All of us have certain role models in life, and here at To Dust You Shall Return, we are no different. In a number of posts to come, we’ll consider some of the major players who have been foundational in building our spirituality. Some are predictable, some are surprising, all have been wonderful companions along the way. So, without further ado–
Number One: Pope John Paul the Great
John Paul is first for many reasons, not least of which is that he was pope during the majority of my life thus far. He was my first experience of what a pope is and should be. He is a man who not only told us the way to live as Catholics, but who modeled that life for us up to the moment of his death.
I was privileged to spend a summer in Rome and lived about 1,000 yards from the front doors of St. Peter’s basilica. Each morning, I would head to Mass at the basilica at 7 a.m. As I went through the square, I glanced up to the Apostolic Palace and could not help but be overwhelmed by being so close to a man I admired so much. (Another mentor–then Cardinal Ratzinger–would often be walking through St. Peter’s Square on the way to say Mass at the German College before heading to the office. I saw him at least once a week and by the end of the summer, we started to wave to each other as we passed.)
John Paul had a presence about him that was unlike anyone I’ve seen before. In that presence was a depth of love, of intellect, and of prayer that I’ve yet to see since. Initially, I was captivated by his writings on philosophy. As time went on, the Theology of the Body quickly became my favorite collection of John Paul’s thought. Those Wednesday audiences gave me an intellectual and spiritual framework to develop my thoughts about sexuality and, yes, what it means to be a Catholic man. I taught a course on Theology of the Body to the Missionaries of Charity for two years and it was one of the greatest experiences of my life. Those women, like John Paul, embodied the reality spoken of in those pages and I was blessed to see such love in action in their community and their work.
John Paul is first in our list because he was a Catholic man par excellence. And he taught us so much about what it was to be a Catholic in today’s society. He taught us that to be fully human, we must give of ourselves to others and to God–that we only become who we are meant to be through a complete gift of self. What a profound message for today’s world in which so many people seek only their own good and only in their own time. John Paul, after experiencing the worst of what humanity had to offer, showed us a better way. (In anticipation . . .) John Paul the Great, pray for us.
From the Letter to Families, 1994:
The sincere gift of self
11. After affirming that man is the only creature on earth which God willed for itself, the Council immediately goes on to say that he cannot “fully find himself except through a sincere gift of self“. This might appear to be a contradiction, but in fact it is not. Instead it is the magnificent paradox of human existence: an existence called to serve the truth in love. Love causes man to find fulfilment through the sincere gift of self. To love means to give and to receive something which can be neither bought nor sold, but only given freely and mutually.
By its very nature the gift of the person must be lasting and irrevocable. The indissolubility of marriage flows in the first place from the very essence of that gift: the gift of one person to another person. This reciprocal giving of self reveals the spousal nature of love. In their marital consent the bride and groom call each other by name: “I… take you… as my wife (as my husband) and I promise to to be true to you… for all the days of my life”. A gift such as this involves an obligation much more serious and profound than anything which might be “purchased” in any way and at any price. Kneeling before the Father, from whom all fatherhood and motherhood come, the future parents come to realize that they have been “redeemed”. They have been purchased at great cost, by the price of the most sincere gift of all, the blood of Christof which they partake through the Sacrament. The liturgical crowning of the marriage rite is the Eucharist, the sacrifice of that “Body which has been given up” and that “Blood which has been shed”, which in a certain way finds expression in the consent of the spouses.
When a man and woman in marriage mutually give and receive each other in the unity of “one flesh”, the logic of the sincere gift of self becomes a part of their life. Without this, marriage would be empty; whereas a communion of persons, built on this logic, becomes a communion of parents. When they transmit life to the child, a new human “thou” becomes a part of the horizon of the “we” of the spouses, a person whom they will call by a new name: “our son…; our daughter…”. “I have gotten a man with the help of the Lord” (Gen 4:1), says Eve, the first woman of history: a human being, first expected for nine months and then “revealed” to parents, brothers and sisters. The process from conception and growth in the mother’s womb to birth makes it possible to create a space within which the new creature can be revealed as a “gift”: indeed this is what it is from the very beginning. Could this frail and helpless being, totally dependent upon its parents and completely entrusted to them, be seen in any other way? The newborn child gives itself to its parents by the very fact of its coming into existence. Its existence is already a gift, the first gift of the Creator to the creature.
In the newborn child is realized the common good of the family. Just as the common good of spouses is fulfilled in conjugal love, ever ready to give and receive new life, so too the common good of the family is fulfilled through that same spousal love, as embodied in the newborn child. Part of the genealogy of the person is the genealogy of the family, preserved for posterity by the annotations in the Church’s baptismal registers, even though these are merely the social consequence of the fact that “a man has been born into the world” (cf. Jn 16:21).
But is it really true that the new human being is a gift for his parents? A gift for society? Apparently nothing seems to indicate this. On occasion the birth of a child appears to be a simple statistical fact, registered like so many other data in demographic records. It is true that for the parents the birth of a child means more work, new financial burdens and further inconveniences, all of which can lead to the temptation not to want another birth. In some social and cultural contexts this temptation can become very strong. Does this mean that a child is not a gift? That it comes into the world only to take and not to give? These are some of the disturbing questions which men and women today find hard to escape. A child comes to take up room, when it seems that there is less and less room in the world. But is it really true that a child brings nothing to the family and society? Is not every child a “particle” of that common good without which human communities break down and risk extinction? Could this ever really be denied? The child becomes a gift to its brothers, sisters, parents and entire family. Its life becomes a gift for the very people who were givers of life and who cannot help but feel its presence, its sharing in their life and its contribution to their common good and to that of the community of the family. This truth is obvious in its simplicity and profundity, whatever the complexity and even the possible pathology of the psychological make-up of certain persons. The common good of the whole of society dwells in man; he is, as we recalled, “the way of the Church”. Man is first of all the “glory of God”: “Gloria Dei vivens homo“, in the celebrated words of Saint Irenaeus, which might also be translated: “the glory of God is for man to be alive”. It could be said that here we encounter the loftiest definition of man: the glory of God is the common good of all that exists;the common good of the human race.
Yes! Man is a common good: a common good of the family and of humanity, of individual groups and of different communities. But there are significant distinctions of degree and modality in this regard. Man is a common good, for example, of the Nation to which he belongs and of the State of which he is a citizen; but in a much more concrete, unique and unrepeatable way he is a common good of his family. He is such not only as an individual who is part of the multitude of humanity, but rather as “this individual“. God the Creator calls him into existence “for himself”; and in coming into the world he begins, in the family, his “great adventure”, the adventure of human life. “This man” has, in every instance, the right to fulfil himself on the basis of his human dignity. It is precisely this dignity which establishes a person’s place among others, and above all, in the family. The family is indeed—more than any other human reality— the place where an individual can exist “for himself” through the sincere gift of self. This is why it remains a social institution which neither can nor should be replaced: it is the “sanctuary of life”.
The fact that a child is being born, that “a child is born into the world” (Jn 16:21) is a paschal sign. As we read in the Gospel of John, Jesus himself speaks of this to the disciples before his passion and death, comparing their sadness at his departure with the pains of a woman in labour:“When a woman is in travail she has sorrow (that is, she suffers), because her hour has come; but when she is delivered of the child, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a child is born into the world” (Jn 16:21). The “hour” of Christ’s death (cf. Jn 13:1) is compared here to the “hour” of the woman in birthpangs; the birth of a new child fully reflects the victory of life over death brought about by the Lord’s Resurrection. This comparison can provide us with material for reflection. Just as the Resurrection of Christ is the manifestation of Life beyond the threshold of death, so too the birth of an infant is a manifestation of life, which is always destined, through Christ, for that “fullness of life” which is in God himself: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (Jn 10:10). Here we see revealed the deepest meaning of Saint Irenaeus’s expression: “Gloria Dei vivens homo“.
It is the Gospel truth concerning the gift of self, without which the person cannot “fully find himself”, which makes possible an appreciation of how profoundly this “sincere gift” is rooted in the gift of God, Creator and Redeemer, and in the “grace of the Holy Spirit” which the celebrant during the Rite of Marriage prays will be “poured out” on the spouses. Without such an “outpouring”, it would be very difficult to understand all this and to carry it out as man’s vocation. Yet how many people understand this intuitively! Many men and women make this truth their own, coming to discern that only in this truth do they encounter “the Truth and the Life” (Jn 14:6). Without this truth, the life of the spouses and of the family will not succeed in attaining a fully human meaning.
This is why the Church never tires of teaching and of bearing witness to this truth. While certainly showing maternal understanding for the many complex crisis situations in which families are involved, as well as for the moral frailty of every human being, the Church is convinced that she must remain absolutely faithful to the truth about human love. Otherwise she would betray herself. To move away from this saving truth would be to close “the eyes of our hearts” (cf. Eph 1:18), which instead should always stay open to the light which the Gospel sheds on human affairs (cf. 2 Tim 1:10). An awareness of that sincere gift of self whereby man “finds himself” must be constantly renewed and safeguarded in the face of the serious opposition which the Church meets on the part of those who advocate a false civilization of progress. The family always expresses a new dimension of good for mankind, and it thus creates a new responsibility. We are speaking of the responsibility for that particular common good in which is included the good of the person, of every member of the family community. While certainly a “difficult” good (“bonum arduum“), it is also an attractive one.