Monday, December 22, 2014

There and Back Again: A TOB Speaker's Tale

I had the incredible honor of traveling half way around the world to speak on St. John Paul II's Theology of the Body this autumn. As a devotee and teacher of the pope’s rich legacy of catechesis, an added grace for me was landing in a place that St. John Paul II graced three times in his own life; once as priest, twice as pope.

St. John Paul II in Papua New Guinea, c. 1985
I found myself in Papua New Guinea (PNG), a land that in some ways is as fresh and unspoiled as Eden. It has only felt the touch of modernism in the last 80 years or so. Grandparents of some of those I met actually recall seeing WWII bombers flying overhead and mistakingly thinking them to be giant birds! At the same time PNG is a land suffering from fallen humanity as much as any land, with greed, corruption, domestic violence and child abuse.

It's home to lush rain forests, beautiful coastlines and coral reefs, with over 800 dialects and hundreds of different tribal identities. But it is also a place where, in certain places, women and children suffer under a distorted idea of what masculinity means, and what marriage is meant to be. I spoke at the Kefamo Conference Center in the highland region of Goroka to nearly two dozen bishops who serve the Melanesian people. The bishops were wonderfully receptive, open and eager to share their thoughts as we moved through the days of reflection. A third of these men were native Melanesians, others were missionary bishops who ranged from afar as Germany, Italy, Canada, the USA and Australia. Some have served the people of PNG for over 40 years.

Frangipani blossom, which smelled heavenly

Dr. Adam Cooper of the John Paul II Institute in Melbourne, Australia, gave the first day of teaching on the background and history of the Theology of the Body as well as the reflection on "Original Man.” We had some very good conversations outside the classroom and I even had the chance to reconnect with him in Australia the following week at the John Paul II Institute. He was traveling with his wife Lizzie in PNG and we all enjoyed a love of the teaching as well as a sense of wonder at the flora and fauna of Papua New Guinea.

After the Coopers left PNG, I spent the next three days leading the bishops through the catechesis, finally closing with some words on the New Evangelization and the Way of Beauty in light of the Theology of the Body.

My final talk was attended by the Apostolic Nuncio of the region, Msgr. Michael Banach, himself a native of Massachusetts. He was very pleased that this content was being presented, and he shared during our closing session that indeed an emphasis on the "Way of Beauty" as revealed in St. John Paul II’s TOB catechesis is deeply important for the Church today. Fr.Victor Roche, SVD, General Secretary for the Catholic Bishops Conference of Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands was also very happy at the style of pedagogy, in which I employed source quotes from TOB and supplemental insights from Benedict XVI and Pope Francis’s Joy of the Gospel, as well as cultural examples, music, sacred art and some theological illustrations of my own. He said it elicited responses and sharing from the bishops which were refreshing and not always so common when it came to similar workshops he had arranged for them!

Fr. Victor has already indicated a desire to move forward in presenting the Theology of the Body at some level and through some medium that can allow the priests and people in general to come to know and live it. This sentiment was echoed by a number of the bishops as well (see attached evaluations supplied by Fr, Victor). We are presently discerning how to move forward given the challenges of time and distance.

Bishop Rochus Tatamai, grandnephew of Bl. Peter To Rot and Bill
As an aside, I had the privilege of meeting the grandnephew of Papua New Guinea’s first Blessed, Peter To Rot. His name is Bishop Rochus Tatamai, and he’s pictured to the right. He had asked if he could interview me for his radio station and actually pulled out a camcorder and proceeded to ask me questions on Theology of the Body for a solid 20 minutes! An amazing man of deep courage and faith.

The overall experience in PNG was humbling and hopeful. The struggles in this little nation of so much diversity are numerous. Polygamy, tribalism, the threat of secular modernism and a technological revolution without an adequate period of preparation for these simple people are tantamount. There is also, according to the bishops themselves, a disruption in the clergy’s understanding of what authentic celibacy is, so there’s all the more need for the Theology of the Body to shine in their catechesis and witness.

Bishops of PNG and the Solomon Islands, with Dr. Adam Cooper and Bill Donaghy
My second week abroad was spent in Sydney, Australia, where I gave a series of talks to young adults at Campion College, two Marionite churches, a talk at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney, as well as a two day TOB seminar open to all at the Australian Catholic University (ACU). These events were largely orchestrated by one John Smyth, a Catholic school teacher who was phenomenal for making connections and queuing up my speaking events. He worked with Madeleine Vella, a former Generation Life missionary whose family hosted my stay the better part of that week.

Also in the mix for hosting and arranging things was Bernard Toutounji, Director of Catholic Youth Services. The two day TOB seminar at ACU was MC’d by him and sponsored by 14 different offices and ministries. He was instrumental in orchestrating it all.

Fr. Anthony Percy with Bill, Australian Catholic University.
During that week, I was privileged to meet Fr. Anthony Percy, priest and author of the wonderful book, Theology of the Body Made Simple. He’s a bit of a “celebrity” in Australia! I also met with Pat Langrell, one of our past students and now Chaplaincy Convenor at The University of Notre Dame, Melbourne. We sat down with some of the staff from the Archdiocese on connecting with the Theology of the Body Institute in the future. There was a strong desire from Pat Langrell, John Smyth, and Bernard Toutounji to potentially host a TOB1 week long course in Sydney as early as 2016.

At the end of the week, I took a short flight and one overnight in Melbourne, southern Australia, where I spoke on “Pope Francis and the Revolution of Tenderness” for a young adult ministry. I also met with Matthew MacDonald, Executive Officer of the Life, Marriage and Family Office and gave an extensive interview for the archdiocesan paper Kairos. That interview and an additional two articles can now be found online here in Volume 25, Issues 20 and 21

Bill's host family and friends, eating the best
Lebanese chicken in Sydney, and perhaps the world.
In Melbourne, I had the chance through John Smyth’s connections to meet up with Dr. Adam Cooper again in his office at the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family. I met Dr. Tracey Rowland and Dr. Gerard O’Shea briefly, then had a good chat with Dr. Adam Cooper and Dr. Conor Sweeney over coffee. We shared our work and experiences and touched on the importance of teaching the theology of the body and the need to bring it to the whole Church.

The Marriage and Family Office in Melbourne is equally excited about the potential of connecting with TOBI and our courses and they are willing to prepare the way for the Institute to offer programs when ready.

Overall, this was an incredible experience, and wonderful relationships have been forged, uniting people from distant places in the one Body of Christ, through the beautiful teaching on the theology of the body. I look forward to a return some day to both Papua New Guinea and Australia, but for now, after over 40 hours of plane travel in a dozen planes, and thousands of miles beneath me, nothing beat the reception of coming home!

“The new evangelization is inseparable from the Christian family.”
- Pope Benedict XVI

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