Over 1,000 teens vow sexual abstinence at Lawrence-area program

NORTH ANDOVER — Many teenagers, who have decided to wait until marriage for sex, feel that they are the only ones making such a commitment. However, on the weekend of March 27 and 28 they saw that they are not alone when over 1,000 middle school and high school students pledged to remain abstinent until marriage.

Nearly 2,000 teenagers attended two sessions of the first Catholic version of The Silver Ring Thing, a national faith-based abstinence program, at Merrimack College. The program takes its name from the silver ring that teens wear as a reminder of their vow of purity.

The Silver Ring Thing created a danceclub-like atmosphere using pulsing music, flashing lights and video screens to convey to the teens that they are worth waiting for. Skits, in which their peers participated, showed the value of chastity and the physical and psychological risks of sexual promiscuity.

One skit transmitted the message to teens that each time they have a sexual relationship with someone before marriage they give a piece of their hearts to that person. According to the skit, sexual relationships outside of marriage leave you less able to give your entire self to your future spouse.

At the end of the three-hour interactive performance, students were given the opportunity to put on the silver ring and make a promise to remain pure. Those who have already been sexually active were told that through the Sacrament of Reconciliation God can give them a “second chance” at abstinence. Approximately 1,400 students put on the silver ring.

Joshua Clark, a 14-year-old from Lawrence, was among those who took a silver ring and made the promise of abstinence. Initially he had “mixed feelings” about going to see the show.

"I thought it was gonna be corny and lame," he said. "But now I'm glad I went. It's a really good program -- the message and the things they teach to teens" about how God sees sexuality.

Although he has chosen not to wear the silver ring on his finger, he said that it was good to see so many other young people making the same promise to remain abstinent. “It lets you know that there are other people out there” like you, he said.

A session for parents was held simultaneously with each night’s youth session. Dr. Meg Meeker and Dr. Shirley Gonzalez spoke to parents about sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and gave them tips on talking to their children about the health risks of sexual activity.

Performances of The Silver Ring Thing, which originated at an inter-denominational Protestant church in Pennsylvania, have been held locally before, but have never been presented according to Catholic teaching. Deb O’Hara-Rusckowski, archdiocesan Respect Life Program Coordinator, viewed the program in Pittsburgh and thought it could be helpful to teenagers in the archdiocese if adapted to include Catholic practices such as reconciliation.

"With the kids being so technologically savvy and into the media and the format of MTV, it's almost like delivering the message where they are at, meeting them where they are," said O'Hara-Rusckowski. "It is so appealing to that age group and it's really getting an important message across."

She mentioned the idea of hosting the performance to the Greater Lawrence Vicariate Council, which is comprised of the Catholic institutions in the vicariate. The council was formed to better serve the pastoral needs of the people in the area, especially young people, said Father James J. Ronan, VF, vicar of the Greater Lawrence Vicariate and pastor of Holy Rosary Parish, Lawrence.

The vicariate council enthusiastically embraced The Silver Ring Thing program and raised close to $19,000 to fund two nights of the production. They spent many months publicizing the show by visiting schools and religious education classes and sending flyers to parishes.

Father Ronan even spoke on Spanish language radio several times to promote the program. The Silver Ring Thing “is a profound affirmation of the dignity and the value of each young person as an individual and the recognition that one of the greatest gifts they have is themselves, their own person, their purity and their virginity,” he said.

He went on to state that “kids are so hungry for help” and advice when it comes to sexuality. “They feel the pressure, they feel the innuendoes and the implications that they’re not cool if they are not sexually active,” Father Ronan said.

The program “liberates them,” he said. “A lot of kids really feel free afterwards, so it speaks to a desperate need that young people have for straight talk about sexual activity.”

O’Hara-Rusckowski said that The Silver Ring Thing program has prompted the archdiocese to begin to develop an abstinence program for students from grades five through 12. The program is scheduled to be rolled out to students in September 2005, she said.

She explained that the positive response to The Silver Ring Thing “allowed us to realize that we needed a strong foundation and a curriculum” to support the message the students received about the values of abstinence.