” Carter said.
“We say no to certain things, because we have a really rich and dynamic yes to what it means to be a human being,” she added. They draw inspiration from other saints who lived as single people, like Dorothy Day or Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati. They talk about what it means to live a robust life as a single, chaste, lay person in the Church.
Carter said she likes to use Garden of Eden imagery in some of her talks on this topic. In the Garden of Eden in the book of Genesis, there is a tree that is off-limits to Adam and Eve: God commands that they do not touch it.
For people experiencing same sex attraction, Carter said, there is also a “tree”, so to speak, that is “100% off limits.”
“If we spend our life circling that tree and pining after that tree, of course we're not going to think there's any possibilities. Or if all of the teaching and all of the explanations about this experience is fixated on telling us over and over again, not to go to the tree, what are we going to look at? The tree!” Carter said.
“You know, but the truth is: we have the run of the garden, and that's where we'll find our vocation and mission.”
Carlos Martinez, a member of Eden Invitation, said he most appreciates the community he has found within the ministry.
“We all experience pain points and sufferings through this within the Church and outside of the Church, but having other people around you who understand what you've experienced...it's just been a testament of the beauty of what the ministry is and what Eden really strives for, which is a desire to grow in holiness with God through this.”
Martinez is from Texas but currently lives in New York City as a student at Columbia University. He said he was “shocked” when he moved to New York to see so many Catholic parishes be so open about their ministries for people on the LGBT spectrum.
“I don't say that in a negative tone,” Martinez said. It was an openness that he hadn’t yet encountered, and many of these ministries were engaged in “beautiful forms of apostolic charity” like visiting gay men’s health centers, or starting Bible studies. But a lot of the ministries Martinez encountered were more concerned with affirming his same-sex attraction, and did not emphasize true and clear Church teaching.
It was very different from his experience as a Catholic in Texas, where Church teaching was “beat like a dead horse...but then there's no community, there's no relationship with Christ through this experience.”
The ministries available to people who experience same sex attraction or gender dysphoria within the Church, and also want to follow Church teaching regarding sexuality, are few. Courage is one ministry that exists to support people with same sex attraction who want to be faithful to the Church, but Martinez said Eden Invitation appealed to him because of its whole person approach, and because its members tended to be younger than the average Courage member.
For Martinez, it took a lot of prayer and discernment to find where he felt the Lord was calling him to be.
“I would just pray for, okay, where is the Holy Spirit in all of this noise?” Martinez said. “I really want to be open about this. I want to share my testimony. I want to utilize this.”
“Through a lot of prayer and guidance from the Lord...where I think the Holy Spirit is the most present, which for me personally, is in what is being done in Eden Invitation.”
Eden Invitation is “where I find that the ministry is holding true...with what we believe within the Church, but also (seeks an) understanding of that and unpacking that more in solidarity with other men and women who experienced this, and confronting it with clergy.” he said.
On Eden Invitation retreats, Martinez said he has been able to have frank conversations with priests, who he encourages to speak more openly about how people who experience same-sex attraction can live fully as Catholics, rather than taking a one-or-the-other approach of affirmation or apologetics.
“You don't hear it in homilies, you don't hear it in a group, conversational setting with an activity or within a Bible study. The only time I was able to talk about it was through confession and through Courage,” Martinez said. “It just sucks in a way, because while we don't know why we ….like with anything, we can utilize our sufferings, our crosses, every part of who we are, we can utilize the uniqueness of what we are and how we were made in Christ.”
“Why is this just not a conversation that we can just talk about at Mass? There's fear of the backlash from the congregation, there's fear with donors, there's fear all around,” Martinez said.
“When have we ever caved to fear as a church? Did the apostles cave to fear when they were the only one who received and knew the Word of God and had to trust in the Lord to speak to the world about his good news and his glory? No.”
Martinez said he would encourage people that minister to teenagers and young adults to also be open about this topic, since most people start recognizing same sex desires or attractions at a fairly young age. He encouraged them to have open conversations about it, to be compassionate as well as clear about what the Church teaches, and to be informed about what resources are available to them, such as Eden Invitation.
He said he hoped at one point it would be easy for Catholics who experience same sex attraction to be open about their experiences and to find authentic friendships within the Church.
For Martinez, he said that within Eden Invitation, “I feel like my full, authentic self, and it has enabled me to come out to everyone. It has really been transformative for other men and women out there who experience this when I get to share my story, and people who are close with me who don't experience this.”
“It's very freeing that I can just express myself and be myself, knowing that my expressions, and the way I am joyful, and how excited I get about things, my personality, all comes from (God’s) love. It's all loving, and nothing about me, about who I am, is a defection, or is some form of rejection from God. On the contrary, it's enabling me to be closer to him.”
For Ochoa, she said Eden Invitation has given her a sense of hope and empowerment within the Church.
“It's a space to encounter joy and hopefulness. I think that's one of the markers we've seen in our community, is that there's a certain levity,” she said. “We’re not making light of the whole situation, but there’s a certain levity in just being able to laugh about some nuances of this experience.”
Additionally, and perhaps most importantly, another marker of the community, for Ochoa and others, has been “having a sense of home. Home in the Church.”