Church renews vigor for promoting dignity of human person

The Pontifical Academy for Life could very well study the Diocese of Phoenix to help achieve its original and recently affirmed goal.

That’s not to say such a study is in the pipeline, but the 22-year-old research and advisory body will be examining ways to promote “the care of the dignity of the human person at different ages of existence.” It’s among new statutes Pope Francis issued at the Vatican Nov. 5. They take effect Jan. 1, 2017.

Aside from new rules governing membership terms and removal of a request that members sign a “Declaration of the Servants of Life,” most changes simply reflect a renewed energy and broader scope of study and activity. Renewed vigor, especially with different age groups, is something the Diocese of Phoenix has exercised through its Catholic Academy for Life Leadership and other efforts.

About 50 youth participated in an “Encounter” retreat at Mt. Claret Retreat Center Nov. 4-6 as part of first-year activities through the diocesan Catholic Academy for Life Leadership. The teens focused on joy, truth, hope and more. (Courtesy photo)
About 50 youth participated in an “Encounter” retreat at Mt. Claret Retreat Center Nov. 4-6 as part of first-year activities through the diocesan Catholic Academy for Life Leadership. The teens focused on joy, truth, hope and more. (Courtesy photo)

The academy, known as CALL, is an optional program for high school students. The Office of Natural Family Planning launched it six years ago as part of the diocese’s multi-year plan to offer remote preparation for Catholics on matters of love and life long before the bustle of marriage preparation.

Five classes have completed the three-year program so far with more than 1,000 teens attending portions of it. Quarterly seminars focus on the Theology of the Body, the beauty of biology — taught separately for boys and girls — authentic relationships, marriage and the philosophical basics of bioethics. Students can jump in mid-year with seminars repeated in different parts of the Valley.

“We want them to learn how their faith can inform how they live in society. If they can love that, then they can lead with that,” explained Cindy Leonard, director of CALL and the NFP Office.

The youth are doing just that. They’re better equipped to engage in fruitful “life” dialogue.

“I’m much more established. I feel I know the details. I know what is true,” said Carolina Escarcega. “It gave me the tools to say, ‘This is what I believe and this is why I believe it.’”

The 2015 CALL graduate hasn’t left the program. She is among 20 mentors serving as peer role models to make such learning more fun and relatable for the youth.

CALL is intended to supplement formation from mom and dad and to give it more credibility. Escarcega knows not every CALL student is initially there of his or her own free will, but the 18-year-old noted hopeful baby steps. She saw much more teen engagement between the first and second seminars earlier this semester.

The need to reach today’s teenager and pre-teen with the Church’s truths is something Colin MacIver expanded on during separate Theology of the Body workshops Nov. 1-2 at the Diocesan Pastoral Center. The Louisiana high school theology teacher is co-author of “Theology of the Body for Teens — Middle school Edition,” published by Ascension Press.

He presented an array of recent statistics about the Church’s challenge to reach teens. More than half have seen a sexual encounter online with most boys and six in 10 girls being exposed to porn by age 18. The average exposure for boys is age 12. Sexually active teens suffer an increased risk of depression and suicide attempts.

Other stats showed a double-digit decline — 14 percent for girls and 22 percent for boys — in the past 25 years for teens ages 15 to 19 who had sex. MacIver cautioned parish, school and diocesan leaders against letting their guard down too soon. Those numbers don’t reflect pornographic or sexting activities, which can surface in twisted “games.”

Curriculum for "Theology of the Body for Teens: Middle School Edition" adorns the resource table during a Nov. 1-2 presentation at the Diocesan Pastoral Center. Educators and parish leaders discussed the need to reach junior high and high school youth with solid Church teaching, particularly regarding their self image. (Ambria Hammel/CATHOLIC SUN)
Curriculum for “Theology of the Body for Teens: Middle School Edition” adorns the resource table during a Nov. 1-2 presentation at the Diocesan Pastoral Center. Educators and parish leaders discussed the need to reach junior high and high school youth with solid Church teaching, particularly regarding their self image. (Ambria Hammel/CATHOLIC SUN)

“We want them to have integrity, sexual integrity,” MacIver said. “We want our teenagers to be free.”

He believes Ascension Press’s Theology of the Body for Teens curriculum encourages that through prayer, ice breakers, videos and story starters. “You: Life, Love, and the Theology of the Body,” is a newly published high school curriculum that also offers content streamed online.

“If we want to be effective in ministry, we can’t just be channels of grace. We have to be reservoirs,” MacIver said.

A pilot “Mom and Me” seminar for girls ages 10-17 strove for just that. The NFP office served as “tea party” hosts for a gentle introduction to the purpose of the female body and changes to expect in the coming years. The one-day summer seminar dew in 90 people to the pre-teen session and 70 to the teen session.

“Our goal was to give them the beautiful,” said Cindy Leonard, who also sits on a national NFP advisory board. “Your body is fearfully and wonderfully made. A woman’s body is made to receive the gift of life and nurture it. It’s a tremendous gift.”

It wasn’t all technicalities. A mom who had difficulty conceiving and was successful only once, shared her story. There was a chastity talk, a reflection on the Blessed Mother, a panel discussion and exhibits.

Leonard’s own daughter, a pre-med student at Fordham University, offered the chastity talk.

“Trust me — you want to know this and you want to know this with your mom,” she told the girls. She interned at Life Choices over the summer and couldn’t believe how little clients understood about their own bodies in an era of sex education.

A similar workshop for dads and sons is in the works for next summer with moms who couldn’t make the female gathering already anticipating their seminar next year.

“There’s a huge, pent up demand for this,” Leonard said.