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December 6, 2009

Study groups provide support in understanding theology of the body

By Kristin Peterson


When Daughter of St. Paul Sister Helena Burns first set her eyes on the text of Pope John Paul II’s series of addresses that are now known as theology of the body, she knew that she was looking at something significant. She was only 19 at the time and was one of the first people to see the English text, which she was proofreading for Pauline Books and Media.

“No one knew in the beginning how revolutionary theology of the body would be,” Burns said. “It took on a life of its own.”

Today, 30 years after the first theology of the body address was given, Catholics in the Archdiocese of Chicago have formed study groups to better understand this revolutionary work.

A theology of the body study group has met regularly at St. Mary of the Angels Parish for the past three years. Louis Ibarra, one of the organizers, explained that during each monthly meeting, someone will read aloud three of the addresses and then the group will discuss each one. Usually about 10 to 15 people will come to the group and most are young adults.

Another study group meets monthly at Pauline Books and Media, 172 N. Michigan Ave. Burns helps to organize this group, which is led by Father Thomas Loya, pastor of Annunciation Byzantine Catholic parish in Homer Glen, Ill.

Loya heard the theology of the body addresses live in St. Peter’s Square, and he has been helping others understand the text ever since.

The Pauline group went through the whole theology of the body text last year, so this year they are focusing on apologetics. About 20 people come to this group, but the meetings are also available to view online through a live video stream. Online viewers can chat with each other and ask questions of the speaker. In the past, people have watched online from as far away as Canada, Holland and England.

Those who participate in these study groups often find it beneficial that they are studying this complex text with the support and encouragement of others.

“Having a consistent group of people that meet and share their experiences in the light of learning about theology of the body is very encouraging,” explained George Souri, a member of the study group at St. Mary of the Angels. “I would even say that it is essential since the message that we have gotten since our birth is contrary to the message of theology of the body.”

Burns also emphasized that theology of the body presents an alternative to the secular worldview. “There is something about theology of the body that is so hard for us to grasp because we are so far off the mark in our worldview,” she said. “God is simple. We have complicated things so much.”

Theology of the body approaches sexuality in a new way.

“It puts a spin on the body and sexuality as good. This is God’s plan for the human body,” Burns said. “A lot of young people have tried the other way but it doesn’t bring them happiness or fulfillment.”

Ibarra agrees that young adult Catholics are specifically interested in learning more about theology of the body.

“People are getting married at an older age. Many young adults are single. Theology of body helps explain the church’s teaching on sexuality. It helps men and women understand each other better and relate to each other better,” he said. “The sexual rules we’ve received from God are not for our detriment but our benefit. ... Many young adults have not heard it explained that way.”

Studying theology of the body has influenced Ibarra in his daily life. “It has helped me relate to women I’m dating or just socializing with. It also helps me avoid sexual temptation,” he said.

Christopher Thigpen, who attends the group at Pauline Books and Media, finds that studying the text helps him not only in his personal life but also in his work at Emmaus Ministries, helping men who are sexually exploited.

“Men who are involved in prostitution are often convinced that they are merely means to an end — sexual gratification — and they are treated by society as such,” Thigpen said. "Theology of the body is a fearless affirmation that every human person is an end in himself, never a means to an end. Because each one of us is made in the image of God, each one of us has an inviolable sacred dignity.”

Thigpen believes it is important to spread the word about theology of the body. “We have to promote this teaching, to let young people know that there is a biblically rooted, philosophically profound, liberating antidote to both the Puritanical fear of human sexuality and the modern secularist endorsement of sexual hedonism,” he said.  

Other events:  

St. Mary of the Angels Group meets on the fourth Friday of the month from 7 to 9:30 p.m. 1850 N. Hermitage, (773) 278-2644.  

Pauline Books and Media group meets on the second Saturday of the month from 10:30 a.m. to noon at 172 N. Michigan Ave. or online at of-the-body