Coon Rapids parish, seminary lead anti-pornography initiatives

| Bridget Ryder | April 11, 2018 | 0 Comments

Editor’s note: This is the second story in a two-part series on pornography. Read the first story here: The problem of pornography: Church recognizes harm, seeks solution

Father Kyle Kowalczyk calls pornography the elephant in the room. But last fall, he called it out from the pulpit to start a “paradigm shift” at Epiphany in Coon Rapids, where he serves as parochial vicar.

Father Kyle Kowalczyk

Pornography was discussed in several aspects of his formation at the St. Paul Seminary, including presentations by sex-addiction therapist Mark Laaser, co-founder of Faithful and True, a Christian counseling center based in Eden Prairie. But once in a parish after his 2016 ordination, he realized the gravity of the problem.

“Every priest knows that pornography is a major issue, but like all things, it sometimes takes a personal encounter for it to take root in the heart,” Father Kowalczyk said of breaking porn addiction. “When several people very close to me shared how their marriages had been damaged, in one case severed, because of this, I woke up. What I found in the parish is that it is actually the issue, and it sometimes seems as if the whole world is struggling with it.”

That wake-up call led to a new pastoral initiative to give parishioners the support both to overcome their own pornography habits and to help their children avoid its trap. Father Kowalczyk launched the campaign with a homily at Sunday Mass Oct. 29 that directly laid out the moral dangers of pornography, encouraged parents to talk about it with their children and offered the hope of God’s mercy. Following Mass, therapist and Epiphany parishioner Jake Voelker gave a talk on pornography from his counseling perspective and another talk for parents the following Monday.

The parish also created a webpage about pornography that includes resources, a recording and transcript of Father Kowalczyk’s homily, and a portal to contact him anonymously. In January, Father Kowalczyk also started leading an Exodus 90 fraternity for the men of the parish.

Father Kowalczyk wants parishioners struggling with pornography to know first and foremost that the mercy of God is available to them. His homily opened with that theme because he knows that pornography has to be approached with care in order to avoid shaming people, which can prevent them, especially those caught in a compulsion or addiction, from seeking help.

“Everyone knows that it’s not something to be proud of, but then you add sin on top of that,” he said. “There’s so much shame.”

Instead of intensifying the shame and isolation around pornography, he wanted to expose it to the mercy of God and the help of friends, parents and the parish community.

“Everyone thinks they’re alone in this, and that’s what the evil one wants [them to think],” he said. “We need to shed the light of Christ on it.”

Father Kowalczyk said the parish has responded well; he received positive feedback on his homily, including many thanks.

“I think people got it. I think people recognize that we need to talk about it,” he said.

Exodus 90

The most astounding response, though, has been to his invitation to the men of the parish to join him for Exodus 90, a three-month program of prayer, fellowship and asceticism. From Jan. 1 until Easter, 45 men took cold showers; gave up snacks, sweets, alcohol and movies; prayed at least 20 minutes a day; did an intense daily workout; and met weekly in small groups to strengthen and encourage each other.

Exodus 90 was originally developed in 2012 by Father Brian Doerr, a priest of the Archdiocese of Fort Wayne, Indiana, who was then rector of Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland.

“[Father Doerr] realized these men were good men who genuinely wanted to serve the Church, but weren’t free to do so,” said James Baxter, 26, a friend of Father Doerr’s and a former seminarian at St. John Vianney College Seminary and the St. Paul Seminary, both in St. Paul.

For some, this meant an attachment to pornography. For others, it meant the mediocrity of adolescent habits such as playing video games. To bring the seminarians to a greater freedom, he applied the traditional Catholic spiritual practices of prayer, asceticism and mutual support to the cognitive science that it takes 90 days to rewire the brain. He added the name Exodus to evoke the image of the Israelites’ journey from slavery to the freedom of the Promised Land.

In 2015, Baxter, a blogger for thosecatholicmen.com, launched Exodus 90 into the international spotlight with its own website. The website lays out the program and, for those who register and pay a fee, provides daily emails, guides and meditation books. Approximately 5,000 men have registered as participants since 2015, and Baxter estimates that for every man who registers, there are two to three others who are also participating.

Like the first seminarians, men participate in the program for many reasons. About half report that it is specifically in order to overcome pornography habits.

At Epiphany, Father Kowalczyk also made Exodus 90 about more than pornography, inviting men to participate for any reason. He has been impressed with their consistency in meeting every Saturday morning for the last three months. At the meetings, Father Kowalczyk would offer a “fervorino,” or pep talk, and then the men would divide into small groups. Father Kowalczyk participated in his own Exodus 90 fraternity of priests simultaneously with his parishioners.
Exodus 90 groups also exist at St. John Vianney College Seminary, which is addressing the dangers of pornography use among its students.

“We know it’s something we have to face,” said Father Michael Becker, SJV rector.

The seminary has rules and boundaries in place to help train seminarians in virtue and create an environment where they can be open about their struggles and receive help. All seminarians are required to install Covenant Eyes, an accountability software, on their personal computers. This program records internet use and sends a weekly report to a chosen accountability partner. For seminarians, that person is one of the seminary’s formators. Non-academic computer use is also limited to one hour a day. From their second year on, seminarians can also participate in a confidential chastity group led by a licensed counselor. Individual counseling is also available.

“I just praise the seminarians,” Father Becker said, “because they believe that Jesus is helping them, and they believe in chastity, and they are being freed one by one.”

Father Becker also admires parents who enforce boundaries around media and track their children’s computer use, he said.

Preparing parents

Father Kowalczyk knows of other parishes and priests taking the initiative to address pornography. He hopes the momentum will snowball into a movement that can overcome one of the most pervasive moral problems of today.

He has made helping parents and children openly communicate about the issue his next pastoral priority. Generally, statistics show that children are exposed to pornography on the internet by the time they are 11 years old.

“Parents should clue into the fact that if you think your kid hasn’t looked at pornography, they are surely looking at pornography,” he said.

In his talk to parents at the parish, Voelker encouraged parents to be firm and proactive in monitoring their children’s electronic and media devices, despite their protests or claims that parents are violating their privacy. He also told parents to be prepared for the day when their child might tell them he or she is using pornography and needs help.

“Our children need to know that we’re a safe place to come to, and we’re not going to berate them and say, ‘You should know better. Why didn’t you come to me sooner?’” he said.

Voelker said ending isolation and creating connection is the best way to overcome pornography habits or addiction.

“The opposite of addiction is not sobriety, but connection,” he said.

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