June 14, 2024

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Women’s health meets Theology of the Body at Illinois parish event for teens

6 min read

The Catholic Church’s teaching on sexuality is predicated upon the idea that the human body is good.

But in a culture where the phrase “reproductive health” is often synonymous with contraception and abortion advocacy, it can be hard for parents to find educational resources about the human body and sexuality which reflect a Catholic viewpoint.

 Meg Murray (L) and Annie Norton.

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Two parishioners at St. Mary Mokena parish in Mokena, Illinois wanted to help change that.

Last month, the parish hosted a “Girl Talk” event for pre-teen and teenage girls to learn more about women’s health issues, from a perspective rooted in John Paul II’s Theology of the Body.

The event was not a sex-ed talk. Instead, the goal was to help girls understand their bodies without stigma, and with a mind to the Church’s teaching about anthropology – that God had designed their bodies with a purpose.

Annie Norton and Meg Murray, both Marquette-certified Natural Family Planning instructors and registered nurses, gave a presentation to the 33 girls who attended.

After their presentation, they split attendees into two groups, junior high and high school, for a Q&A portion.

“They were super engaged,” Murray told The Pillar. “They were super locked in.”

Martha Cavalieri, a mom of four whose teenage daughter attended the event, said that what initially grabbed her attention “was they were going to answer these questions that, many times, daughters aren’t going to ask their moms.”

“They’re just going to look online or go to Google and ask. And so I wanted this foundation to talk about the nuts and bolts of how your body will work, but also within the bigger picture of God’s plan and design,” Cavalieri told The Pillar.

She said her daughter Mia loved the two-hour event, and not just because of the tacos and cookies that caught her attention on the flier.

“They answered a lot of our questions and put our minds at ease about how things work,” Mia shared with her mom. “We see so many things on the internet that freak us out … It was so nice to know that not only were they knowledgeable nurses, but they were faithful Catholic moms who could answer our questions in the light of what God says.”

The event struck the right note, Cavalieri thought.

“This just really hits, I think, where girls are,” she said. “They’re really thinking about their body…They have all sorts of questions. And so to come at them with something that really matters to them is huge.”

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Defining the scope

In approaching potentially sensitive material, Murray and Norton were careful to define the goal and boundaries of the event.

They did not want the presentation to be a “glorified chastity talk,” Murray emphasized. Nor did they discuss Natural Family Planning – other than to note their background as Marquette method instructors.

“We never mentioned fertility,” Murray said. “We never mentioned intimacy.”

“Nothing about boys,” Norton added. “It was all focused on girls.”

Instead, the goal was to help the teenage girls understand their health – for example, how hormone shifts affect mood and appetite, and what is normal and abnormal for a teenage girl’s cycle.

They wanted to approach these topics from the lens of St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, especially because — as Norton put it — “the culture is so toxic right now.”

“Our bodies are gifts, and what we do with them matters,” Murray said they shared with attendees. “Being a woman isn’t about stereotypes. Being a woman is how you love — we didn’t mention, again, intimacy at all, just how we love the people around us.”

Norton and Murray hope the event can lay the groundwork for further education for the teens.

While they did not talk about Natural Family Planning, they hope that by beginning to tune into their cycles, the girls will have a more seamless transition to learning NFP down the road.

A lot of their NFP clients, Norton said, have hormonal issues that went undiscovered for years.

“They’re just now starting to realize that and look into it when they’re married and they want to have a baby, or they’re wanting to track their cycle to avoid pregnancy, and it’s making it really difficult,” said Norton.

“So I think that fertility awareness is so valuable to people even before they’re engaged, like in high school, even younger — knowing that your cycle is healthy is important because you can identify any problems and fix them before it’s critical.”

Furthermore, healthy ovulation is tied to overall health, the women said.

“Not just your cycle health, right, but your brain health, bone health, heart health,” said Norton. “So it’s part of your well-being, making sure that you’re having a healthy cycle.”

And if the girls better understand their own bodies, Norton and Murray said, they may be less likely to end up on birth control simply to cover up problems — or to address symptoms that are in fact normal.

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Supporting parents

Norton and Murray told The Pillar that conversations about those topics need to start in the home.

“It doesn’t have to be ‘the talk’ or anything, but just little bits of truth about who you are, how God made you,” said Norton. “And as you grow older, you can get more and more of that, exposed to all of that, and then it’s just an integrated part of your life and marriage.”

While Cavalieri has had “open” conversations with her daughter, she said, she is grateful for the support from the parish in forming her teenage children.

“We talk about the faith so much at home, but we knew that at [this] point, they tend to tune Mom and Dad out maybe a little more, and they’re listening and looking for other voices,” she said.

Norton and Murray — themselves parishioners at St. Mary and known to many of the parents — made sure to be available for questions. One mom offered feedback on their presentation slides before the event.

“We were very, very transparent with what we were doing,” said Murray. “We were very transparent about what we were not doing.”

In spite of the sensitive material covered, the parish has not received any complaints or negative feedback.

“I was concerned that parents might be apprehensive to bring their daughters to an event like this, but I was blown away by the response!” Fr. Dindo Billote, pastor of St. Mary Mokena, told The Pillar.

“Even before the event, mothers were giving feedback about how great this event would be for today’s teens.”

Fr. Billote and Tom Blue, the parish’s youth minister, told The Pillar that after the success of the Girl Talk event, they’re considering a similar event for teen boys.

“This general response has strengthened my belief that all Catholic parishes need to provide opportunities for their parishioners — especially the teens — to learn about and discuss Catholic teaching in a safe and comfortable environment,” Fr. Billote said.

Norton and Murray are glad to play a role in making conversations about sexuality and faith more open and accessible.

“I don’t think it’s right for us to gatekeep information out of fear,” said Murray.

“God made our bodies, our bodies are good, and so if we treat them with shame and fear, then we pass that on to our daughters and the next generation. I guess my mindset would be: formation over rules, formation over fear, formation over shame.”

Cavalieri hopes that Mia will always know that God’s design is good.

“I just hope that she will continue to see that she was made on purpose, with a purpose.”

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This article is part of The Pillar’s solutions-oriented series highlighting parishes across the U.S. You can read more from this series here.

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