By Rose O’Connor, Correspondent, and Jennifer Mauro, Managing Editor
Describing today’s trends when it comes to the meaning and purpose of sexuality, Gene Zannetti didn’t mince words: “We’re in a battle. We get a message from the media and society that’s very different from our faith and morals.”
Born Catholic, Zannetti grew up as an altar server who attended Mass. “But I wasn’t completely giving my heart to Jesus.”
That all changed a few years ago when his younger brother discerned a life in the priesthood, a decision that made Zannetti wonder, “I say I’m a Catholic, but am I really living this?”
Such was the question he posed to young adults from around the Diocese and beyond during the “Your Body, Your Life” daylong conference Nov. 11 at Georgian Court University, Lakewood. More than 20 young adults gathered for the event, one of many being held during the diocesan Year of Youth. The conference featured guest speakers, discussions, the Sacrament of Reconciliation and Mass celebrated by Father Richard Osborn, parochial vicar in St. Mary Parish, Middletown.
“The issue of sexuality is one that is enormous in our day and time,” said Cristina D’Averso-Collins, director of campus ministries in Monmouth University, West Long Branch. The program highlighted, among other topics, “what we mean when we say that the body has meaning and value.”
Zannetti is a former nationally ranked, All-Ivy League wrestler who holds master’s degrees in exercise science, sport psychology and clinical psychology, and founded Spiritual Strength, a company that provides coaching, workshops and retreats. During his keynote address, he spoke on love, sexuality and misconceptions.
“I was always a hopeless romantic. I remember even in first, second grade, when I was able to understand that I was Gene Zannetti III, I thought, ‘Hey, I want there to be a fourth!’ I was thinking of who I was going to marry in first grade,” he said to a room full of laughter.
“I’m coming from the situation where my parents, they were the first love for one another, and they got married,” he continued. “My grandparents, both sides, first love, got married. So I’m assuming the first person I really fall in love with, that’ll be the person I marry. Probably a few of us are in that boat, too.”
However, he said, life doesn’t always work out according to one’s plan. Heartbreaks, betrayals and misunderstandings occur, which can lead people down a path they never intended, including sex outside marriage.
“Growing up, I had the intention of living a good life,” Zannetti said, explaining that he pledged himself to chastity before marriage. “The intention is there, but society can pull you in a different direction. You want to be cool, you want to fit in. Everyone is always talking about relationships and sex, making it like it’s normal. And you think ‘OK, maybe this is the road to go down.’”
However, he said, life is similar to being an athlete or performer. “You can’t toe the line,” he said. “You can either be a participant or a spectator. You can’t be both. When you’re in a performance, you can’t be thinking about what other people are thinking about you.”
He used as an example a person who goes to Mass regularly and doesn’t lie, cheat or steal, but says, “I’m going to be a Catholic but keep the relationship part to myself, saying, ‘My body is my body.’”
It’s not ideal to compartmentalize one’s life in such a way, he said. For those who are, he urged them to acknowledge those false beliefs. “Sit with that hypocrisy – it’s OK to feel that. That’s the Holy Spirit convincing to you change. The difference between the convictions we get from the Holy Spirit versus maybe our peers – the Holy Spirit always convicts us in a gentle way. We’re never going to get a feeling from the Holy Spirit and say to ourselves, ‘I really feel terrible.’ It’s a gentle correction when you listen to the Holy Spirit.”
‘Conversion of Heart’
Following the keynote address, which included a question-and-answer session, the young adults participated in breakout sessions facilitated by Franciscan Friar of the Renewal Father Sebastian Kajko and Enza Cerami, founder of Living Stones Inc., a nonprofit organization that educates young people on chastity and Theology of the Body.
In her testimony, Cerami discussed her mistakes and later conversion experience, admitting that “God had a better way.”
“Trusting a loving Father who has a plan for our sexuality can only be a blessing for us, and it changes how we live our lives, how we interact with others,” she said.
“Our sexuality is beautiful, and it’s nothing to be ashamed of,” Cerami said. “The Lord wants us to have life in abundance and to be fruitful, and that’s different depending on our vocation.”
In addition, Father Osborn discussed the topic of discernment.
“Discernment is not necessarily, should I pursue God or should I sin?” he said. “The deeper goal is choosing between two goods. How does one choose between two goods?
“In order for us to discern or to make a choice for God, one of the first things we have to realize is that we have to have the freedom to make such a decision,” he said, outlining three ways to such freedom – by attending Mass, praying regularly and frequenting the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
“The Lord is always calling us to deeper conversion of heart,” Father Osborn said. “While having this openness to his will in our lives, and by striving to live freely, we’re able to hear the promptings of the Lord in our heart, calling us to himself, where he desires us to be. We should strive to see the hand of God in our lives.”
He also spoke on the “Confessions of St. Augustine” and reflected on the quote, “Christ is not valued at all unless he is valued above all.”
“In order for us to discover how God is leading us in life, we have to seek Christ above all. If other things, even good things, even important things in life, if they take precedence over God, then God will not be able to speak to my heart as clearly as he would be able to otherwise, ” Father Osborn said.
Following his discussion, Father Osborn offered the Sacrament of Reconciliation and celebrated Mass.
Many of the young adults who attended the event, which was sponsored by the diocesan Department of Youth and Young Adult Ministries, said they learned a lot from the day’s presentations.
“The best part for me was going to Confession. It was such a powerful and emotional experience,” said Joseph Hartman, 24, from St. Pius X Parish, Forked River.
Abigail Miller, 19, and Caroline Hurtt, 18, both freshman at Monmouth University and members of the school’s Catholic Campus Ministry, shared similar thoughts.
“I wanted to meet like-minded people. The day was well-planned out, and it was great to see how all of the different parts of the day came together,” said Miller, who hails from the Archdiocese of Baltimore.
Hurtt said she was particularly moved by Cerami’s witness talk. “She spoke on how she originally rejected the Church’s teaching on sexuality and of her personal conversion. She spoke of our sexuality being a gift and that God wants us to have life in abundance,” the Church of the Nativity, Fair Haven, parishioner said.
“The topic of relationships is a big deal to our demographic, and the day was very refreshing to hear a different perspective – how God sees us,” Hurtt said. “It was great to hear, how we are worth so much more.”
Social Media Coordinator Katie Cerni contributed to this report.