PHILADELPHIA (CNS) — For campus minister Amy West, St. John Paul II’s theology of the body is more than just the late pope’s writings on the human body, the creation of male and female, marriage and human sexuality. It is a means of healing and self-discovery for young people.
"What I see with each coming year is that students are wounded. They’re wounded by their upbringing, by the evermore secular culture, by the evermore sexualized culture, and they’ve never learned or they’ve lost the value of their own self-worth and their own dignity," West, campus minister at George Washington University in Washington, told Catholic News Service.
"So theology of the body has brought a lot of healing to students," she said. "Through it, they find meaning. They find purpose."
More than 700 people — many of them young people — from 40 states and 12 countries gathered in Philadelphia from July 9 to 11 for the International Theology of the Body Congress. For three days, philosophers, theologians, clergy, religious and the laity discussed the meaning and relevance of St. John Paul’s work, how to implement it in daily life, and how to incorporate it into a new evangelization.
The first major teaching project of St. John Paul’s pontificate was a series of short talks given between September 1979 and November 1984 focusing on the meaning of the human body, authentic love, sexuality and marriage in light of biblical revelation.
In his theology of the body, the late pope teaches that the deepest desires of the human heart are for the divine. His theology points to the fact that all Christians are called to live and love in a self-giving way, reflective of how Jesus gave completely of himself on the cross out of love for humanity.
Theology of the body is not just about sexuality, but also about how people are called to live as humans.
"It’s changed my whole world view of beauty and how I’m called to something greater. There’s this infinite love that I’m called to, and can participate in each moment of my life," said Amber Henry, 21, of Miami, who is a student at The Catholic University of America. "I think this teaching is a testament to the goodness of God."
For Henry, learning and living the theology of the body has been life-changing.
"It’s changed my life to know that there’s a certain dignity in myself and in others, and to recognize people as walking tabernacles. It just changes my perspective of the world, how I want to be a gift to the world," she said July 10. "It’s freeing. It’s true freedom."
Opportunities abounded at the congress for young people to expand their knowledge of theology of the body, and to better equip themselves to spread its message. Several panels and breakout sessions were devoted to relating this theology to young people.
Jacob Popcak, a student at the Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, led a group discussion on "How to Start a TOB Organization on Campus."
"People have wounds. We’re all dealing with similar hurts. Our culture has done a number on everybody both in and outside of the church. Theology of the body is not a mandate, it’s not a get fixed quick solution," Popcak told CNS in an interview afterward. "It’s the redeeming grace of God saying, ‘Hey, I love every part of you, your body and your soul, your mind and your heart, the desires you love and the desires you’re ashamed of — all of it. And I want to use it for not only my glory, not only your glory, but also for the glory of everyone else on earth and everything that you love.’"
"It’s a cosmic love that’s beautifully and practically applied," Popcak said.
Students and campus ministers, both those new to the theology and those experienced in spreading its message on campus, joined the discussion. Popcak, who leads Franciscan University’s theology of the body organization, offered insights and suggestions to participants.
The biggest virtue needed to bring the theology into campus ministry, Popcak said, is humility.
"Approach it with humility. Really study it. Know enough that you can start living your life according to it — change yourself according to reading it. Once you have done that, be brave, be not afraid; go out and start talking to people — not about what it is but why you love it. Share that love with people and that love and joy will be infectious."
Ultimately, Popcak encouraged students to keep the leadership of their groups small so they can do big things. Referencing St. Paul, he said, "You can do this stuff because God wants you to. The church was not built on the backs of people who did tiny, measly little things. Do whatever you’re doing to the utmost degree and if God doesn’t like that, he’ll knock you off your horse and make you do something else to the utmost degree."
An afternoon panel discussion July 10 also addressed spreading the message of theology of the body to young adults.
The standing-room-only crowd included attendees of all ages, and several priests and women religious.
When asked the best way to share theology of the body with young people, panelist Brian Butler noted that it is important to first "define what love is" and from there, to create an atmosphere of authentic friendship.
"Chastity doesn’t blossom in dating," he said. "It first blossoms in friendship."
Butler is the co-founder and executive director of Dumb Ox Ministries, a Catholic nonprofit rooted in theology of the body that invites teens, young adults and families to discover God’s call in their lives through living the virtue of chastity.
Also a panelist, Mother Olga of the Sacred Heart, founder and mother servant of the Daughters of Mary of Nazareth, reminded the audience to speak about the church as a mother.
"(People) think the church is an institute, instituting all these rules and regulations. But she is really a mother who wants what is best for us. That makes a huge difference in how young people can receive this teaching."
Before starting her order, Mother Olga, who was born and raised in Iraq, was a campus minister at Boston University.
In keeping with the congress’ theme of "Love, Mercy and Evangelization," the panels geared toward young adults emphasized the importance of spreading the message of human dignity and worth to future generations.
Zachary DeVoe of the Diocese of Metuchen, New Jersey, was one of many young adults who said they felt called to attend the congress because of the importance of its message.
"It is so meaningful to understand the blessing that John Paul II gave us through theology of the body, and through his work to understand our sexuality. It’s key in this culture — a lot of young people are just losing their dignity," he said.
"As a seminarian, I want to have a strong foundation in and understanding of theology of the body, true love and the mercy of God so that I can evangelize the youth, but also even married couples," DeVoe, a seminarian at Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey, told CNS.
"It’s important for us to have the mindset that we are created in God’s image. After this conference, we’re going to go out into the world and make disciples, just showing everyone the pure love that God has created us for."
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