Body builder

by Susan Moses

North Texas Catholic

Monica Ashour conducts a class on St. John Paul II's Theology of the Body to soon to be married couples at the Fort Worth Diocese Catholic Center in Fort Worth, Monday, July 9, 2018. (NTC/Ben Torres)

Monica Ashour is reading her fourth copy of St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. She wore out her first three copies, and her current edition is dog-eared and filled with sticky notes.

Nevertheless, she warned, “I don’t recommend that people read it. It’s so philosophical and dense and theological.”

Ashour, however, has read it cover-to-cover at least fourteen times. In fact, she’s found her calling in explaining it to others, from tots to couples preparing for marriage.

“I love it. I can’t believe I’m part of promulgating a modern saint’s notion. This mission is breathtaking and so important. John Paul II says it’s the most suitable method of educating modern people,” gushed Ashour, explaining the momentum behind her 17-year drive to teach the saint’s vision of the human person.

Her latest project is a series of books, The Body Matters, for each grade from kindergarten through eighth. Ashour claimed the most “humbling and wonderful” aspect of the new series is that St. Andrew Catholic School in Fort Worth — the same school Monica and her five siblings attended — is one of the schools rolling out the curriculum.

“Make no mistake about it — for me and my brothers and sisters, our education at St. Andrew and Nolan [Catholic High School] really formed us into who we are. And my parents. We never missed Mass on Sundays, we prayed the Rosary, we played sports, and we had fun and laughter during dinner around the table,” the Nolan Hall of Fame honoree remembered.

A former English and theology teacher, Ashour founded TOBET, an acronym of Theology of the Body Evangelization Team, with several other educators and parents on December 8, 2001, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. They had studied St. John Paul II’s work as a small group, and they wanted to share his insights that God made us to love and be loved, and the human body makes that reality visible. 

Monica Ashour (NTC/Ben Torres)

Since then, TOBET has published about 30 books on Theology of the Body, from board books for preschoolers to a marriage preparation journal for engaged couples. Also, Ashour, who holds master’s degrees in humanities and theological studies from University of Dallas, speaks around the country about St. John Paul II’s lessons.

St. Andrew parent Summer Riney was familiar with TOBET from reading its books to her children. When she learned TOBET was introducing the book series for grades K-8, she organized like-minded parents to fundraise and help bring the curriculum to the school.

Riney was impressed with Ashour’s ability to illuminate concepts such as “What are we made for? How do we give ourselves as an authentic gift to others?” and build on them for years. 

A behavioral specialist, Riney said, “Monica’s greatest strength is to put these lessons into perspective for kids in a very simple and visual way, and to connect it to every aspect of the Church. This is something the kids need, and the kids need it early.”

Ashour’s gift for teaching encompasses adults, too. She teaches monthly marriage preparation classes in the diocese from the book she created, Theology of the Body Marriage Preparation Book.

TOBET developed The Body Matters series after seven U.S. bishops asked the nonprofit to create a Theology of the Body course targeted towards children. The books use colorful illustrations to teach age-appropriate lessons on the value of each person and family.

Ashour expressed her hope that after the students read the books, “they will start saying the word ‘body’ and knowing it has meaning, and hopefully they will tie it to Jesus Christ in the Eucharist. Our body-to-body encounter with Jesus Christ in the Eucharist is the closest we can be to God on earth.”

Her zeal for Theology of the Body extends to the saint himself. She attended the pontiff’s beatification and canonization.

“When I passed by his remains, I prayed, ‘I don’t know what’s going to happen with TOBET, but I trust it to your care.’ He’s helped me and my team.”

According to Ashour, the pope had a special understanding of the importance of the physical body, which teachers of the faith often minimize to give precedence to the soul. But in Theology of the Body, John Paul II mentioned “soul” 55 times, “spirit” 91 times, and “body” 1,319 times.

The pope understood, Ashour explained, “what is the center of Christianity? How did Christianity begin? The body. God thought so highly of the body that His Son became human, with a body, inside the body of a human, Mother Mary’s womb.”

She continued, “What’s the center of our faith? The body. At the Last Supper, on Calvary, and at Mass, Jesus Christ stretches His arms, and says ‘This is my body. I want to be a gift, I love you.’ Why don’t you open up yourself, your body, and receive the body of Christ in this encounter with our beloved savior who died for you and whose body rose again?”

Now that The Body Matters is being introduced to students in Fort Worth, Dallas, and Lincoln, Neb., Ashour plans to develop a program for high school students. She will commence yet another reading of her dog-eared book because she remains committed to her mission — body and soul.

Monica Ashour is reading her fourth copy of St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. She wore out her first three copies, and her current edition is dog-eared and filled with sticky notes.