By GRETCHEN KEISER, Staff Writer | Published October 25, 2012
St. James the Apostle Church held a John Paul II Respect Life Conference Oct. 5-6, hosting 100 people eager to receive church teaching from speakers, including married couples talking about the challenges and joys of Natural Family Planning and a Daughter of St. Paul who uses social media to reach teens and young adults with the late pope’s “theology of the body.”
The pastor, Father James Flanagan, said the ambitious program was put together by a hard-working parish committee. One goal was to offer a substantial weekend conference in easier travel distance for Catholics living on the south side of the archdiocese, he said.
“We just thought it would be a golden opportunity to get some great speakers and to bring people together on the south side,” he said. “I had a great committee who put it all together.”
The Friday night program included an XLT teen track and talks by Sister Helena Burns, a writer, blogger and filmmaker, on the theology of the body; by Father Paul Burke on end-of-life issues; and by Diane Duquette of the Catholic Foundation of North Georgia on estate planning.
Saturday speakers included Greg and Jennifer Willits, speaking on the New Evangelization and openness to life, Stephen and Ellen Cocks, speaking on NFP and family life, Dr. Kathleen Raviele, speaking on “Humanae Vitae 44 Years Later,” and a second presentation by Sister Helena.
“I think the vision we really tried to lay out to people was John Paul II’s theology of the body, which really gives people a well-ordered vision of the human person and of the relationship between men and women,” Father Flanagan said.
“It is rich. It is profound. It is very pertinent for our day and time,” he said.
Twenty-three-year-old Maggie Atkinson attended the first John Paul II Respect Life Conference at the Henry County parish. Atkinson is a senior biology major at Georgia’s Young Harris College.
Sister Helena, a Daughter of St. Paul, said that as reflections of God, men and women are persons, who can love, who can think, and who can will. Persons have a special dignity in creation, she said.
“We don’t control, manipulate or create a person,” she said. “However we go about conceiving a child has to be in keeping with the dignity of the child and the dignity of the husband and wife.”
She said the opposite of love is not hate, but to use a person.
She quoted the late pontiff, “The only appropriate response to a person is love.”
Outlining some of the threads in this theology that was proposed by John Paul II, she created a tapestry describing the genders of men and women as unique and complementary, not identical, as contemporary culture may assert, or in constant competition to outrank one another.
The culture misrepresents the nature of men and women, she said, and fails to understand sexuality.
“It is not that our culture places too much stress on sex. They don’t know what it is,” Sister Helena said.
“Sex is the marital embrace. It is everything—hopes, dreams, perfections and imperfections.”
“We separate life and love. We separate sex and love. We separate sex and life. … We break things apart that are meant to be together,” she said. “When we keep it together, we get the most out of it.”
“It is meant to be a foretaste of heaven. Sex within marriage is meant to lead you to God,” she said.
Interviewed after her presentation, the energetic and youthful presenter was asked how teens receive her talks on the theology of the body, which is both countercultural and intellectually rigorous.
She said despite all that, young people are receptive.
“We are made for truth and when they hear the message, they know it’s true. You can see it on their faces,” Sister Helena said. “I’ve seen kids do a 180 right in front of me.”
But the challenge is that after hearing about the theology of the body, they have to hang onto it and put the ideas into practice in a culture that does not support them, she said.
“There is no theology of the body culture for them to plug into,” she said.
She encourages young couples to take theology of the body classes together so they can hear this and work together to apply the wisdom while they are dating. She also said young people need couples to “apprentice” them in how to date in life-giving ways.
“Young people don’t know how to date anymore,” she said.
Growth of interest in the theology of the body has been organic.
There are now camps where teens can go and learn about it and a Texas group is training teens in peer ministry to teach the theology of the body to other teens, Sister Helena said. There is a theology of the body institute in Pennsylvania and study groups in various places around the country.
“I think (Pope John Paul II) is one of the greatest saints who ever lived,” she said.
Parishioners applauded the out-of-town and local speakers who spoke from their own lives as well as from theology about living the church’s teachings on life.
Dr. Leo Ovadje, a St. James parishioner, said the program was extremely helpful to him.
Married and the father of four children, Ovadje, a kidney specialist at Piedmont Hospital Henry County and Southern Regional Medical Center, said, “This was just wonderful. Every presentation was exceptional.”
“I have a lot of things to look up and fill in the gaps,” he said at the end of Saturday’s sessions.
Particularly helpful to him were the two married couples, who talked about the challenges of living their faith with Natural Family Planning and the insights they have gained in becoming more understanding as husband and wife.
“Hearing about their struggles helped me,” he said. “I really learned from it.”
He said he hoped to study more about the theology of the body. While his own children are young, he thought of nieces and nephews in college.
“If I learn more, I can also pass it on to them,” Ovadje said.
The parish committee who planned the event included Mark and Jenn Faas, Charles and Melissa Iner, Larry and Donna Beaulieu, Ruth Hobgood, John and Joan Virag, Denise Stripling, Conny Chilumuna, Meg Atkinson, Wall Marchant, MC, Diana Scarbrough, parish music director, and the parish Council of Catholic Women and Knights of Columbus.