Friday, July 30, 2010

The Congress Must Carry On!

Philadelphia Cardinal calls the Theology of the Body 'the curriculum for the Culture of Life'

Philadelphia Cardinal calls the Theology of the Body 'the curriculum for the Culture of Life'
Cardinal Justin Rigali calls for the National Theology of the Body Congress to become an on-going campaign of human and catechetical formation 
PHILADELPHIA, July 30 – Joined by more than 50 priests and two Bishops, Cardinal Justin Rigali delivered a powerful call to action to attendees of the first National Theology of the Body Congress. He urged, "This Congress must not end. The contribution of the speakers and participants, the fruits of the seminars, discussions, and artistic performances must advance still further. This Congress must become a campaign of human and catechetical formation." 
He called for the mining and proclamation of the rich content presented at the Congress "so that the next generation can continue to access and comprehend it."
The National Theology of the Body Congress organized and hosted by the Theology of the Body Institute drew attendees from 10 countries and 39 U.S. states. They represented 111 dioceses. Two bishops, more than 50 priests, six deacons and dozens of other religious were among the more-than 450 attendees. Because the Congress sold out very quickly the Theology of the Body Institute offered live streaming during the Congress that attracted online attendees from 17 U.S. states, and 10 countries on five continents. 
Cardinal Rigali, who also serves as the Episcopal Chairman of the Theology of the Body Institute, remarked on the great work of this inaugural event, which he noted as occurring exactly three decades after John Paul II introduced the theology of the body. "Today, this First National Congress on the Theology of the Body shows us that the catechesis given thirty years ago is now the curriculum of the Culture of Life," Cardinal Rigali said in his homily during the Mass this morning. The Cardinal went on further to say that the "teaching of John Paul II on the theology of the body must be further introduced into Pre-Cana programs, RCIA instruction, Natural Family Planning training, parish adult education programs, campus ministry programs, youth groups, homilies, and religious education among children and adolescents."
The Congress included keynote addresses, workshops and panel discussions featuring some of the most popular theology of the body lecturers and catechists in the world. 
"Being a participant at the National Theology of the Body Congress has been a complete and total blessing," Congress presenter and popular author and blogger Lisa Hendey said. "I feel honored to have been here and will go home inspired about further incorporating theology of the body teachings into my daily family life, my parish community and my work in support of Catholic moms."
Other presenters included Fr. Brian Bransfield, executive director of the United State Conference of Catholic Bishops' (USCCB) Secretariat for Evangelization and Catechesis; Dr. Michael Waldstein, the English translator of the Pope's Theology of the Body; Helen M. Alvaré, law professor at George Mason University; Fr. Robert M. Hogan, author of three books on the theology of the body and one of the first published authors on the catechesis of Venerable Pope John Paul II; ethicist and moral theologian Dr. Pia de Solenni; and many others. 
Reflecting on the Cardinal's words, Theology of the Body Institute Chairman, David Savage said, "The Cardinal's vision for this teaching fits completely within the mission of the Theology of the Body Institute. This Congress was designed to be a nexus for dialogue and discussion on exactly how we bring the theology of the body to the world. I believe we accomplished that and I am confident that the leadership who gathered here this week are going back to their dioceses around the world with a great commission that fits firmly within the Church's mission in the New Evangelization." 
In addition to more than three-dozen addresses, workshops and panel discussions, the Congress was the setting for an Awards Banquet, in which five honorees were acknowledged for their pioneering work in the theology of the body. Award recipients included Pauline Books and Media, Fr. Richard M. Hogan, Ann and Valentine Coelho; the Ruah Woods Education Center, and the Theology of the Body International Alliance.

For more information on the first National Theology of the Body Congress or the Theology of the Body Institute, please contact Christine Schicker with The Maximus Group at 404-610-8871.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Twilight Series: Teens, Love, and Making Choices

Volumes have been written online and in print about the Twilight series, presently four books penned by wife and mother of three Stephenie Meyers. The lore of vampires and werewolves is definitely a part of the attraction, but I wonder if that's as much at the heart of it as a love for big boats was for the millions who saw Titanic. It's the tale of fated love that seems to draw most people in; a painful and powerful attraction that is so knotted up with teen angst that devoted readers, and viewers of the Twilight films, obsessively turn it over and over again in their hands.

Like the series or not, this fanged version of Romeo and Juliet is sucking in revenue at bookstores and movie theaters everywhere. So let's talk about it, and engage this modern phenomenon with the Sign of the Cross (not just for the presence of vampires, but because we Catholics like to bless everything before we taste it).

We'll start by addressing the monster stuff for a moment, which seems to either attract or repulse some people. The vampire and werewolf mythology (of which Ms. Meyers takes a real revisionist approach, I should add) is a vehicle for getting at something much deeper of course. But like the magic and sorcery of the Harry Potter series, it's murky waters. Why wrap a love story up in such iconic symbols of evil? Traditional vampires are cannibals. Aberrations of the desire in us to be consumed in love, they turn to consuming out of lust.... blood lust, in fact. And werewolves are adulterations of the eros of the human heart, our God-given attraction to what is good, true, and beautiful. Here it twists into an animal passion, prowling and hunting for prey. Ms. Meyer's puts her heroes in these shady disguises. Admittedly, the two leads are not evil, they are quite noble, just a bit tortured by their "condition."

Nonetheless, these trappings tend to obscure the lesson of love, in my opinion, that could be told here; love in fact is nearly overshadowed by an insatiable lust. A lead character confesses, in fact, that the human girl is "my own personal brand of heroin." For the audience this series has targeted, teenagers, I don't think the interpretation of love as an addiction is very helpful. Is that really love?

But I'm getting ahead of myself here. I believe at the core of the Twilight series is a shadowy quest for understanding what it means to be human and what it means to love. So let's focus on the "heart" of the matter.

At the center is an intense story of infatuation involving a teenage girl, Bella Swan, and her romantic involvement with two "unusual" boys:

1. Edward Cullen, wealthy, really white, really handsome, and really dead. He's a vampire.

2. Jacob Black, indigenous, charming, physically ripped, and a real animal. A werewolf, in fact.

This is an interesting distinction, a friend of mine observed; the attention given to the fancy cars and opulent home of the vampires contrasted with the rustic reservation life of the boys who are werewolves. But that's a whole other thought train.

Let's look at this love triangle. I believe the author's Mormon faith, as she has admitted in interviews, has certainly influenced her writing, but perhaps more deeply than we might suspect. What we see here in mythological disguise are the two ancient enigmatic questions of mankind; are we animals, or are we angels? Should we be of the earth, hot-blooded, and mortal, or are we above it, angelic, immortal, and almost limitless in the power of our mind over matter? How do we reconcile our bodily life with our immortal souls?

Enter Bella, a mixed up and misfit teenager “who can’t dance” (as she herself confesses). Courted by Edward the ice-cold vampire (whom Bella herself calls an “angel”) and Jacob the hot-blooded werewolf (a beast), she must make a choice as to what kind of life she will live. Now in Gnostic thought, a kiss means incorporation into a secret world. Oh what's a girl to do? Bella kisses passionately both Edward and Jacob, it's just the temperature of the kiss that fluctuates.

What person, especially the teenager, hasn't struggled with identity issues? Who among us hasn't wrestled with choices we feel may shape the rest of our lives? Ms. Meyers has inserted her series like a surgeon’s tool right into the adolescent heart. The question is whether or not this is good medicine.

From the moment they first meet, Edward’s effect on Bella, and her effect on him, is charged with an unhealthy passion. If there were ten red flags in relationships, Bella would be waving close to all of them. She is emotionally dependent on Edward; she is listless and reckless about her life when he leaves, almost dying in fact on a motorcycle ride and a cliff-diving incident in an effort to see him again. She lies to people to keep the relationship going, a relationship that seems to be based purely on physical attraction. Friends think he is no good for her, but she disregards them. She incessantly whines to Edward to make her like him, a vampire. Bella implores Edward to sleep with her in the third film, though he quite beautifully resists and challenges here to chastity (I must say that was a refreshing scene that leaves most teen romance movies in the dust). This girl is no role model for her peers.

Edward is a bit nobler. He's a complex character who is struggling to resist his blood-lust. He was transformed into a vampire over a century ago when he was on the brink of death by Carlisle, a kindly physician and strictly vegetarian vampire. Edward is the victim and the perpetual youth in angst, having unwillingly entered into this new state of being a vampire at 17 years of age. This adds a tragic note to the story that is a powerful one. He must use his will to overcome the addiction for human blood. Carlisle has initiated others into the Cullen Clan, but all of them resist their fallen nature and serve the humans, protecting them from "bad" vampires.

Back to the complexity of this relationship... Bella, the perplexed and forlorn teenager says she’s always felt unfinished, and clumsy. What teenager doesn't? Now she has the offer of an everlasting life in which to work it all out! And a perpetual cute teenage boy to do it with! This is a place many teenage girls, I dare say, would like to fall into (and a good number of ex-teens it would seem as well. Twilight has a huge following of "older" women). But ladies... he's a vampire. A cute monster is still a monster. “I’m the world’s most dangerous predator," Edward tells her. "Everything about me invites you in. My voice, my face, even my smell… I’m designed to kill… I’ve wanted to kill you. I’ve never wanted a human’s blood so much in my life… Your scent, it’s like a drug to me. You’re like my own personal brand of heroin.” Not exactly the kind of guy you want to bring home for Sunday dinner.

Jacob is the werewolf, struggling to be top dog in Bella's world (sorry, I couldn't resist). In my mind he is a bit more likable. He's a member of a shape-shifting tribe of the Quillayute, with the ability to change into a wolf, heightened senses, and a sometimes hot-blooded temper. 
He's Bella's best friend early on, before we see his secret, and he shared childhood memories with her. When Edward abruptly "abandons" Bella (for her own safety we later learn) it is Jacob whom Bella finds companionship with, and solace in her isolation. I'd have to say it seems like puppy love for this werewolf at first, then he steals a rather forceful kiss from Bella, much to her disapproval. Eventually, he develops a real concern for Bella, for her happiness and safety regarding her attachment to Edward. Both beaus reveal this altruism in time, pondering what's best for her. This is refreshing in light of the boys who can be both wolves and vampires in the high school arena today. Edward and Jacob truly rise above their twisted natures.

Bella however remains a self-centered character, and flip flops for a good deal of time between Edward and Jacob. "I love him, but I love you more," she tells Edward after passionately kissing Jacob. OK then. Back to the earlier question; is all of this good medicine for the teenage heart? The books are wildly popular, winning heaps of awards, like the British Book Award for “Children’s Book of the Year” and the 2009 “Kids’ Choice Award for Favorite Book.” They have sold nearly 90 million copies and been translated into almost 40 languages.

You can read more on the topic, you can "test everything and retain what is good" as St. Paul encourages us, (and there is some good here) but I personally feel the series preys on the infatuation teens can fall into, and offers foggy advice if any on how to determine love from obsession and lust. As Pope John Paul II states in his epic teaching Theology of the Body, lust “is not always plain and obvious; sometimes it is concealed, so that it passes itself off as ‘love’…. Does this mean that we should distrust the human heart? No! It is only to say that we must remain in control of it” (TOB 32:3).

Teen infatuations can be tumultuous waters to ride. But let's note that there is nothing inherently wrong with sparks of passion, and the sexual attraction we feel for those of the opposite sex that draws us out of ourselves. It's been called by Pope John Paul II "the raw material of love." The problem comes into play when this blind passion is all you've got. Pope Benedict stated in his first encyclical letter God is Love, "True, eros tends to rise “in ecstasy” towards the Divine, to lead us beyond ourselves; yet for this very reason it calls for a path of ascent, renunciation, purification and healing."

What Edward promises is not truly life together, but unending death. And Jacob's bark is stronger than his bite. Who can truly fulfill Bella's heart, or any teen seeking a lasting love for that matter? God knows.

I'd say let's use this rekindling of a desire for unending love as an invitation for all of us. Let's step into the enthralling journey of real love, not obsession and lust. For "Love is indeed “ecstasy”, not in the sense of a moment of intoxication, but rather as a journey, an ongoing exodus out of the closed inward-looking self towards its liberation through self-giving, and thus towards authentic self-discovery and indeed the discovery of God." (God is Love, 6)

Originally published in the Catholic Standard and Times

Monday, July 19, 2010

The Golden Sea

"Tell me how many songs that I must sing before I can see you in your glory, hear your whole entire story, bathe inside your golden, golden sea?"
- Trevor Hall

I realize you just read the above quoted lyric, and maybe you liked it. I ask you to please read it again, and drink it in slow like hot, honeyed tea. Go ahead... It's delicious, isn't it? The song is 31 Flavors by Trevor Hall and is one of my favorite hymns to love. I discovered his music through one of my senior students last year - thanks Tosti!

So now.... give yourself a minute to ponder this: How many people do you really know on Planet Earth? I don't mean know about, or have encountered in your travels, or clicked "confirm friend" with on Facebook. I mean face to face, heart to heart, soul to soul friends.

How many people do we really know, deep down, to the core, and to the point of practically being able to finish their thoughts for them, predict their actions, read their hearts, swim in their golden, golden sea of experiences? Is it one? Two?

The only soul I can honestly say I know on that intimate, almost spousal level, is... well, my spouse.

As we approach our 7th wedding anniversary (just three weeks away), I've been thinking of her more and more. I mean really thinking of her. This whole marriage thing is pretty earth-shattering you know. What a blindingly brilliant thing it is to be able to say to another human being, "Come in..... look around. The place is yours." What a crazy thing it is to say to another person, (you with all of your sins and weaknesses, they with theirs) "Let's become One. I give you sovereignty here. I turn over the key. What's mine is yours and what's yours, I ask of you, let it be mine."

I am convinced that God gave us marriage as an aid or a preparation for Something More, Something Big. Namely, HIS entrance into the human heart, and our hearts entrance into the Communion of Saints in Heaven some day. Marriage is a "school of love" and a fertile field where the fruits reach high, "so high that I can almost see eternity" (that's Anne Murray by the way, not Trevor Hall). But to plant Heaven's seed you need to dig up that soil, scour those fields, remove the rocks and old roots of selfishness and greed and ego. Marriage is farming the fields.

We all speak of a forever love too. We want it to spread wings big enough to escape the fields of earth, of the gravity of time and death. We want to soar. But we know simultaneously that even as it soars, "at death do we part." As wonderful as my marriage has been these past seven years, I know it's not the be all and end all of my existence. We don't exactly "complete each other" - what human being could really do that for another? The sooner couples realize this the healthier the union will be! A certain debilitating pressure comes off the shoulders. Who is the ultimate Bridegroom after all? It sure ain't this Jersey boy. And who is the spotless Bride of Revelation, the wife of the Lamb? I say Rebecca is a close second ;)

And I would lay down and die
For one glimpse of those open eyes
How am I to describe
The one who holds the Sun's Fire

Earthly marriage is a foretaste of a Heavenly one. "The Spirit and the Bride say 'Come, Lord Jesus!'" The Immaculate Daughter of Jerusalem and the reflection of the Son's Fire in her eyes is what I see in Rebecca. And I can only hope she sees the Fire of the Son in me. Therein lies the daily work of marriage! What she shines with is more than her own making. In fact, when she shines brightest is when she is outside of herself - transparent in her mothering of our son, of her nieces and nephews, caring for those marginalized, the poor, the lonely and abandoned, and in her patient love and support of me, inspiring me, serving me in so many thoughtful ways throughout the day, always thinking of me. She shines with a "heavenly" light, like stained glass.

So there's joy and struggle and effort and grace as we share in swimming this "golden golden sea" of married love. And it's a beautiful opening hymn to the Communion of Saints that's coming! Maybe it takes us to the sea's horizon in this world, and then the veil lifts, to a Blessed Realm. Then the ultimate Marriage begins! Then we shall know and be known, we shall see and be seen, and we shall "hear our whole entire story, and bathe inside His golden, golden sea"  forever...

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Update on the Historic Theology of the Body Congress

Be LIVE at the Congress!
Unable to attend the National Theology of the Body Congress?

You, your parish, school, or diocese can WATCH KEY TALKS LIVE!
The Theology of the Body Institute announces Live Streaming of content for this Premier event! Due to the overwhelming response to this first-ever Theology of the Body Congress, we have opened a live-streaming option!
You can still be a part of this historic gathering! Live-streaming of the Congress' key presentations is available for only $79!

Click here to see the schedule of presentations that are part of the package. It is designed and intended to give you opportunities to watch live presentations from this memorable Congress. You can watch them as they happen with:
  • Your parish's Theology of the Body group
  • Your university or college enrichment group
  • Your parish's religious education or faith formation groups
  • Other members of your parish in the church or appropriate venue
  • Members of your parish organization
  • High school staff and interested parents
  • Everyone who shares your passion for the Theology of the Body
This is a great lineup of some of the most well-known experts on Theology of the Body, the landmark teaching of Venerable Pope John Paul II.
Become a part of this life-changing event!

Rev. J. Brian Bransfield
Dr. Janet Smith
Glenn Stanton
Dr. Philip Mango
Rick Fitzgibbons
Dr. Helen Alvare
Dr. Michael Waldstein
Katrina Zeno
Dr. Pia de Soleni
Fr. Richard Hogan
Bill Donaghy
Fr. Roger Landry
Fr. Thomas Loya
And Many Others!

Register Now!
Live-Streaming of the National Theology of the Body Congress is sponsored by


Thursday, July 08, 2010

Toy Story 3: Back in the Saddle... Again

It's a profoundly human characteristic to want to make things move, to breathe life into the matter about us - be it through paint, or wood, words, or marble. We humans love to create, just as our Father in Heaven created and still creates the world around us. Perhaps that explains our fascination with animated films. God makes us in His image out of love, and we as sub-creators create, or animate, things in our image because of love.

Of all of these animated works, and there are so many, I'd venture to say that none are more magical than the Toy Story series. Through the eyes of the stitched chunks of cloth and malleable plastic in Andy's toy chest, we're invited to see the world in a whole new light. These films seem to stitch generations together too, having something old and something new, much like Woody, the affable cowboy of yesteryear, and Buzz, the shiny space commander of the Future! That playful glance backwards and forwards may be a factor in what draws young and old to the silver screen each time. And let me say, the third time's a charm.

Toy Story 3 debuted this June and it brought back that lovable cast of characters we first met over 15 years ago! (I can't believe it's been 15 years either). Woody, the "favorite" toy of Andy, started the show back in 1995, rounding up a whole host of impressive characters with an equally impressive set of voices - Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Don Rickles, Wallace Shawn, Joan Cusack, and John Ratzenberger (who seems to get into every Pixar picture) to name just a few. Their sole purpose in "life" was to belong to Andy, to make him happy, to "be there for him" and the leader in this mission was always Woody.

There were always loads of laughs, exciting adventures, and subtle shout-outs to our pop-culture (remember the Jurassic Park tribute? The toy T-Rex is seen chasing after the gang in the rear view mirror of the Barbie convertible? Classic!) So often it seemed the adults got more laughs out of each film than the kids! This third installment dishes up much of the same wholesome fun, but this time there is a kind of sadness, a shadow, behind each pixel of this Pixar film.

Andy is all grown up, and preparing to leave the nest for college. The toys of his youth are tucked away in a dark chest that hasn't seen the light of day for who knows how long. It appears that a laptop computer and a cell phone are now the only things that engage the teenage Andy anymore. Curiously, his face throughout his cameo appearances has a weight to it, not the wonderstruck lightness that we remember. Isn't it interesting how his toys, which demanded more imagination to play with, brought joy, while the technology, which demands less imagination, brings him a kind of weariness?

Back to Woody and Company... Their fate, they discover, will ultimately be decided by their now come of age owner. Will their final adventure be the infamous Trash Truck, or the Yard Sale (akin to death as far as the toys are concerned)? Or will it be the Attic, a kind of purgatory, where they'll have the hope of one day returning to the Paradise of Playtime with Andy's future kids!

This very mature theme is balanced, of course, by lots of laughs at the toys quirky personalities that we've come to love. The Barbie meets Ken scenario is worth the price of admission, as well as the seedy late-night poker game, using Monopoly money, held by the sinister toys at the top of a vending machine. (How do they think this stuff up?!) In all of it, the balance between hilarity and heart-touching emotion is beautifully harmonized.

At the end of the day, though, this final piece of the Toy Story triptych displays a very sobering message about love, relationships, trust, and new beginnings. It's about being able to let go, for Andy, and for his toys! There we discover a profound lesson that's an echo of the Gospel itself (yes, I just equated the Gospel with a Pixar movie. This shouldn't surprise or scandalize us, by the way, or sound at all like a stretch. Every good story flows from Gospel themes, every myth and fairy tale is attracted to it and gets its attraction from it. Tolkien said the Gospel is the fairy tale that came true!)

The lesson is that in letting go of ourselves, in giving of ourselves, in being willing to actually "die to ourselves," we actually find ourselves, and discover ourselves anew! Watch the movie and see this transformation come over the characters in a beautiful light. And let yourself be reminded of the promise that living for others, not against, or in competition with them, is what brings real joy. And the promise that we too will live on... happily ever after!

Talking to Your Little Ones About the Big Topic of Sex

A much repeated sentence we hear at our Theology of the Body retreats and courses is "I wish I heard this when I was younger!" ...