I first heard the phrase “Theology of the Body” as a junior in college at the University of Cincinnati. A woman I had met at an archdiocesan program in Cincinnati suggested that I look into it. I picked up Christopher West’s book for “beginners” not long after, and it spoke truth to me. The college scene today can be a tumultuous one when trying to understand our sexuality. As a committed Catholic, it was a rather abrupt transition for me going from a largely rural and Catholic community to a more urban and secular population. After a few years in college, I understood more why my parents were apprehensive about this new environment. Heart wrenching stories of street muggings, sexual assault, and date rape were quick to reach my ears. Some of these stories involved people very near to me. Even outside of these graver examples, I constantly bore witness to a casual hook-up culture . . . to nonchalant attitudes towards pornography . . . to indifference as to how modestly one ought to dress. Honestly, being surrounded by this was incredibly challenging for me. I cannot begin to explain how heavy peer pressure can be when you find yourself in the tiny minority with how you view and approach relationships and human sexuality.
Fast forward four years. I completed my degree in Cincinnati and found myself discerning a vocation to priesthood. It was at this time that I entered a formation program for religious life in a Society of Apostolic Life. An important part of formation for priesthood, especially in light of discerning a life of celibacy, involves engaging with questions of human sexuality. Two years into my formation program, I was craving something more substantive on this topic. I decided it would be worthwhile getting some more formal instruction on Pope St. John Paul II’s actual work. I signed up for the Institute’s “Head and Heart Immersion Course”, and it transfigured my view on marriage, celibacy, and God. It was one of the most powerful retreat experiences I have ever had.
The diversity of attendees at the institute astounded me. There were priests, sisters, deacons, couples “discerning” marriage (yes, discerning!), seminarians, and singles. The ages ranged anywhere from 20 to 85. Nationalities reached from Dallas to Hong Kong. It was a microcosm of the Church! It was inspiring to see how we all rediscovered the “spousal meaning” of our bodies together. Paradoxically, after exploring the deeper meanings of marriage at this conference, I became more drawn towards my potential life as a celibate man, or maybe even one day as a priest. To give my body and my whole self “for the sake of the kingdom” took on a whole new dimension. The deeper beauty of that expression of sexuality—chaste celibacy—became attractive to me in how it witnesses to God’s love for me and mine for Him. Prior to discerning priesthood, I had found myself instinctively beginning to attend daily Mass in college. Later, on a six month work assignment in Europe, I found myself going on pilgrimages and diving into Scripture. I couldn’t get enough! I initially found it difficult to explain why I was doing these things. While attending the TOB course, one of my fellow seminarians looked at me and captured the essence of those experiences for me: God was “romancing” me. He was drawing me into a deeper love — Love Itself.
Now that I have attended the Institute, I see everything written in the language of love—and I see my brothers and sisters in this world craving this greater Love. With all of those distortions I witnessed in college, I was able to look back on how my peers actually were grasping at false images of love and not receiving real love. I think the message in St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body has the power to transform our world’s view of love. It affirms the goodness of our bodies and sexuality while calling us to live into God’s plan for both. It has the power to heal families and to draw many more Christians to celibate vocations in the Church. And in neither of these cases will the transformation be out of a sense of “duty”, but out of a great “desire” . . . a desire that God has placed within our very souls—souls created in His divine image.
Corey Knapke grew up in St. Henry, OH and spent five years studying engineering and business at the University of Cincinnati before feeling a call to discern priesthood. Until January of 2015, Corey was a candidate in formation with the Missionaries of the Precious Blood (C.PP.S.). He has since discerned that his calling to religious life lies on a different path. He will continue seeking that path after he finishes his philosophy degree at St. Xavier University in May.