A 'Total Vision of Man' for the Third Millennium
The Theology of the Body International Alliance, known by its members as TOBIA, is a year-old youngster on an ageless mission.
“TOBIA strikes me as what the early Church was like,” says member David Sloan of Atlanta, who focuses his local theology of the body apostolate on dating, courtship and the single life. Like early Church emissaries “who went from city to city share with each other their story, news, passion and fire,” he says, “TOBIA does that. We believe this theology of the body is the New Evangelization — the way the Lord will reach people in our time, era, culture.”
From her home base in Cheyenne, Wyo., the alliance's founder, Anastasia Northrop, clarifies its mission.
“We are a support network providing resources for those striving to evangelize the world by means of Pope John Paul II's understanding of the human person, explained in his works Love and Responsibility and The Theology of the Body,” she says. “Our aim is to lead every person to an encounter with Jesus Christ.”
The Theology of the Body International Alliance is like the hub of a wheel, she adds. National, local, regional and international groups link to it like so many spokes, each devoted to studying and spreading the message of the Holy Father's theology of the body, which he presented in a series of Wednesday audiences between September 1979 and November 1984. A profound thinking-through of the mystery of marriage and sexuality, the teachings were inspired by Pope Paul VI's 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae (On the Regulation of Birth). This instructed Catholics to consider how contraception compromised the “total vision” of man that God intended his people to have.
Just hearing about the alliance is enough to ignite listeners to become added “spokes.” (So far the group has chapters in 26 states and five countries.) A case in point is Melanie Anderson, a student at the University of Washington in Seattle.
Anderson says that, after reading a book by Christopher West, she “wanted to learn more.” She found Northrop's Web site and phoned her. Northrop guided Anderson in starting a theology of the body study group last semester at her campus' Newman Center. In their talks, Northrop mentioned the Pope Day celebration for John Paul's papal anniversary. “Melanie got totally excited and they had a whole week of activities,” Northrop recalls.
For that week's evangelization day, Anderson and her group handed out materials on the dignity of women from New York member Peter McFadden's Web site, excerpts from Love and Responsibility and Bible verses underlining the Church's teaching.
“The purpose was not just to hand stuff out,” Anderson says, “but to educate people on the Pope's teaching and who he was. If TOBIA wasn't around, it wouldn't have happened at all.”
That's true of the next day's surprise, too: The campus' daily newspaper carried a front-page color photo of participants praying the rosary. As a result, Anderson says, the school chaplain's eyes were opened “to our role in evangelization.” He will train a core group to evangelize on campus next year.
Anderson notes the study group is “already reaching and changing people's lives. They're going to confession and wanting to share this good news with other people.”
The idea for the Theology of the Body International Alliance has roots in Northrop's work with her family's ministry, Our Father's Will Communications in Cheyenne. On her widespread travels to tape various speakers, she met many people excited to be studying the Pope's teachings on human love and sexuality. Northrop herself started a study group in 2001, then began to discover theology of the body groups in full steam around the country.
“Through our traveling, I met different contacts and key people,” she says, “like Peter McFadden, Jen Messing in Minnesota, David Sloan in Atlanta and Monica Ashour in Dallas.”
Everything built to the first meeting of the alliance in Dallas in January 2003. Northrop says 40 people came from six different states to discuss “how we could implement the theology of the body in different areas: with marriage preparation, the media, pro-life, young adults and teens.” By the time of last summer's meeting in Denver, attendance had nearly doubled.
Because the groups had slightly different focuses — for example, Dallas was discussing Christopher West's tapes, some were using a study guide Northrop developed on the original unity of man and woman, and another focused on dating and courtship based on the Pope's teaching — the mission quickly became clear.
“TOBIA is not meant to be something else that people have to do,” Northrop says. “Every group has its own mission, its charism, but TOBIA is meant to be a network where we could be a support to one another in evangelizing theology of the body.”
“For example,” she says, “if I get a call from someone who needs information on marriage preparation, I refer them to Peter McFadden. On dating and courtship, to Dave Sloan. Regarding teen activities, to Jen Messing.”
This support network is one of the major benefits of the Theology of the Body International Alliance “so we don't have to individually reinvent the wheel,” Northrop says. “We can find out who's working in that area already and use the resources that they're already creating in these areas.”
At the alliance's meeting in Denver, Sloan, who describes what he does as “pre-pre-Cana work” forming singles “so by the time they're engaged they're ready to embark on the journey to marriage,” met McFadden, who works in pre-Cana.
“Peter shouldn't have to begin teaching them what they should have known already,” Sloan says. “We began integrating those two programs. That's what TOBIA makes possible.”
Even the acronym TOBIA worked out in the association's favor. Northrop says it's a reminder of the book of Tobit with its story of the Archangel Raphael helping young Tobiah and Sarah through courtship and marriage.
Already on the boards is a forum for April 23-24 “about implementing the theology of the body into everyday life,” Northrop says. “We'll bring in the psychology, how men and women live it out differently.”
The alliance is already looking to World Youth Day 2005 in Germany.
“It would be a wonderful opportunity,” Northrop says, “because the theology of the body is a whole new way of presenting the Gospel message. Some think it's just a message about sexuality. But this is basically to do what love means. It's also so fundamental. If people don't understand basics, what it means to be a man or a woman, I believe it's difficult to get very far in the basic life of holiness, being fully alive as a Catholic person.”
Northrop describes how the Theology of the Body International Alliance fully integrates the universal call to holiness. Participants at Denver also took time to share poetry, music and Sunday liturgy. She even took a group hiking in the style of John Paul's younger days.
“Her international organization has great potential for promoting the theology of the body and helping young people who have the vocation to the sacrament of matrimony to live out the teaching of the Church on human sexuality and enriching their participation in a strong family life,” says Cheyenne Bishop David Ricken, who describes Northrop and her family as very committed Catholics.
“What's exciting about it,” Bishop Ricken continues, “is seeing young people having such great interest in this theology because it will be their generation that needs to provide an example of a healthy sexuality, provide a model of how this theology can enrich married life, the dignity of the human body and human sexuality.”
Joseph Pronechen writes from Trumbull, Connecticut.