On a recent afternoon, 4-year-olds in the junior kindergarten class at St. Mary Magdalen School in Brentwood were spread out on the floor, sitting criss-cross applesauce and listening intently during story time.
Jennifer Meehan, the parish’s director of religious education, read “God Has a Plan for Boys and Girls.” The story’s central theme was on the uniqueness of every person, including mind, heart, body and soul, and created in the image and likeness of God.
“Everybody is a person,” Meehan read cheerful voice. “We all have human bodies. We all have human souls. We all have human minds and we all have human hearts.”
Afterward, they played a game, in which the children learned that boys and girls can grow up to do some of the same things, such as driving a truck, working in a school or becoming a doctor. But other things are unique to males and females — such as men becoming priests and women becoming religious sisters.
These lessons are building blocks to understand how and why God created us male and female, Meehan said. The children are learning early concepts of Theology of the Body.
The school implemented the curriculum this year, thanks to a grant from the Missouri Knights of Columbus and a private donor from the parish. Meehan is using a curriculum that teaches age-appropriate concepts from kindergarten through 12th grade.
Theology of the Body refers to St. John Paul II’s teachings (which began as a series of lectures from 1979-84) on the meaning and purpose of humanity from a holistic perspective — including body, mind, heart and soul. He explored topics such as the sexual complementarity of man and woman and the nature of marriage and chastity. He also further explained the Church teaching on contraception found in St. Paul VI’s “Humanae Vitae.”
While the youngest students are learning basic concepts, older students are diving into topics such as conscience, free will, the intersection of body and soul, and relationships. Lessons also incorporate the Scriptures.
“My hope is that they take away from this an appreciation for themselves and others as being created by God for a sacred purpose,” said Meehan. “That they have inherent dignity because they’re created in His image and likeness. The more you understand that you are sacred and it’s important to treat yourself with respect and dignity and to treat each other with that, then it’s easier to tackle the other stuff that comes up along the way.”
The program has received the blessing of pastor Father Jack Siefert. A parishioner had shared with him information on a Theology of the Body program for students a little over a year ago, and the priest agreed it would be good for the whole school.
“Theology of the Body calls man to his highest good with chastity, with charity, with dignity of the body,” said Father Siefert. “The way society is right now, there’s a lot of viewing everything as an object to be used and thrown away. I thought this might be a good counter to that. What John Paul did was invite people to see humanity as created by God, as extremely good, and how do we respect and protect that dignity.”
The same program also is offered to students in the family-based Parish School of Religion, Meehan noted. School parents also receive a summary sheet of concepts students learned in the classroom, to continue the discussion at home.
Meehan said she hopes that five years from now, she will see a shift in the culture in which everyone understands on a deeper level that “everyone is cherished as a beloved child of God.”
>> Theology of the Body resources
United States Conference of Catholic Bishops: bit.ly/2KLHoFl
The Cor Project: corproject.com
Theology of the Body Institute: tobinstitute.org