TRUMAU, Austria — The fears and anxieties of modern men and women, the glory of God’s original plan for the human race and the beauty of Christian marriage — these were the themes addressed by an international symposium in Austria, gathered to mark the publication of Pope Francis’ exhortation Amoris Laetitia.

The theme of the symposium — held at the International Theological Institute in Trumau— was “And God Saw That It Was Very Good.” Participants included Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, archbishop of Vienna and grand chancellor of the institute, who flew to the conference direct from Rome, where he had joined Pope Francis at the presentation of the exhortation on April 8.

“Man can only discover himself in the sincere gift of self” — the message of St. John Paul’s theology of the body — echoed through the conference and was the central theme of the lecture given by Graham Hutton, institute board member and chairman of the British branch of the international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need.

“John Paul takes us back to before the Mosaic law on marriage, to the very beginning, to God’s plan for the human race,” Hutton said. “The two sexes, male and female, are of the essence — mankind as man and woman bears the imprint of the plan of God. We are made as gift for one another, and this gift must be total.”

“Modern man sees the body as mere matter,” he continued, “but we are matter and spirit, and from this comes the universal call to holiness.”

Hutton quoted John Paul’s words “I came to love human love,” noting how the future Pope’s understanding of the richness and importance of married love came from his pastoral work with young people as a priest and bishop in Poland.

John Paul was included in other aspects of the conference, too.

Father John Saward, a fellow of Blackfriars, Oxford, spoke on “From Mercy to Mercy,” exploring the message of John Paul in the final months of his life. He recalled how the message of God’s mercy and total self-giving was lived out by the Pope in what became known as his “final encyclical,” a profound teaching on love and suffering and the authentic meaning of both.

Love amid suffering was also part of the discussion about the experiences of Arab Christians and their understanding of the family as “the irreplaceable center of stability” in any community, as discussed by Jocelyne Khoweiry, from the John Paul II Center in Beirut, Lebanon.

“In the East, the family is still strong,” she said. “Christian families still maintain devotions, taking a statue of Mary from family to family in May for prayers and singing an anthem in her honor, which has become the equivalent of our national anthem. The Church in Lebanon has no shortage of vocations to the priesthood and the religious life.”

But in the cities, there are strong secularist pressures from the West, and across the whole country, there are tensions arising from fears of political instability, the plight of the large numbers of refugees and the rise of Christian fundamentalism in response to militant Muslims.

In other parts of the conference, complementarity was discussed.

Paul Vitz, of the Institute for Psychological Sciences in Arlington, Va., discussed the differences between men and women, saying that it is useful to look at “gender reality” rather than “gender ideology.” He emphasized the complementarity of male and female, noting that recent discoveries about the human brain are revealing more and more how different the two sexes are in this area and how useful this knowledge is in understanding each.

From Britain, Father George Woodall spoke on Humanae Vitae in the light of the synod on the family. He was strongly critical of the questionnaire issued as part of the synod’s preparatory work, citing it as poorly worded, confusing and unscholarly. He examined John Paul’s emphasis on the unitive aspects of marriage, which he said gave a more profound and precise meaning to the whole idea.

Overall, the symposium at Trumau was aimed at bringing together a wide variety of speakers, giving insights that united to form a profound exploration of the Church’s understanding of marriage and practical ways of teaching it. Speakers from Africa, the Middle East, the United States and from across Europe took part in the different sessions, and Mass was celebrated in the ordinary form of the Roman rite and in the Byzantine rite.

Cardinal Schönborn, in his interview with the Register, emphasized that the new exhortation’s message is one of hope and encouragement for marriage and family: “We are all in via, and the exhortation is aimed at everyone, with no exclusions. This troubles some people — there is a fear of relativism. But accompanying everyone does not mean giving in to relativism: It means, first of all, conversion. Pope Francis refers to the Gospel of John and the adulterous woman. That is a message for us all.”

                                                                                                                      

    Joanna Bogle writes from London.