By Kathy Schmugge
CHARLESTON — For Brenda Cerkez, executive director of Family Honor, the recent National Conference on Christian Sexuality, An Examination of the Theology of the Body was like a pilgrimage.
Church leaders, parents and young adults came to the Holy City July 19-20 to learn and share what it means to be a human person, uniquely male and female, at this first national conference on Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. The more than 500 people attending represented nearly all 50 states. Two individuals even came from Zimbabwe. Some arrived weary from the journey, but left with a personal and social mission.
“It is with great joy that the Diocese of Charleston is taking part in this event, sponsored by Family Honor,” said Bishop Robert J. Baker who has been an enthusiastic supporter of Family Honor and its mission to “help parents and their children learn to communicate effectively on important life values with an emphasis on God’s gift of sexuality and the virtue of chastity.”
The bishop also read an apostolic blessing from the Holy Father who conveyed his good wishes and prayed that “the conference will promote a deeper awareness of the church’s rich teaching on the innate dignity of the human person, made in the image and likeness of God and called to fullness of life in communion with the Blessed Trinity.”
“I discovered the theology of the body, about 10 years ago, and I realized then what I was from page 1
holding in my hands was a revolution for the church,” said Christopher West, who translates the theology of the body for the people in the pews. “I just knew that this [teaching] was going to be a revolution, and today, this conference, your gathering here, is the sign of the times.”
West, theology of the body consultant and visiting professor from the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and the Family, later drew more than 200 people to the auditorium for an impromptu question-and- answer session that lasted from 9:30 p.m. to 2 a.m.
“Theology of the body … is defined as the study of God in and through the body. We in our very creation, male and female, reveal the very mystery of God and his plan to share eternal life with us,” he said, adding that because people are made in the image and likeness of God, they should never be treated as an object or a means to an end.
He also gave some examples of the abuses and misuses of the gift of sexuality as seen in the world today like the recent scandals in the church where lust replaced Christ-like love.
The next speaker was Father Richard Hogan, Ph.D., a true pioneer of the theology of the body who has been proclaiming its message for 20 years.
“He [Pope John Paul II] has been able to translate the content of the faith … into a language and point of view that makes sense to the modern world, that is subjectively set, inductively arrived at and experientially valid,” said Hogan, calling it genius how the pope could do this without altering the teaching.
John Haas, Ph.D., S.T.L., president of the National Catholic Bioethics Center in Boston, addressed the theme of Male-Female Complementarity and how it creates a culture of life. Haas, well respected in the academic circles, gives credence to the message as a father of nine, a theologian and seminary professor. He stated how a husband, wife and child beautifully reflect the Trinity.
He later spoke on chastity as an invitation to love like Christ, clarifying that it “does not repudiate sex, it does not deny the passions, but orders them in a way that we once again have some control over them and hence are free ….”
Chastity, however, is up against concupiscence, defined by Haas as “a disorder of the God-given appetite which is ordered toward self-preservation though food, drink and sexual activity.”
Father Christian Aidan Carr, a Trappist monk who is currently the abbot-emeritus of Mepkin Abbey, tackled the complementarity of vocations. He showed how it was dramatically played out while flying on a jet. He shared the cabin with a family who seemed comforted by having a priest on board. The wife, who was terrified of flying, asked for a Bible and at take-off grabbed the priest’s hand and held it until they landed. In that moment, he saw how he fulfilled a need that her husband could not fulfill. As a priest, he was able to give her a sense of security in that circumstance and he could see clearly how “we are all in this (life) together.”
Giving the perspective of a married couple, Thomas and Karen Provost, Family Honor team leaders, shared some ways that help them love as God loves. Although it is not always easy to be totally self-giving to each other and to their children, they were thankful for the gift of the Eucharist, Natural Family Planning, and the encouragement of their priests and friends to help them.
Janet Smith, Ph.D., a visiting professor in life issues at the Sacred Heart and a visiting professor of philosophy at Ave Maria College in Michigan, joined the team of distinguished speakers. Using the theology of the body as a yardstick, she systematically exposed the antifamily propaganda that attempts to separate love from life. The myth of overpopulation for example is designed to make young children feel as though they are environmental hazards instead of stewards of a world God created for them.
She spoke of how the Holy Father from the beginning “understood if we got our sexuality right, a lot of other things would go easier, but if we got our sexuality wrong, you would spend the rest of your life trying to recover from the mistakes you made in your [youth].”
Ann Nerbun, R.N., M.S.N., who was one of the founders of Family Honor, compared the participants to the fertile soil described by Jesus where the seeds of faith could grow.
“I am inviting you to make this conference a life-changing event,” she said urging everyone to be a “true believer” who does God’s will, not a “couch potato” who sits back and does nothing nor a pity pot who sulks because of past injuries.
She then gave a brief history of Family Honor, their successes, their struggles and most of all their perseverance in a cause they believe would ultimately save the family. She illustrated how ordinary people were called to do extraordinary things.
“I just wanted to be a mother and bake cookies,” said Nerbun, mother of seven, author of three books, nurse and Family Honor program director. She gave a very human picture of the struggle of saying “yes,” but how God would “throw her an occasional bone” when she was close to giving up.
The concluding event was the banquet address given by Archbishop John Myers, the archbishop of Newark, who also gave the homily and celebrated the vigil Mass at the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist. Archbishop Myers presented an overview of the theology of the body. He, like many of the other presenters, challenged everyone to “apply it today, in the myriad circumstances of our lives.” He stressed its importance because “central beliefs like creation, incarnation, redemption and eschatology cannot be understood without the reference to the human body.”
In order to live the theology of the body according to the archbishop, one must be committed to purity defined as “bodily truth, making sure that what I say with my body is what lies in my heart, what I think in my mind, and what I proclaim in front of other people.” He also spoke of how a false understanding of human sexuality, one that denies God’s procreative plan for love, could lead to abortion and other fatal consequences.
“This conference is what I was looking for,” said Lisseth Rosales from St. Joseph Church in Jacksonville, Fla. “The truth became clear and I was able to untwist the lies and see reality. There is nothing shameful about the body and sex, but you have to know its meaning.”
Mary Ann Fey, vice principal at St. Joseph School in Columbia and a member of the conference planning committee, said the gathering’s main goal “was to shed some light on this beautiful message of our human sexuality” and to stir more hearts to help organizations like Family Honor get the message of hope out, especially to the family.
For more information
For copies of the audiotapes and videotapes of the conference, call Family Honor at (803) 771-2379.