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Young people find healing, purpose, God’s love in theology of the body

Posted By July 17, 2014 | 1:08 pm | Lead Story #3

By Sarah Hinds

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, said.
“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.
“Experiencing the three packed days at Theology of the Body Congress is something that will stay with me for a long time,” said Allison LeDoux, director of the Worcester Diocesan Respect Life  Office.
“The event brought together a first-class roster of speakers (Damon Owens, Christopher West, Professor Janet Smith, Father Michael Gaitley, and many more) that provided the 700 attendees from all over the world with a wealth of knowledge, a deepening spiritual growth, and a sense of mission, and it was applicable to the many people of all ages who were present – from young adults to senior citizens and everyone in between.
“What we learned at the Congress was particularly applicable for us here in the Diocese of Worcester, where St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body forms the centerpiece of our marriage preparation program.          Theology of the Body is not only about marriage however. It is a teaching about the truth of love and the dignity of the human person that goes to the very heart of Christianity and the Culture of Life.  As is often said, Theology of the Body is for every body, whatever your vocation, calling, or state in life may be.  Its message is truly key to the 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.