Papal honors for Father Phillip Bochanski have been announced, and the priest says they are a recognition of the Courage apostolate’s ministry for people with same-sex attraction at a time when the world and even parts of the Catholic Church are unsupportive, confusing, or hostile to their desire to live the Catholic faith in its fullness.
“In this apostolate I’ve met some of the most dedicated people I know. People who at great personal sacrifice are following Jesus with what I would say is heroic virtue,” Bochanski told CNA Nov. 26. “For me it’s been a real blessing to be able to a spiritual father to them.”
Since 2017, Bochanski has been executive director of the Bridgeport, Conn.-based Courage International. The Courage apostolate provides pastoral support, prayer support, and fellowship for people with same-sex attraction who want to live chaste lives according to Catholic teaching.
On Nov. 25, the Philadelphia archdiocese announced that Bochanski was among four people honored with the Cross Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice, an honor given to Catholics over age 45 with a history of long and distinguished service to the Church and to the office of the pope.
“The thought that the Holy Father is willing to extend the award, knowing that my nomination must have had a lot to do with my work at Courage, means a great deal to me,” Bochanski told CNA.
The Courage apostolate has grown since its founding in New York in 1980. It is currently present in more than 15 countries, with about 110 chapters in the U.S. alone. It also has an outreach to parents and spouses, called EnCourage.
Bochanski said the work of Courage includes pastoral care to people who have same-sex attraction and providing formation to clergy and others in ministry “to understand and appreciate the teachings of the Church... and to be able to explain them well.”
Bochanski reflected on the present-day difficulties in ministry related to sexual morality and same-sex attraction.
“There’s a significant amount of opposition that the Church’s teaching receives from the secular world, of course, but even in recent years it’s not always clear that everyone within the Church acknowledges and accepts the goodness and the truth of those teachings,” he said.
The priest, who was ordained in 1999 for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, said he was nominated for the papal honors by his archbishop, Charles Chaput of Philadelphia. He received a letter from Chaput informing him of the honors.
“It caught me completely by surprise,” he said. “It meant a great deal to me of course to receive it.”
A Nov. 25 statement from the Philadelphia archdiocese said Bochanski “has worked tirelessly, with compassion and great sensitivity, to advance Church teaching on human sexuality, and gained national respect for the Courage apostolate in the process.”
Bochanski voiced gratitude both to Pope Francis and to Chaput, who will bestow the Cross on the priest on the pope’s behalf at a Dec. 9 Vespers at the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul in Philadelphia .
“To know that (Chaput) notices the work I’m doing here at Courage means a great deal to me,” said Bochanski, who added that Archbishop Chaput has “always been very supportive of my participation in the apostolate.”
The Cross Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice, Bochanski said, is a reminder that the Courage apostolate is living and teaching in harmony with the Church and with the Church’s expectations for pastoral care and ministry.
He hoped the honors will provide clarity, both for Courage members and for others who “may be confused by some of the ambiguities and the controversies in the world and in the Church with regard to those teachings.”
Bochanski said the main difficulty for the Catholics in Courage is is that the secular world and some parts of the Church “don’t value the sacrifices that our members are making in terms of living chaste lives and starting to pursue holiness according to the mind of the Church.”
“Some of our members, in coming back to the Church and embracing a chaste life, lost a lot of friends they had before,” he said. “People don’t understand why they would follow a Catholic teaching that requires so much sacrifice.” For many, this means choosing a celibate life that “certainly requires a new way of looking at themselves and relationships.”
“They’ve had that experience of being misunderstood or even pushed aside because of the commitments that they are making to the Church,” said Bochanski. Such attitudes can provide obstacles for those who “don’t feel support from people around them and sometimes from people in the hierarchy of the Church.”
Bochanski also praised the Christian witness of Courage members, whether in public or private.
”Many want to be private about their experience but an increasing number are willing to speak about how participating in Courage and living according to Church teaching have changed their lives,” he told CNA. “A number of them talk about how they feel much more free to be themselves, to have strong friendships, to live fully alive because they are embracing this invitation to chastity.”
Some members have reported that people who tried to affirm them in their attractions and desires only increased their unhappiness.
“The fact that people weren't giving them the truth about their identity and morality was making that much worse.” said Bochanski.
“When they hear the teaching of the Church that our identity is not in our sexual orientation but in our identity as sons and daughters of God, and that God’s plan for chaste relationships is meant to build this up and lead us to fulfillment, it’s a real liberation. They experience a great real freedom by embracing their Church’s teachings.”
Others can learn from Courage members, he said.
“Whether people themselves are experiencing same-sex attraction, just to see the witness of our members who are living in such a heroic way inspires all of us to take our own commitment to holiness more seriously and to be always growing in our ongoing conversion, our ongoing acceptance of God’s plan for each our lives,” said the priest.
“People who are living that in a radical way, which many of our Courage members are doing at real personal sacrifice, can become a real inspiration and encouragement to pursue our universal call to holiness,” he added.
Church teaching on sexual morality is “really coming from a great love and desire that people live an authentic, happy and holy life,” the priest explained. “That would be a counter-witness to people who would suggest that the Church teaching is harmful or hateful.”
After his ordination, Bochanski was a pastoral associate in several Philadelphia parishes and a chaplain for the Holy Spirit Adoration Sisters, the Catholic Medical Association’s Philadelphia guild, and the Courage apostolate’s Philadelphia chapter.
He joined Courage International in 2016 as associate director.
Courage and EnCourage will host its next Truth and Love Conference, intended for those in Catholic ministry, in Sterling, Va., April 27-29. The Courage and EnCourage annual conference will be held in Mundelein, Ill.,, July 23-26.
In 2020 the Courage apostolate will mark the 40th anniversary of its first meeting on Sept. 26, 1980 with an anniversary Mass at the Church of St. Joseph in New York. Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York is scheduled to celebrate the anniversary Mass, Bochanski told CNA.