Marriage preparation classes obviously aren’t suited for pre-schoolers, and yet the concepts that lead to a successful, happy and holy marriage, need to start in pre-school or even younger.
This is the assertion made by Monica Ashour, executive director of of the Theology of the Body Evangelization Team, Inc. also known as TOBET.
Ashour and her team are developing a curriculum for kids, to prepare them to understand the truths imparted by St. John Paul II in his teachings on theology of the body.
ZENIT interviewed Ashour about the curriculum and her other work with TOBET.
ZENIT: Monica, you just celebrated TOBET’s 15 year anniversary. Through TOBET, you and your team give talks, lead seminars and develop marriage preparation programs. Now, there’s a new initiative called The Body Matters. What is The Body Matters?
Ashour: The Body Matters is a pre-school to 8th grade curriculum that we are developing, based on St. John Paul’s Theology of the Body (TOB). It gives children the background mentality to embrace the truth of the body. It is a mindset that prepares them for a healthy, sacramental understanding of what it means to be human—body and soul.
ZENIT: What led you to begin this endeavor?
Ashour: I’ve received phone calls, emails, and letters from people around the United States and abroad, asking for help to form little ones properly. This is often after children are inculcated with cultural messages that contradict the truth of the body and thus the truth of the person. Then, I approached TOBET’s Episcopal (Catholic Bishops) Advisory Board to ask their advice.
ZENIT: Who is on your Board, and what was their response?
Ashour: President Archbishop Samuel Aquila of Denver, Bishop Kevin Farrell—now Kevin Cardinal Farrell—Bishop David Konderla of Tulsa, Bishop Mark Seitz of El Paso, Bishop Mike Sis of San Angelo, Bishop Joe Strickland of Tyler, and Bishop Kevin Vann of Orange, California. They encouraged me to create a TOB curriculum, which included books. That was last November. This November in Baltimore when I was an Official Observer at the USCCB’s annual meeting, they were delighted that TOBET already has 2 Story Books and 2 Lesson Books.
ZENIT: What do you mean by Story Books?
Ashour: While earning my Master’s of Humanities from the University of Dallas, I was formed by the late Dr. Louise Cowan who helped to shape the Great Books program at UD. She taught literature as a mode of knowing—a way of reaching truth that only the imagination can access. Therefore, I knew that TOBET’s The Body Matters TOB Curriculum needed not only “regular” lesson books for family, faith formation, and Catholic schools, but we also needed fun and meaningful stories with great illustrations to capture the imagination of children.
ZENIT: So, you write both types of books?
Ashour: My team does, under my direction. I hired Amy Dedman, classically educated at Hillsdale College, who presents children with a compelling vision of each TOB Concept that I set forth in The Body Matters. For instance, Lizzy’s Greatest Gift explores a little girl’s progression from thinking that she has nothing to give since she has no money …to realizing that with her body—given in truth and love to family and friends through every day acts of generosity—she has the greatest gift to give. Thus, the book reveals the TOB concept “The Body as Gift” which is also covered and elaborated on in the accompanying Lesson Book.
ZENIT: And how is that idea “The Body as Gift” a TOB Concept?
Ashour: That’s one of the most fundamental concepts for St. John Paul—the gift of self! The gift of self is given through each person’s body as a sacrament, and it leads us to the meaning of life: Love. Love—the gift of self, given through our bodies—is the meaning of life.
ZENIT: Hence, one of your lesson books is called The Body as Sacrament…
Ashour: Precisely! That book, written by Alexis Mausolf, is a way to capture for the 5th grader the line in the Theology of the Body which says, “In some way…the body enters into the definition of a sacrament…” (TOB 87:5). This Lesson Book has beautiful original illustrations by Jennifer Soriano and is designed to ellict a 5th grader’s interest. It has practical, age-appropriate examples for children to understand such a difficult concept.
We are forming children at a very early age to understand that their body reveals them as a complete person. This counters all sorts of distorted (even if well-meaning) cultural messages. And without children knowing it, The Body Matters is distant marriage preparation. The culmination of the Theology of the Body—the last chapter—points out that contraception takes away from what spouses long for: a true experience of the totality of the other person. According to St. John Paul, a body-to-body encounter means a person-to-person encounter when we understand the body as a sacrament. So, in our book to 5th graders, one passage states: “When you hug your parents, your body shows your love for them. They know your love through your body. Your body is a visible sign that brings about an invisible reality” (p. 26). Thus, the foundation is set to see the body as a “bridge” to others, to quote Pope Emeritus Benedict. In contrast stands Gender Identity against which Pope Benedict and Pope Francis both warn us.
ZENIT: Does The Body Matters mention such sensitive topics as gender identity to little ones?
Ashour: Absolutely not! Yet, we know parents and other catechists are asking for help in responding to such issues; we put such matters in the Educator Guides. There, we introduce a prominent word in the Theology of the Body: detachment. Unlike St. John of the Cross who uses the word as a positive—to be detached from pride, greed, selfishness, etc., St. John Paul says we are unfortunately becoming detached from the truth and meaning of the body. We see the body as a shell or tool, not as a sacrament or as a teacher.
One of our fictional characters, Nick, helps us to understand that TOB Concept in TOBET’s Story Book, Nick’s Night at the Zoo! His body teaches him when he is hungry, scared, tired. And he ultimately learns from his body that he belongs with his family, not at the zoo. It is a really cute book! And the illustrations by Karol Kaminski are fantastic! I love that this talented woman with the same name as Pope John Paul’s given name Karol (Wojtyla) is one of TOBET’s illustrators.
ZENIT: How neat! And I imagine that part of what you are thinking, Monica, is that gender identity goes against the body as a teacher.
Ashour: Precisely. That and any controversial issue—abortion, in vitro fertilization, euthanasia, sterilization, contraception—are forms of detachment, whereby we don’t take the body and its meaning seriously. The Body Matters will help parents and educators to counter detachment by speaking about the body and its meaning. St. John Paul didn’t write the Theology of the Person or the Theology of the Soul or even the Theology of Love…but the Theology of the Body. We should take the body seriously.
ZENIT: What final comments do you have for our readers?
Ashour: There’s great hope! Although our Church’s catechesis and evangelization for a generation has lacked a cogent, beautiful understanding of the body’s relevance within Christianity, in fact, the body is the hinge—the Word was made flesh! When I give talks to parents and their children to introduce The Body Matters, I challenge students from 2nd grade or 4th grade or 7th grade with a barrage of questions, interspersed with fun, of course! For a whole hour every single answer should be “The Body.” It takes them a while, but they finally get it! The answer is “The BODY!” Then, I ask: “What is the center of Catholicism, the center of our faith?” They hesitate since they know the answer is The Body….but they don’t understand how. Finally, one hesitant student says, “The body!” “Precisely!” I say—but how?” “The Eucharist!” “Yes!” and then, I add, “And where did Christianity begin.” “The body,” they say, perplexed. Then, their faces light up! “Mother Mary’s body with Jesus’ body inside her.” “Yes!” I say. “God gives meaning and value to our bodies—let’s do the same, for the body matters!”
ZENIT: How many times have you read the Theology of the Body?
Ashour: Fourteen (laughing). It’s like candy to me! And thanks to my background in education, I can “translate” St. John Paul’s dense work for children. I am delighted to put our unique curriculum, The Body Matters into the hands of future generations.
For those who have questions, would like to order books, or want to see the whole scope and sequence, please go to www.tobet.org. With enough donations and prayer, we hope to be completely finished with over 50 books by 2019. I ask for prayers and support.