Helping young Catholics engage their culture on matters of human dignity and sexuality — based on the writings of St. John Paul II — was the aim of a recent symposium held in the heart of London.

“Young people are hungry for knowledge about the true meaning of personal love and human sexuality,” said conference speaker Robert McNamara.

Over the course of the Jan 13-17 symposium, McNamara, an adjunct professor of philosophy at Steubenville University, led a series of lectures on human dignity and sexuality, based primarily on St. John Paul II's Theology of the Body and Love and Responsibility.

“People, both young and old, are most interested in discovering a path for life, in discovering the meaning of their being and life, and in so doing finding that which enables them to live full and meaningful lives,” McNamara told CNA.

“Ultimately, we are all interested in discovering love. And so too, we are all hungry to better understand the meaning of personal love and, with it, the meaning of human sexuality. In this way we can more easily discern how to discover love and choose love.”

Theology of the Body is the corpus of 129 General Audience addresses delivered by St. John Paul II from 1979 to 1984, which centered on the human person and human sexuality. Likewise addressing the theme of marriage and sexuality, “Love and Responsibility,” first published in 1960, years before his election to the papacy, examines the subject from a more academic perspective.

The five-day gathering in London of presentations and workshops was opened by speaker Christopher West delivering the 2016 Theology of the Body Lecture — an annual initiative since 2004 organized by Westminster Director for marriage and family life, Edmund Adamus. Addressing interconnected themes of love, sex and mercy, West garnished the academic and practical principles of Theology of the Body with personal testimony, appreciated by the 300 plus audience.

St. Patrick’s Catholic Church, located in the upscale Soho district of London, hosted the event under the guidance of its pastor, Fr. Alexander Sherbrooke.

“People who come into an area like this, essentially they are looking for love,” said Fr. Sherbrooke in an interview with CNA. “That search for love is often misdirected and misappropriated, but, still they’re searching for love.”

Speaking in the context of marriage and human sexuality, Fr. Sherbrooke discussed the role of beauty in evangelization, and its ability to bring order to the lives of people living in a society marked by permissiveness.

“In society, you can do everything, you can be everything, there are no rules to anything,” he said. “We live in a very formless, fluid world.”

However, “man is not, in fact, well-structured for that,” Fr. Sherbrooke said. “He needs his form. He needs his structure. He needs to have his patterns of existence.”

People are “made for love, to receive love, and to give love,” he continued, “but most people have had no experience of the beauty of married life, of a family, and of all the things that we hold dear.”

“That is part of God’s beauty. That is a beauty in itself.”

Also incorporated into the symposium were opportunities for prayer and evangelization. These included daily Mass and Adoration, a healing service led by the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, and an evening of Nightfever.

“We need to hear what people are saying,” Fr. Sherbrooke said, explaining the reason for incorporating evangelization into this conference. “We need to hear how people are living their lives, however unsettling it may be for us.

“We can't just talk amongst ourselves,” he stressed, “because a). we're not being true to the Gospel, and b). we’re not trusting in the Holy Spirit.”

The Symposium also included a series of workshops aimed at showing how Theology of the Body can be practically applied to everyday life.

Several of the workshops dealt with issues related to fertility, and how attempts to artificially control it — such as through IVF or contraception — can have serious implications for women in terms of health and self-worth.

Theology of the Body helps to “answer to the many reproductive questions that we have today,” said Ira Winter, manager of the Life Fertility Care clinic in the UK, which offers Natural Procreative (NaPro) technology to treat couples struggling with infertility.

“God is the author of all new life,” she said. “Therefore, we need to involve him when we are discerning how we live this out.”

NaPro Technology is a method of addressing infertility by diagnosing and treating underlying problems. Unlike IVF, which relies on invasive procedures, NaPro takes a holistic approach in addressing the core causes of infertility.

“NaPro technology is really going back to trying to find out what is the underlying cause of problems, and trying to come up with solutions that are not eradicating the woman’s cycle, but actually leading to some healing,” Winter explained.

“In the end couples will turn away from IVF when they understand God placed the co-creative gift right at the heart of their marital communion,” she said.

“Theology of the Body helps couples understand why this gift is simply too precious to abdicate to a laboratory,” Winter said, adding that it “excites couples as to the value of their marriage.”

Another theme addressed during the workshop sessions regarded the implications of so-called “gender theory.”

A speaker from the Warsaw-based Center for the Thought of John Paul II illustrated the characteristics and dangers of gender ideology with reference to the suffering endured by individuals affected by gender identity disorder and gender dysphoria.

In light of demands for “gender-affirming” treatments and procedures that aim to override an individual's biological sex, the speaker encouraged participants to affirm reality and to reflect on the importance and meaning of sexual difference and of the human body as such.

The talking points of the workshop were based on fragments of Benedict XVI's 2012 Christmas address to the Roman Curia, and a 2004 Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Collaboration of Men and Women in the Church, signed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Drawing on John Paul II's reflections on woundedness and Redemption and on parts from Pope Francis' newest book “The Name of God is Mercy,” participants were invited to respond with mercy to those affected.

One of the volunteers at the conference, London lawyer Stephanie Tang, told CNA it was “a complete healing process” to encounter Theology of the Body as a recent convert to Catholicism from a family of Buddhists.

“One of the greatest difficulties, I would say, is shedding the schema with which I interpreted the world, and replacing it from the inside, from the heart, with Catholic theology, and Jesus' way of life,” Tang said.

She recounted how one of the lectures by McNamara on “spousal love” and complete self-gift caused her to have a “visceral” reaction.

“It actually flew in the face of everything that my parents had taught me,” Tang explained. “My mom had always said: reserve a little bit for yourself; if he’s not nice to you, take a bit of your love back; make sure you’ve got separate bank accounts; make sure you’re alright if he leaves you.”

“Being a lawyer, we’re all about risk minimization,” she said. “So, to learn that God wanted us to love completely, expose all your vulnerabilities — that was very hard for me.”

The principles learned at the conference not only show it is possible to “live right by God,” she said, but “the responsibility we have to spread the truth about our own bodies that all of us innately know.”

Margaret Jey-Sharwan, who traveled from Nigeria to attend the event, told CNA how the principles of Theology of the Body could help those in her country discover how to bring unity within their marriages.

“For us in Nigeria, and basically in most African cultures, it’s a man’s world. It’s what the man wants,” she said. “All you need is to have a submissive wife.”

Although this mentality is starting to change, still “you find people who are not happy in their marriages,” she said.

“We don't have high divorce rates in Africa, not as high as the Western world,” yet there are a number of unhappy marriages. Many choose to live through these marriages in order to avoid the stigma of separation, she said.

“If people understood (Theology of the Body) better, if couples understood this better, then they would understand themselves, understand their marriages, understand what is expected of them, it would definitely bring unity in the home.”

Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, issued a message for the symposium, noting its objective being to “nurture deeper reflection on our God given human dignity from the perspective of Pope St. John Paul’s visionary catechesis on sexuality in the context of marriage and family.”

“I pray that everyone involved will be blessed with greater confidence to give witness to the wonderful truth about the human person,” Cardinal Nichols said.

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