Love, Responsibility and Zeal

Prolife Profile

It started as a New York City discussion group on Pope John Paul II's teachings on love, marriage and sexuality. Three years down the road, it's a multi-chaptered organization with international reach that has helped launch an intensive pre-Cana program, inaugurated an annual “Pope Day” and even sparked a few marriages.

The Love and Responsibility Foundation — named for the Holy Father's book Love and Responsibility, written in 1960 when he was Cardinal Karol Wojtyla of Krakow — is a case of God writing straight with crooked lines if ever there was one.

Peter McFadden returned to New York City in 2001 after spending eight years in Eastern Europe. In Prague, he had formed the Central Europe Institute to help people make the transition from Communism to a democratic society.

While reflecting on the time he organized 67,000 young people in Slovakia to set a record for the world's largest dance, McFadden discovered that the Guinness World Book record for gathering the world's largest crowd belongs to Pope John Paul II. (On Jan.15, 1995, well over 4 million people turned out for the Holy Father in Manila, the Philippines.)

At the time, all McFadden knew of the Pope then was that “he looks good in white,” he admits. “What a shame on me. I hadn't taken the time to read anything he wrote.”

He picked up Love and Responsibility and had something of an epiphany. “All of a sudden,” says McFadden, “I understood why I had been called back to New York. It was to take this beautiful teaching of the Holy Father and share it with others.” At a men's evening of recollection at the Church of Our Savior on Park Ave., he met Alberto Mora. Together, they co-founded the first Love and Responsibility group.

“We were getting on in years,” says now-40-something McFadden. “It was time to make getting married a priority. We figured that the kind of women we would like to marry would be the kind who would show up and participate in this discussion group.”

“So the initial motivation,” McFadden adds with a chuckle, “was to meet eligible women. But the Pope's teaching was so beautiful and so much bigger than myself, I couldn't put myself before it.”

The group attracted 40 like-minded adults in their 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s. “It took us two years to read and discuss Love and Responsibility,” says McFadden. “Then we discovered that, if you meet for two years discussing the same theme, you really develop a sense of unity.” Inevitably, friendships formed and deepened.

Spreading Out

Diane Virzera from Long Island joined the group and appreciated the discussions of “what the Church teaches and why the Church teaches it,” she says, singling out as examples “the beautiful vision on chastity and contraception” and “the sincere gift of self and seeing the good of the other person.”

The group developed into what McFadden calls “a Srodowisko, which he defines as a ‘milieu’ and the name given to university groups that gathered around John Paul when he was a young priest.

The foundation began to inspire Srodowisko not only in the U.S. but elsewhere as well. So far L&R groups have popped up in places like Boston, Toronto, Halifax, Port-au-Prince, Trinidad, Washington, D.C., and Providence, R.I.

Lee Pion formed the Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, chapter after discovering the foundation's Web-site. Studying John Paul II's book at Franciscan University in Steubenville, he says he “saw the need for young adults to have a deeper look at the Holy Father's teaching on sexuality, so often misinterpreted.” When he advertised the initial meeting in the bulletin of Holy Spirit parish, 40 people signed up in two days. Today, two 40-member groups meet weekly to discuss the Pope's book and plays.

During discussions, Pion says, it's common to hear people spontaneously calling out things like “That's amazing!” and “I had no idea!” and “How come no one ever told me this before?” He remembers the time the “light bulbs came on” for him while the group was discussing celibacy according to the Holy Father's “sincere gift of self completely to another — in this case, to Jesus.”

Touting the Truth

“In New York, we have a special responsibility to lead,” says McFadden. “Often we lead for ill — the ‘western wind’ coming from New York was undermining Slovakia's family values. But what our group learned we could share with others.” That happened at World Youth Day 2000 in Toronto, when the foundation printed a booklet on John Paul II with some of the best of his writing on love, responsibility, sex and marriage. They handed out 13,000, one at a time.

Last Oct. 16, as part of the foundation-initiated Pope Day to celebrate the Holy Father's 25th anniversary, members handed out loads more titled “John Paul II on the Dignity & Genius of Women” and “John Paul II's Theology of the Body.”

Diane Virzera took her place in front of the New York Times building. “The concept of taking the Holy Father's teachings and evangelizing, promoting a Catholic culture, is coming at the right time,” she says. “People are searching for the truth and this provides it to them in a very topical way. Without this group, this would not have been possible. I can really reach out to society on the streets of New York City.”

So far the foundation has inspired more than 30 Pope Days across the United States and in six other countries.

Next, McFadden says the Holy Spirit inspired him to give the Pope an anniversary present: a commitment to help establish “a truly comprehensive pre-Cana program.” This, too, was soon off and running.

“Peter and his wife assist with…the parish's new pre-Cana program,” says Father George Rutler,” pastor of Church of Our Savior in Manhattan, a nationally known speaker, noting that the foundation proposed the idea. “We have quality control to make sure they get sound doctrine.”

Besides the archdiocesan-approved pre-Cana, the foundation is gearing to support newlyweds with monthly talks on problems common to young couples. The reason? “We discovered not everyone appreciates the challenges of married life,” McFadden says, “and that first year many need help.” Plus, the foundation will soon launch the first Theology of the Body discussion group in New York City.

And what of that original motivation? McFadden met Anna at World Youth Day 2000 in Toronto, indirectly through the foundation. Not a member at the time, she had asked to join the group for a meeting with the Pope. Peter and Anna were married in 2003 at the Church of Our Savior.

Joseph Pronechen writes from Trumbull, Connecticut.