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How conversation helped me accept myself and transformed my relationships

Views Christopher Vella / May 30, 2024 Print this:
From left: Willy Bombeek, Rev. Andrea Conocchia, Christopher Vella, Rev. Cristóbal Rodríguez and Marc Frings attend the panel on international LGBTQ Catholics at the Fordham University School of Law on June 17, 2023. (Photo courtesy of Cristobal Spielmann/America Media)

Editor’s note: This essay is adapted from a speech delivered by its author during Outreach 2023, the LGBTQ Catholic ministry conference in New York City last June. 

Conversation is a fundamental building block of every journey in life, and during my journey as a bisexual Catholic, it has been especially important. Even when one is alone, in solitude or confinement, life is never an entirely solo experience. But not all conversations are necessarily productive. Sometimes, conversations lead nowhere, especially when people speak past each other or never engage in a fruitful life-giving exchange. But when they work well, conversations transform lives.

For LGBTQ people, encountering their broader communities for the first time as their authentic selves can feel both overwhelming and lonely. For me, the best embodiment of the LGBTQ world came through my encounters with Drachma LGBTI+, a group on my native island of Malta. Throughout my 11 years in this community, I learned lessons that have become cornerstones in my pastoral ministry and life journey. 

As a faith community for LGBTQ persons, Drachma offered me a safe space where people could be themselves without the fear of being judged. It was a welcoming and nonviolent space that  encouraged us to engage with other persons in a positive, non-aggressive way. It provided me with the opportunity for accompaniment from within the community. And I also came to appreciate the power of sharing one’s own story as a way of growing together. 

For LGBTQ people, encountering their broader communities for the first time as their authentic selves can feel both overwhelming and lonely.

Growing up an LGBTQ person, I felt a need to “come out” and disclose my identity, since I wanted to build relationships rooted in an honest and truthful understanding of myself. I hated myself for “hiding” under false masks. Burdened with shame and fear, I could not come out, because I feared I would be excluded. It was so hard to come out to my parents and family. I preferred to live a lie rather than come clean and face the possibility of being shamed by others. Once I found the courage to start an honest conversation with my family, I realized that my fears were unfounded. My parents loved me. 

I was so sad, however, to realize that other LGBTQ persons are not so lucky. Not all parents are so understanding. Parents, too, must put aside their own assumptions and ditch their own caricatures. It takes courage and a lot of unconditional love. Such openness requires a safe space, unconditional listening, acceptance and letting go. It is important for the parents of LGBTQ children not to see what they wish to see, but to see their children for who they really are.

Coming from an island country, it was tempting for me to think that my worldview encompassed the whole universe. Engaging with people around the world who share my faith and sexuality has opened me up to new opportunities and helped me grow as a person.

In engaging with this community, I also discovered that beyond the veneer of sameness, there lay a lot of diversity and difference—and it was not always easy to reconcile this. It is not easy to let go of one’s cultural or religious identities and accept people’s differences. Yet true encounter always requires a mutual letting-go of cultural barriers. Be open to difference. Let go of one’s cultural arrogance. And be humble enough to learn from others. 

The first level of conversation needs to happen deep inside of us. Unless we are really in touch with our innermost self—with all our hurts, hopes, frustrations, loves, disappointments and struggles—our journeys may be stilted and stunted. We are constantly bombarded by the world around us.

While we think we are free enough to make our own decisions, we often are conditioned by all that surrounds us. It takes determination, courage and strength to let go of all these voices, and to allow the untethered you to come out. You need to discover the safe space within you, where you can listen to the internal humming of your soul, where you feel comfortable enough to re-discover the deeper truths that God has already instilled in you. 

Coming from an island country, it was tempting for me to think that my worldview encompassed the whole universe.

This is a vital experience, but it can be challenging to peel off the caricatures of God that cloud your mind and often keep you apart. You may find yourself conversing not with God, but with an ersatz, so far removed from the authentic One. In my youth, I was taught to worship a severe God, who weighed all my actions and judged me harshly. As I discovered my own identity as an LGBTQ person, I struggled to converse with this caricature of God. 

God could not love this sinful homosexual monster, I thought. I felt shame and a sense of guilt that did not allow me to speak to God like a son to his loving father. Only when I removed the social and theological clutter—all the noise that prevented me from hearing the word of God—could I see God differently and start a healthy dialogue with my Creator. 

Despite Pope Francis’s emphasis on synodality, one notes with regret how factions in the church often waste their energy on fruitless prattle and ideological battles. In this non-conversation, we realize that we are not really speaking about God, nor about truth, but rather about ourselves and our illusions. True conversation in this context requires genuine listening, a real willingness to walk together the extra mile.

At Drachma, we have realized the need to engage in bridge-building, rooted in an authentic willingness to encounter the “other.” It is about speaking truth to power, albeit respectfully and in love. This was the spirit that inspired Drachma Parents to write a letter to the pope following the Vatican’s publication of  “Dignitas Infinita,” a declaration on human dignity that criticized “gender theory,” in April 2024. While there are always points of divergence, we must look at what unites us: our search for God, meaning and love. 

In my life, the power of dialogue, listening and connecting through conversation has found its deepest embodiment through encounters with my better half. My husband of seven years, and my life partner for over a decade, has taught me to be aware of my own egoism, but also about my capacity to connect and love. Our conversations have helped transform my life and provided me with enriching pathways of growth in my faith and in how I love. 

In my life, the power of dialogue, listening and connecting through conversation has found its deepest embodiment through encounters with my better half.

Life is messy, and relationships are never entirely dialogic or connected. As couples grow together, it is not the glamor of “living happily ever after” but the often mundane, sometimes boring reality of living with another person that cements a relationship. It is then that one starts to understand what it really means to be one flesh.

It takes courage to live together, in a way which is faithful, loving and persevering. In this way, these intimate relationships become sacramental in character. This implies that the relationship is a means of grace, through which the couple is blessed by God and made holy. Life requires a commitment to listening and a willingness to embrace diversity in all its forms. It requires us to remove the caricatures that blind us to ourselves, God and others.

It also requires a two-way conversation, lest like the dwarves in C.S. Lewis’s Last Battle, we remain blind to truth and lost in the darkness of our peevishness.

Christopher Vella

Christopher Vella is the co-chair of the Global Network of Rainbow Catholics. The coordinator of the Drachma LGBTI group in Malta, he is also the assistant general secretary to the Malta Union of Teachers.

All articles by Christopher Vella

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