By BILL HOWARD
COLORADO SPRINGS. Thanks to the efforts of The Cor Project and Crudem Foundation, seeds have been planted that will allow Pope John Paul II’s landmark Theology of the Body (TOB) teachings to flourish and transform a culture that suffers from devastating poverty and, subsequently, struggling marriage rates.
Cor Project founder, TOB speaker and best-selling author Christopher West spent Sept. 15-20 in Milot, Haiti, as a guest of Crudem and Monsignor Joachim Roboam “Father Tijwa” Anantua, pastor of Immaculate Conception Parish in Milot. West spoke to the priests of the 44 parishes of the Archdiocese of Cap-Haïtien, as well as to 40 seminarians and a host of youth leaders about how God reveals His glory through our bodies.
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The “Theology of the Body” is the name given to a collection of audiences given by Pope John Paul II during the first five years of his pontificate expounding on what West describes as the Catholic Church’s “redeeming vision of human sexuality.”
West’s visit to Haiti was more than two years in the making. The catalyst was Deb O’Hara-Rusckowski, a registered nurse from the Boston area who also serves on the board of Crudem, which runs a Catholic hospital and medical center, Sacre Coeur (Sacred Heart) that provides dignified health care to the sick and poor, as well as runs an educational center for health care professionals.
It was the “education” part that peaked O’Hara’s interest in bringing the Theology of the Body to Milot. O’Hara’s background includes several years as the head of the Archdiocese of Boston Respect Life Office, and she spent much of her time coordinating speaker programs.
“The archbishop here knew we were teaching lifelong love, chastity and Theology of the Body (at Immaculate Conception Parish) for the last 4-5 years,” O’Hara said.
While in Boston, she developed a chastity program and had utilized presentations from popular speaker and author Jason Evert and his wife Crystalina. Knowing the powerful impact they had on the young adults, O’Hara longed to bring Jason to Haiti to water what she felt is fertile ground to plant the Church’s beautiful teachings on chastity and marriage in the hearts of young Haitian Catholics.
It took two years for Evert’s visit to Milot to materialize, but this past January, he and O’Hara traveled to Milot to inspire the youth with benefits of living chastely. Archbishop Louis Kébreau, S.D.B., was so impressed that he asked O’Hara to bring in someone to talk to the priests about the Theology of the Body. She and Evert immediately thought of West and worked with Cor Project leader Mark Wassmer to arrange for he and Cor Project colleagues David Kang and Jason Clark to visit last month.
“The first thing that struck me was the poverty,” said West, reflecting on his initial thoughts upon his van ride from the airport to the grounds of Crudem. “There are so many things we take for granted in the U.S. – the paved roads and clean water. And yet, despite the material poverty, there is such a rich generosity of spirit about the people.”
It was that spirit that West wanted to tap into to bridge “first world” America with “third world” Haiti, the same spirit that all men and women have regardless of economic situations.
“The common thread is that every heart is created for love,” West said. “We have the same hungers, the same longings, the same hopes and dreams in that sense. But many of these people are just wondering where their next meal is coming from, so that creates ‘stakes’ in life that are very different from what we’re used to here in the U.S. Dealing with spiritual matters seems like a luxury when you’re living in a small shack with several mouths to feed.”
In the 2007 United Nations Human Development Index, Haiti ranked 146 out of 177 countries in terms of living in poverty. According to Haiti census results from 2009, nearly 80 percent of all Haitians live below the country’s poverty line, with an average per capita income of just US$480 per year. These conditions have played a big role in the lack of Haitian couples making permanent commitments through the sacrament of marriage.
“Few people get married in Haiti,” West said. “The cultural situation is very different (from the U.S.). As was explained to me, there is strong cultural pressure to have a big wedding, but very few people can afford that. So rather than suffering the cultural embarrassment of doing something small – all that’s required by Canon Law is a priest and two witnesses – they just don’t get married. So one of the main concerns of the priests is to help couples understand the importance of actually getting married.”
In the years O’Hara has spent going back and forth between Haiti and Massachusetts, she has also been struck deeply by the great heart of the Haitian people, which has made it harder for her to accept the poor state of marriage and the family. Like in America, cohabitation is more the norm than exception, and pornography – particularly through smartphones – is a huge problem.
“Unfortunately, infidelity is widely accepted,” she said. “It’s almost no surprise when a man has relations with someone other than their (partner). And if they get married, no one is surprised when they’re unfaithful. . . . The whole image of the body is different than the beauty the TOB presents itself as. They’re very practical (in Haiti). Sex is very separated from marriage and love. Sex is more of a biological need.”
The priests of Haiti have been battling with these issues for decades, which made them sponges to soak in the life-affirming and life-changing teaching of the Theology of the Body that The Cor Project brought with them. With the help of a translator, West spent two days with the priests and seminarians unpacking the rich teachings of the TOB. He quickly found he was in deep mission territory with the TOB.
“When I asked if the priests and seminarians were familiar with the TOB, not a single hand was raised. They were delighted to learn about it,” he said.
O’Hara said she could literally see their faces light up at receiving a critical tool to help the Haitian faithful reconnect with the true dignity of their bodies and the sacraments of the Catholic faith.
“(The priests) said, ‘You’ve given us something we’ve never heard in these types of words. This is something beautiful to teach us and we can teach others,’” O’Hara said. “The priests truly appreciated the whole explanation of celibacy (for the sake of the kingdom) and the beauty of giving themselves in marriage to God. It was absolutely beautiful in the way they received it.”
“The suffering in Haiti is on a different scale than in the U.S., but it doesn’t change God’s teachings toward us as humans and what the value of our bodies are in relation to marriage and, in general, our bodies’ ability to speak the language of love that God is trying to communicate with us,” she added.
With a relationship forged between Cor Project, Crudem and the archdiocese, a pilot TOB program for Haiti is being discussed. The tools in chastity and TOB training left by West, Evert and the Cor Project team are being integrated in parish catechesis, including Natural Family Planning training and marriage preparation.
“People here are hungry for this,” O’Hara said. “People really love hearing the truth, and they’re very open to it. This (visit) has been a booster shot for them.”
As energizing as the experience was, West was also greatly sobered from this immersion. As he and his team flew home, he said he reflected on the great spectrum of faith, joy and suffering he witnessed in Haiti.
“I don’t understand the mind of God. I don’t understand why I was born in a country with such luxury and opportunity and so many others are not,” he said. “To whom much is given, much is expected. What gives me hope is knowing that none of the sufferings of these people are in vain. Suffering is the currency of redemption. God has a plan. All injustices will eventually be set right. That, and that alone, allows me to be hopeful.”
Howard is director of media relations for The Cor Project and editor of The Colorado Catholic Herald, the award-winning newspaper of the Diocese of Colorado Springs. For media inquiries, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more on the trip to Haiti: Haunted by Joy