Talk about good timing. Pope John Paul II came out with his paradigm-shifting theology of the body at just the time Catholics seem more confused than ever about what it means to have a body within the body of Christ.

The young, in particular, are conflicted over such matters as dating, relationships, intimacy and marriage.

Too many teens — even the ones from uncompromisingly Catholic homes — are trying to blend their Catholic faith with the ethos of the world. So says Father Thomas Loya, pastor of Annunciation of the Mother of God Byzantine Catholic Parish in Homer Glen, Ill.

In his travels and work, he observes that many teens don’t see the inconsistency between what they profess in church and, for example, what they listen to on the radio. Today’s music, the priest points out, is rife with degrading messages and pounding, primal prompts to live immorally.

Meanwhile many of the fashions on display at Mass seem more suited to a beach club than to a spot before the altar on which Jesus Christ’s holy sacrifice is offered.

“The great challenge today is to replace the ethos of the world with the theology of the body,” Father Loya says.

The good news? The priest’s confident prediction: “The theology of the body,” he says, “is the dagger that will be thrust into the heart of the culture of death.”

And numerous resources have popped up to help teach the theology of the body to upcoming generations.

Father Loya leads teens to the culture of life through the theology of the body at his parish, at high schools, confirmation classes, conferences across the country, and through CDs and DVDs (available at OurFathersWillCommunications.com).

“It’s the answer to all of life’s questions,” says Father Loya of John Paul II’s monumental teaching, “especially in the areas of our human intimacy.”

He leads teens to see their capacity for intimacy in the context of the Holy Trinity and the spousal mystery, which he says mirrors the relationship of God and humanity — more specifically, God and the Church — which Scripture describes as a marriage.

He then teaches teens to apply what he calls the “H principle,” or “hip-pocket principle,” to bring the theology of the body to bear on moral discernment, relationships and other morally charged issues — matters every teen must face today.

“If you are honest,” Father Loya tells teens, “you will be holy. Holiness results in happiness. And to be holy and happy here on earth will then assure us of being happy and holy in the final H word, heaven.”

“Conversely,” he adds, riffing on rap-music wordplay, “to diss-honesty will result in another H word: hurt.”

In every instance the H principle has them ask: “Am I telling the truth with my body in the action of the moment — or I am I using it to tell a lie?” 

Another must if this war is to be won, according to Father Loya, is reconstructing language so that words mean what they say.

Many meanings, he says, “have been hijacked by the evil one. We have wrong notions of compassion and love. Theology of the body takes back these words and returns them to their proper meaning.”

Instead of “hooking up,” he reminds, God intended men and women to form one-flesh unions of husband and wife.

He also finds teens falling prey to the world’s false sense of compassion on “alternative arrangements” to God’s norm for intimacy, which is obvious by both the natural law and Scriptural revelation.

One of the biggest revelations to young people is learning that the proper definition of love and compassion is different than what the world offers.

“We take the language to its most honest conclusion,” Father Loya says. “That’s theology of the body.”

Teens like St. Anastasia parishioner Katie Gulas, 18, learn it well.

“I look at the way I present myself to people differently,” Katie says. It’s become her practice to makes the H principle part of her everyday life, and she advises teens to learn and apply theology of the body.

“Ask your local priest if he has heard about it,” she suggests. “See what’s a good starter book or CD — a lot of teens don’t have the time to read a book but do have iPods and CD downloads.”

The theology of the body serves as a foundation for the programs of Family Honor based in Columbia, S.C. Running 18 years now, Family Honor (familyhonor.org) has recently spread to four states.

“Our focus is first, last and always the family,” says Executive Director Brenda Cerkez. “We believe it’s important to give not just information to teens directly but have it reinforced by parents in their home environment.”

As a result, Cerkez regularly finds that theology of the body helps teens and opens the eyes of their parents, as well.

“It gives their parents a new language to discuss important topics with their son or daughter,” she explains. Result? She’s seen entire families transformed.

Family Honor teaches teens this message with SPICE: Spiritual, Physical, Intellectual, Creative and Emotional development.

“Ultimately,” Cerkez says, “to develop the Spice gifts and talents is the key to becoming a fully integrated person and integrating your capacity for intimacy into your person, not treating it as something you put on and take off.”

Often, teen presenters join along with the adult presenters to give Family Honor programs. David Nerbun, who just completed his first year as a seminarian for the diocese of Charleston, S.C., was such a teen. He grew up on Family Honor, since his parents were among the co-founders.

“It has transformed me but has allowed God to use me to transform others’ lives as well,” he says, adding that he hopes to expand its transforming reach once he’s a priest. It’s the least he can do, since he credits the theology of the body with helping him hear his calling.

“My discerning of my vocation,” he explains, “rests upon that understanding that flowed from the theology of the body.” The teaching, he says, helped him “to understand myself more and my vocation to holiness as John Paul taught.”

Only Adequate Response

Mary Beth Bonacci, speaker, author and founder of Real Love, Inc. (RealLove.net), has based 20 years of work with youth on the theology of the body. She spells out some major points that resonate right away with teens.

“The body has a meaning. Our capacity for physical intimacy has a meaning,” she says. “God built into it a profound meaning of self-donation.”

And then there’s “John Paul II’s overriding concept on what he called the personalistic norm: The only adequate response to a human person is love,” she says. “That’s the basis of all my Real Love work. Young people are created for love, they need love. God loves them tremendously and unconditionally, and that should be the hallmark of their relationships.”

Bonacci has seen countless attitude changes. “They’re thrilled because it’s good news and hits at the heart of their longings,” she says. “When I come in they’re expecting a thou-shalt-not lecture. When I talk to them about their desire and need for love and their bodies, and respecting their body, they’re pleasantly surprised.”

Lives do change. She once got a wedding picture from her “spiritual daughter,” who had seen her speak years before.

“That day,” Bonacci points out, “she made a decision she was going to save her body for marriage.

“That story — and thousands of others like it — are a testament of the power of the message of theology of the body,” she concludes, “and the power of the Holy Spirit in bringing it across.”

Joseph Pronechen writes from Trumbull, Connecticut.