A Testament to the Theology of the Body: Bill Donaghy strives to live what he teaches
Updated: Mar 17, 2019
Sitting in his office at the Theology of the Body Institute (TOBI) in Aston, Pennsylvania, just outside Philadelphia, Bill Donaghy looks at the photo of his children adorning his desk. He refers to his family life as a “constant invitation to live the Theology of the Body”.
The Theology of the Body is an extended catechesis given to the world by St. John Paul II. He delivered the teachings when he was Pope, during his Wednesday audiences from St. Peter’s Square in Rome between the years 1979 and 1984.
“In a phrase, the Theology of the Body is the Great Mystery of how the invisible (God) becomes visible through the physical (us!),” Donaghy explained. “It's a refreshing vision of the beauty and dignity of the human person, body and soul, and the call to love and communion inscribed in the bodies of man and woman. We are made in His image, male and female He created us!”
Living the Theology of the Body
Donaghy and his wife, Rebecca, live just outside of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, with their four children. Infertility has been a cross for the Donaghys, and yet that cross was turned into a crown through the gift of adoption. Their four children each came at the moment God designed, and they gave their yes!
“They all have difficult back stories, but they made it,” said Donaghy. “And we’ve been enriched by the big surprise they have become for our life. You couldn’t even imagine planning things like this.”
There are two boys and two girls, ages 10, 8, 6 and 3. (A fifth adopted child, Grace Elizabeth, “is in Heaven”, Donaghy said. She lived for just one day, and he was able to baptize her with his own hands. “She’s our family saint! We can’t wait to meet her!”)
Donaghy loves taking his family out into the world, believing their diversity makes a statement. “We have Cherokee, Italian, German, Irish, African American, Belize… we’re a melting pot. Just by walking around, we image that we are all supposed to be one family, whatever the color of our skin.”
Realistically, he admits his family life does not come without its challenges and crosses. “That is shaping Rebecca and I to become real saints, like we all pray to be. It is chiseling away at our own selfishness, our own ego. Sometimes I fail abysmally. I may discipline or chastise one of them, but then 20 minutes later they come back and say, ‘You’re the best dad ever.’ It’s really undeserved affirmation! Like the love of the Father for us all.”
Donaghy met his wife in 2000, at “the dawn of the new millennium.” He was working in the fields of mission education for the Pontifical Mission Societies, connected to the Vatican. Rebecca was serving as a lay missionary in the Philadelphia area, serving the homeless and the poor at a soup kitchen run by the Franciscans called St. Francis Inn.
The same day he went to meet with the director of the mission program, he met his future wife, who was taking out the garbage. “What a great foundation, right?” Donaghy laughs. “Meeting your future wife at a dumpster at a soup kitchen for the homeless? A foundation of faith in action!” They would marry three years later in 2003.
Joining the Theology of the Body Institute
A few years after they married, Donaghy got a call from the newly created Theology of the Body Institute. He was thrilled, remembering his love for the Theology of the Body catechesis he first encountered as a teen in 1986 from the late great Pope John Paul II, which was rekindled in 2000 after he listened to the audio tapes Naked without Shame from Christopher West.
“It was absolutely beautiful, stunning, affirming,” he said.
Donaghy gave the cassette tapes to a friend of his that same year, Dave Savage, a man he calls a devout Catholic father, husband and businessman. Savage was so moved by the teaching, he contacted West and Matt Pinto, the founder of Ascension Press, and the three eventually started the TOBI in 2004. Soon after, they invited Donaghy on board.
Donaghy has been speaking for the TOB Institute for about 13 years, starting full-time five years ago. He not only teaches some of its nine course offerings, he travels around the country and the world speaking and leading retreats. He is the instructor for some of the newest TOBI courses, including a clergy enrichment program, “Priestly Identity” and “Priestly Prayer” that he co-teaches with Catholic priests.
Donaghy also teaches the elective “The Way of Beauty: Theology of the Body in Art” for which St. John Paul II’s “Letter to Artists” is required reading, as well as excerpts from the writing of well-known Catholic author J.R.R. Tolkein, who Donaghy loves.
He was a teenager visiting his grandparents’ house when he first encountered Tolkien’s writing. “I had seen my aunts reading The Lord of the Rings and they loved it. I went into the old cedar closet and saw old paper back copies of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings -- beautiful copies from back in the old days, with Ted Nasmith’s paintings. I cracked them open. The maps, the smell of it all! I thought, ‘This is different. This is beautiful! It was like an invitation to a whole new world but one that felt very familiar. A sacramental world of mystery.”
Ever since his first encounter, he continues to re-read the books. “I dive back into my favorite stuff – the house of Tom Bombadil or Lothlorien. I read it to my 10-year-old son. He loves it. It’s just part of our life.”
Donaghy suspects Tolkien and John Paul II would have been friends had they met in life. He sees the common thread between JPII and Tolkien as “sacramentality”. “This means the material universe somehow images the Divine,” he explains. “Tolkien had such sacramentality in his writing that literally the whole forest lives and breathes.”
“The Lord of the Rings story in itself speaks something -- every leaf, tree, river. Every single thing. And that’s totally JPII, who spent so much time in the woods and fields as a young priest in Poland. Traveling with young people and taking journeys. Asking deep, soul-searching questions.”
RISEing to the Challenge
As if his family and work life already were not enough to keep Donaghy busy, he recently began a new venture for Catholic men called the RISE 30-Day Challenge, a collaborative effort between Donaghy, Chris Stefanik from Real Life Catholic, and Chris Cope, founder and artistic director for Cardinal Studios, who directed the Chosen catechesis series for Ascension Press. Donaghy wrote the content for the program, saying the Theology of the Body undergirds the Challenge.
“The men who sign up get these daily videos and challenges (which take 4-5 minutes a day) to reset their identity as sons, brothers, husbands and fathers. And it’s all soaked in the vision of the Theology of the Body.”
Donaghy blames the Holy Spirit for the project’s amazing popularity thus far. “We did not put a lot into marketing,” he said. “We put everything into a beautiful production, with four men’s stories, each filmed on location, and 26 other days of transformative content. RISE has had a tremendous impact already.”
Since then Donaghy said they’re in the tens of thousands of men who’ve signed up from across the US and from nearly 70 countries. The most recent RISE challenge began on Ash Wednesday 2019, and Donaghy adds it is not too late for men to sign up. A future challenge is planned for July of this year.
“RISE and the Theology of the Body Institute are the kind of life-giving communities that people need today,” said Donaghy. “You can start online, but we are really called to get you out into the real world, into our home life, our friendships, our neighborhoods.”
“We are living in such a splintered time. It is so fragmented. People need a place where the can discover who they are and learn how to live. If we are going to evangelize, we have to come home to our own selves and understand the whole ‘seamless garment’ of our faith. St. John Paul II so perfectly does this in the Theology of the Body. The culture as it stands literally is in shambles. Even Church culture, the administrative structures are being challenged, and I feel like everybody is just exhausted. Political upheaval, human upheaval with gender ideologies, church scandals. Let’s just start over! Let’s look at the people around us. You don’t have to go further than the 20 feet around you. Let’s just start loving.”
He also suggests people put down their smart phones a little more often, turning off the onslaught of news and sound bytes and chatter.
“If you wake up to bird song, have a cup of coffee, and sit in a chair, and thank God for today and then you say ‘Hey neighbor!’ when you get your newspaper, the quality of your day is on a much different trajectory. And you think, wow, things aren’t that bad. That’s living the gift of the moment, and opening that moment to this God of love and His designs for our deep joy.”
More information on the Theology of the Body Institute is available on the website: www.TOBinstitute.org.The institute offers retreat courses (open to all) throughout the year on this powerful teaching. Watch a video with course details here: https://youtu.be/l4a612uFT8k
To learn more about the RISE 30-Day Challenge, go to Menriseup.org.