Helping Families Honor Chastity
“When Vickie was 5, I didn't see why I should get involved. I was talked into it. But when she got to be 18, I saw the Holy Spirit guiding my family in the effects our involvement had. I discovered a lot of wisdom.”
So says Teresa Shelley of Columbia, S.C., when asked about Family Honor, a life-affirming apostolate founded in 1987 and based in her hometown. It took a while, but eventually Shelley's reluctance metamorphosed into full-blown fervor: Today she's an assistant program director with the organization.
It turns out a notable conversion experience is common among people — parents and children alike — who take part in the family-oriented chastity program.
“Family Honor provides the opportunity for parents and their sons and daughters to come together to learn about life issues with the special emphasis on God's gift of sexuality and the virtue of chastity,” explains executive director Brenda Cerkez. “There's a hunger around the country for good information presented in a positive, hopeful way with regard to Catholic teaching on sexuality.”
The basis for Family Honor is none other than the teachings of Pope John Paul II. His theology of the body is the guiding principle and foundation on which the organization is built, Cerkez says.
It's common, she says, for parents to approach her after presentations and say: If only this kind of program had been available when I was growing up. “They come because they want something better for their children,” she says.
“The teaching validates parents who want to hold to authentic Catholic teaching,” reports Matt Hitpas of St. Ann Church in Gulf Breeze, Fla. “They want this for their children but may not know how to explain it. Family Honor shows them.”
“I'm delighted to have discovered it here in South Carolina,” says Charleston Bishop Robert Baker. “I support them wholeheartedly. I strongly encourage their program as being on the cutting edge of sexual education for our adolescents. They're au courant with the latest Catholic teachings and the Holy Father's teaching on human sexuality.”
Bishop Baker points out the key to the program's success: parental involvement. Mothers and fathers are “the primary educators of their children in Christian formation and of the values surrounding human sexuality,” he says. “It starts in the home, and the Catholic Church acknowledges it. Family Honor puts that role into practice.”
In fact, one of the program's prime principles is that parents — preferably both, but at least one — must attend with their child. “The most lasting effects happen when parents engage their children in conversation on chastity and related topics. Why? Because they know their children best,” Cerkez says. “We are the battery chargers. We provide the spark to re-establish that parent-child connectedness.”
Hitpas says Family Honor is the best program of its kind he and his wife, Debra, have worked with.
“What's better than to bring the whole family in and have them learn together what the Church teaches and why it's a beautiful way to walk?” he says. “Family-centered chastity education is the only way you're going to get lasting results.”
Family Honor gears its programs for accessibility by kids from sixth grade through high school. They're presented by prayerful, trained teams of adult and teen teachers.
Sessions on the theology of the body, fertility, love and discipline in the family, peer pressure, effective family communication, self-worth and virtue are presented in age-appropriate, modest ways; boys are taught separately from girls.
Vickie Shelley recalls the impact the teen presenter had on her when she was in sixth grade. “I remember looking at her and saying, ‘That's the kind of person I want to be,’” she recalls. “I was really inspired that night.”
Vickie became a teen presenter herself. She describes how she came to see the importance of reaching out to the parents as well as the kids. They may have doubts about how their kids are going to turn out, so “we're there as examples as well as instructors. Our presence shows it's possible for their kids to grow up chaste.”
Abstinence before marriage is vital, she adds, but chastity is more than that.
“It's how you present yourself as a person,” she says. “I love to talk to girls about chastity, especially to develop all aspects of themselves — spiritual, physical, intellectual, creative, emotional.”
In Charleston, three of Thomas and Karen Provost's seven children have attended Family Honor presentations, and their son Peter and daughter Clare are now teen presenters. Karen sees great value in the role-model aspect of the program.
“When they can see other families striving for the same virtues and values and not embracing the values of our culture, kids know they're not alone,” she says.
Family Honor opens routes of family dialogue.
“It's a great program for getting the connection between parent and child going, or if it's going, improving it,” notes Father James Leblanc, pastor of St. Mary Help of Christians Church in Aiken, S.C. With that as a starting point, “the parents and children can discuss the very important matter of chastity.”
He also remarks on how impressed he is that the program organizers have made the theology of the body accessible to kids.
Meanwhile Thomas Provost describes how satisfied he felt when the mother of a high-school tennis player thanked him for the work of Family Honor. Driving to a tournament, the normally quiet son unexpectedly expressed his surprise at how small babies are.
“That opened the conversation on the subject for mother and son,” Provost says. “They had the opportunity to talk because of Family Honor. He was able to lead into it.”
Sometimes results can be immediate and dramatic, as the Shelleys witnessed.
Hitpas tells the story. Friends brought their 14-year-old niece, Faren Nichols to a Family Honor program in their parish church of St. Ann, whom they were raising after the girl lost her parents. She wasn't baptized but taking lessons. Faren was so transformed at the end of the program that she asked Matt and his wife to be her godparents and requested to be baptized right away. The priest agreed.
In the long run, “the fruit of this work is going to come to light over the years,” Provost says, “as it lays the foundation for really healthy marriages and how its [graduates] are going to raise their kids.”
Joseph Pronechen writes from Trumbull, Connecticut.