In a culture increasingly marked by confusion regarding sexuality, one author and speaker has set about making the basic tenets of Theology of the Body accessible to even the youngest members of the Church.
Monica Ashour is the director of the Theology of the Body Evangelization Team (TOBET), and has recently released a series of books for children as young as 2, and another series for the kindergarten and early-elementary age group.
ZENIT asked Ashour to explain why she’s written these books and to tell us more about her ministry.
ZENIT: Monica, your Theology of the Body [ToB] for Tots and ToB for Kids are becoming well-known. Why is it never too young to start with this message?
Ashour: In some respects, St. John Paul’s theology of the body is “ever ancient and ever new,” for it is the self-same Christianity but with a rightful emphasis, given our milieu: a focus on the body and its meaning. When I give talks, Catholics are a bit uncomfortable and even shocked when I remind them that the Source and Summit of our faith is centered around a body—The Body of Christ. Jesus doesn’t say, “This is my soul,” or “This is my divinity.”
“This is my Body” is what Jesus said, knowing His Body is like a “sacrament” of His entire self. Therefore, if we form the imaginations of children at a very young age to take seriously the truth and meaning of the body, it sets a solid foundation for a lifetime.
ZENIT: As you distill the message of theology of the body to pre-K levels, what is the main point that you try to convey? Maybe another way to say this is, what is theology of the body in its most simplified form?
Ashour: The body matters! Why does it matter? It speaks a “language.” What is the language? LOVE. Love is the bottom line. Another way of saying love is that our bodies “teach” us that we are meant to be GIFTS. My ToB for Tots series has one book entitled, “Every BODY is a Gift” and my ToB for Kids series includes, “Everybody Has Something to Give.” So in reading these books at a very young age, children begin to see that they are meant to be gifts—and this happens through the body.
We have arms to hug others, eyes to show we care, fingers to paint pictures for another—our bodies are directed toward others—and when we live out the true meaning of the body through the gift of self, we image God Himself. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—three distinct Divine Persons—are gifts to each other from all eternity. So, when I speak to children or to their parents, the main message is for them to know their body—given as a gift to them from God—has deep meaning. And if they live according to that meaning, they will find fulfillment in life.
ZENIT: Of course you cannot get into the “nitty gritty” of things like Gender Identity or sexuality with little ones, but one mom blogger praised your “God Made Boys and Girls” insofar as it sets a basis for giving the truth to children to counter such false messages. Can you elaborate on this?
Ashour: Sure. The first thing I ought to point out (not to children but to the Zenit readers) is that St. John Paul speaks about the fact that one’s personal experience matters and ought to be recognized. He speaks about Adam in Genesis 2 being “in search of his identity.” By no means should we bypass the person and his/her experience in order to get him a message. Evangelization consists in opening a “space” (Pope Emeritus Benedict loved that word) for a person-to-Person encounter—it is not knocking people on the head with objective truth.
Hence, given that respectful relationship emerging, then we might offer a different way of seeing, particularly, in seeing the body as a “GIFT.” St. John Paul speaks of “receiving creation as a gift” (which seems to be Pope Francis’ emphasis in his latest encyclical). Thus, if I really am convinced that my body is a gift, then if I am struggling internally with Gender Dysphoria or the like, perhaps it is not the body (my God-given gift) that is wrong, as an “enemy to freedom” to manipulate as I please, as RR Reno in First Things Magazine rightly underscores as modernity’s approach to the body, but perhaps I can focus on my personal experience and work to see what went amiss and how I might be healed.
In terms for children in ToB for Tots and for Kids—we say simply, “Daddy has a boy body. He’s a man,” and “Mommy has a girl body. She is a woman.” The body matters. It teaches the child whether he or she is male or female. This used to be an obvious truth! St. John Paul saw the need to emphasize the body in our Gnostic society. As I told Archbishop Paglia, the President of the Pontifical Council for the Family, when I was at a meeting in DC with him, “Please, Your Excellency, for the World Meeting of Families and for the Synod on the Family, mention the body and its significance.”
ZENIT: What else does TOBET do besides your children’s books (published by Pauline Books and Media) and talks to parents that can support families and the Church?
Ashour: TOBET—The Theology of the Body Evangelization Team—offers three main evangelization tools: 1. Theology of the Body Marriage Preparation book, along with an entire program, replete with a Facilitator’s Guide, Tips for Presenting, and a Pastoral Approach to Controversial Issues. Dioceses and parishes invite us to form their marriage prep team. 2. TOBET Seminars—for anyone, but Catholic schools, dioceses, and youth ministers are anxious for their leaders to be formed in TOB. Our speakers fly to places to do training. 3. TOBET4Youth—TOBET young adult speakers give nationwide retreats (including Confirmation retreats) and talks to the youth.
Monica Ashour, executive director of the Theology of the Body Evangelization Team, Inc. (a 501 c 3 non-profit), holds both a Master’s in Theological Studies and a Master’s in Humanities from the University of Dallas. To order books or more information, go to www.tobet.org