Gallagher's reaction? She laughs and says: "I love having this job."
"We are revolutionary!" Gallagher yelled as she stood on a chair in front of 30 young volunteers who will take the message to their high schools and college campuses. "Think about it," Gallagher told the group. "We are the counterculture now. We're completely opposite of the media."
"To want anything other than what's immediate is out of whack with our culture. To want what's best for the other is out of whack with our culture." Gallagher explained. "Chastity simply means we respect sex so much...we keep it where it's supposed to be, and that's in marriage," she said. "We understand it; it's not about repression or pretending it's not there," she added.
Paul Masek, who runs the archdiocese's youth retreat ministry office and who hired Gallagher, said the archdiocese has gotten enormous response from its new approach to the chastity message. "We've really seen a great need," he said.
Census figures demonstrate that need. The 2000 census shows the number of traditional nuclear families-two married people with children-dipped below one quarter of American households for the first time ever. Meanwhile, the percentage of adults who live as couples without marrying rose from 3% in 1990 to 5% in 2000.
Organizations promoting chastity believe that talking about the issue in plain language helps. They point to a study published in January in the American Journal of Sociology that looked at virginity pledges. The authors found that "Adolescents who pledge...are much less likely than adolescents who do not pledge to have intercourse." Though not foolproof, on average, pledgers delayed becoming sexually active by two to three years.
The church's youth ministry website states the group "is convinced that the decision to live a life of sexual purity is the second-most-important decision that a teenager can make, next to the commitment to allow Jesus to be a more important part of your life."
A private donor gave the archdiocese the funds to create Gallagher's job. Gallagher was the perfect candidate, Masek said. She'd volunteered with the youth ministry office when she was a high school student. She majored in secondary education and history in college and trained to be a high school social studies teacher. Gallagher says social studies is fine, but she's much more passionate about chastity.
Gallagher feels she can have a bigger impact on young people by dispelling sexual myths than she ever had teaching how a bill becomes a law. Sex is controversial, and not everyone is willing to tackle it-but she is. Her favorite myths to bust: Sex makes you popular, safe sex has no consequences, and everybody's doing it.
"Can you imagine a group of people sitting around and one girl says, 'He's been with 50 girls,'" she told a crowd of middle-schoolers. "I promise you no one is going to jump up and squeal, 'I want to be 51, I want to be 51.' That never happens!" Gallagher assured the group. "I saved myself. It's kind of hard for me to say, but I am a 25-year-old virgin, and I'm waiting for my husband," she added. Message: Not everybody is doing it.
Ellen Marie, executive director of the Challenge Task Force on Chastity, an international Catholic organization that trained Gallagher, believes the chastity education movement is finally starting to take off.
Gallagher said she knows hearing one chastity message a year, if that, is not enough to compete with media appeals to "just do it." But her presentations are loud and vibrant enough to capture a young audience's attention. Gallagher's goal is to train as many chastity volunteers as possible. To date, she has about 60.
Mary Hammet, a campus minister at a Catholic girls school in St. Louis, is relieved Gallagher does what she does. "A lot of students come out of private schools where the emphasis is on being a good Christian, and yet at the same time their sex-ed program looks negative or scary, as if the church is down on sex," Hammet explained. "Heather's presentation emphasizes that the church has a positive vision of sexuality and that it's good," she said.
Gallagher said she knows she's never talking to a group of virgins only. And she stresses that chastity is not about virginity. She doesn't want to alienate young people who may have already chosen to have sex.
"If you start glorifying virgins, you'll turn kids off," she explained to her trainees. "Non-virgins can go another path." Gallagher believes young people can start over and begin living a chaste life. "You better give those sexually active young people hope," she said.
Apparently, Gallagher does. Kathie Roberds, 17, said Gallagher's presentation changed the minds of some of her friends. "It helped a lot of girls, even girls who have already been sexually active, to have a different outlook on it and maybe walk away thinking they can stop now and wait until marriage," said Roberds.
Some of the volunteers had other examples. Once, a volunteer named Pete was giving a talk to a group of eighth graders and was comparing sexual intimacy to a fire. The analogy is supposed to go like this:
"Sexual intimacy is like fire. Fire in a fireplace is great. It warms your house, makes things cozy.... However, fire on the living room carpet can burn your house down. Likewise, God created sexual intimacy to happen in the context of marriage. Like fire in the fireplace, sex in marriage is great--it keeps things warm, cozy, and romantic.... Sex outside of marriage, like fire on the living room carpet, can cause a lot of destruction--it can burn your house down."
However, poor Pete accidentally said this:
"Sexual intimacy is like fire. Fire in the fireplace is great. It warms your house, makes things cozy, and can be very romantic, but sex on the living room carpet can burn your house down!"
"God gave us this awesome gift of chastity," Gallagher said, as she wrapped up her volunteer training one night. "People are crying day and night because of this stuff. Take this out of the retreats and take it to your friends," she said as she rallied her newest troops.