High school classes generally do not change young people’s lives. But sometimes they do.
There was one
course given for the first time at
A topic many adults find daunting: Pope John Paul II’s theology of the body.
Can teen-agers really come to grips with the “spousal meaning of the body,” “original solitude,” “the freedom of the gift,” and other intricacies of John Paul the Great’s profound theological vision? Teacher Kelly Reed was persuaded that they could. But she was even more convinced that they needed to.
Reed undertook the challenging task of attempting to teach the theology of the body to a group of 70 high school seniors, both boys and girls, for a compelling reason.
“Because I work with teens, I felt that I had a pretty good understanding of their situation and how many of them were handling sexual issues,” she said. “Most of the sexual immorality we see today — even among adults — is the result of choices that are being made during adolescence. If we really want to make changes in the world, we must begin with young people.”
How did the students react?
Their interest in the topic couldn’t have been greater.
“Any time you talk about sex you have them eating out of the palm of your hand,” she said. “I did have their undivided attention.”
But what was most surprising was the maturity with which the class tackled the subject. John Paul II’s transcendent vision of the human person and the beauty of sexuality as an icon of the self-giving love of the Blessed Trinity naturally tended to elevate the discussion and keep it on a loftier plane than one might think possible with teen-agers.
Not that there weren’t occasional moments of consternation. One of the young men walked into class one day and blurted out, “So, does this really mean that God wants to impregnate us?” It was not always easy for the young people to make the transition from the physical aspects of love to the spiritual meaning of complete self-giving. But, little by little, they achieved it.
Some staking-out of positions, not uncommon among teen-agers, also took place. A few said right from the beginning that they didn’t agree with the perspective of the class. But rather than hearing the usual “no, no, no” about sexual issues which they were expecting, a different vision began to unfold before their eyes.
They discovered that in the beginning God created Adam and Eve male and female, so man and woman could make a gift of their entire person to one another in the act of conjugal union. Even though Adam and Eve were naked, they were not ashamed — because they recognized the spousal meaning of the body. They saw in each other’s body, not an object to be used for selfish, sensual gratification, but rather a person to be loved.
Sin disfigured God’s original plan, giving rise to lust, and with it the appearance of shame. But Christ died for each and every person in unspeakable agony upon the cross, bringing about the redemption of the body. He made it possible to recover the freedom of the gift, which Adam and Eve experienced, in selfless love between husband and wife.
Married love, redeemed by Christ, becomes an image of our eternal destiny in heaven, when, as members of the Church, Christ’s bride, we will each give ourselves totally to the bridegroom and experience the overflowing happiness of his spousal love for us.
The young people were quite moved on discovering the deep, personal meaning of sexuality in God’s plan for man and woman. Nearly all admitted that their views had been changed. Several wrote on their final exam that they had decided to reserve sex for marriage as a result of the class.
Even the thorniest issues of contraception and homosexuality could be discussed with a new depth and perspective in light of the theology of the body. God’s free, total, faithful and fruitful love, mirrored in the conjugal act between husband and wife, soon became the measuring stick the young people used to judge other acts. If contraception involves telling a lie with the body — since the husband does not give himself totally to his wife, reserving his capacity to be a father, nor does he accept the total gift of his wife, not embracing her capacity to be a mother — then how can contraceptive intercourse be a true act of love?
A few students did insist at the end that they would continue to do what they wanted. But one added, “Everything laid out in the theology of the body makes perfect sense, so I guess I’m culpable for my choices.”
Still, teacher Kelly Reed couldn’t have been more pleased with the overall outcome of the class. She knew all along through discussions and essays that the young people were intrigued by the theology of the body. Their perceptive answers on the final exam, along with many personal testimonies of how their lives had not only been touched, but changed, went much farther. They convinced Reed that these teens were more than simply fascinated by John Paul II’s vision — they were really “getting it.”
Based on the abundant fruits of this class, the curriculum committee for the Diocese of Toledo is considering the proposal to initiate a theology of the body course in each Catholic high school in the diocese.
Reed has only one word of advice for fellow teachers who are considering giving a course on the theology of the body: “Do it!”
She sums up her own experience, “Expect a lot from your students and be prepared to learn a lot yourself. John Paul II’s vision will certainly change many of their lives — and it could change yours, as well.”
Legionary Father Walter Schu is author of several books,
most recently The Splendor of Love (