As Catholics reflect on the legacy of St. John Paul II, we will hear a great deal about his papacy and its global impact. However, I am convinced that as time passes he will be memorialized above all—at least by the Church—as a preeminent champion of marriage and family life.
St. John Paul II believed the family would play a vital role in the new springtime of evangelization and was much more than mere bystander in the Church’s evangelizing mission. He presented an inherently positive and bold view of marriage and family life. He was confident that no ideology, however daunting, can extinguish what God has set in motion. While the family finds itself in the midst of an eroding cultural crisis, facing militant attempts to redefine marriage contrary to reason and the Gospel of Jesus Christ, John Paul II redirects our gaze to the truth of Christian marriage as a fruit of the redemption of Christ. He saw the family in its full potential in the order of grace—that if lived according to this potential in Christ, it could change the culture and the world. For John Paul II, the family is an active and vital agent in establishing a civilization of love and the renewal of Christian culture.
As evident from his numerous writings on this topic (most notably “Original Unity of Man and Woman”, Familiaris Consortio and “Letter to Families”), John Paul presented the family as rooted in the economy of salvation—that is, God’s act of creating the world and offering salvation through Christ—with an important role to play in the order of redemption. The family, as such, must continue the work of Christ and this work must begin first within itself, within each individual family before affecting the extended community.
Many mistakenly think that magisterial teaching is too theological, and thus impractical, to be effectively used for the work in the Lord’s vineyard. And some may be intimidated by John Paul’s reflections, seeing them as daunting, too philosophical and overly academic. Yet, despite the scholarship and depth of his writing, John Paul had no intention of having his teachings about the human person remain only on the academic level. Rather, his reflections are deeply Christological and Trinitarian, and meant to change lives.
Marriage in the Economy of Salvation
The world, explained John Paul, has been penetrated by the Divine in startling fashion. “For by his incarnation the Son of God united himself in a certain way with every man. The divine mystery of the Incarnation of the Word thus has an intimate connection with the human family” (LF 2). Marriage has a role in the economy of salvation; it is and can be an instrument of redemption for the world. Having been taken up into Christ, it extends to the temporal order, thereby building a civilization of love. The sacrament of marriage is a sign of God’s work in the world; it reveals and points to the origin of its existence, God. “The Christian family is called upon like the large-scale Church, to be a sign of unity for the world and in this way exercise its prophetic role by bearing witness to the Kingdom and peace of Christ, towards which the whole world is journeying” (FC 48).
John Paul recognized that “the primordial model of the family is to be sought in God himself, in the Trinitarian mystery of life” (LF 6). His vision of family as communio personarum is rooted in the communio of the Godhead. He made these insights explicit for the family so that the family could see within itself what God has done for man and what the family can do for the world by grace. If marriage and the family are a channel of Christ’s grace, then it has the potential to radically draw the culture to the rediscovery of the human person’s own giftedness in Christ. Highlighting the economy of salvation is crucial for marriage. Marriage does not exist merely as a natural union, but also as a means of grace and salvation—not only to the husband and wife, but to the fruit their marriage generates within the culture. But this depends on whether spouses will embrace the truth of who they are in Christ and live according to that truth.
The Holy Trinity, the central mystery of the Christian faith (CCC 234), is communicated through sacramental living. The Church, the instrument and dispenser of sanctifying grace in God’s plan of salvation, nourishes and strengthens us to live our vocation. “The ultimate end of the whole divine economy is the entry of God’s creatures into the perfect unity of the Blessed Trinity” (CCC 260). In this context we can understand John Paul’s vision of marriage and family and the human person. Not only did he provide the theological and anthropological foundations, he was equally concerned with the transmission of this content into the lives of families. How will they receive it and be transformed by it? How will they live this most high calling in a practical and transformative way?
The pastoral care of the family is based on the theology that gives it life. “God’s work reveals who he is in himself, the mystery of his being enlightens our understanding of all his works”(CCC 236). John Paul wished for us to understand the truth about ourselves and not settle for reductions of our personhood. Marriage faces the same reductionistic onslaught which besets man, and this is the reason, in an era of anthropological confusion—who and what is man?—that marriage between a man and a woman is under attack. Whenever man rejects God, there is also an inherent rejection of man and his calling to fullness of life. Without a proper understanding of who man is, the purpose and meaning of marriage cannot be comprehended in its fullness.
The Total Vision of Man
“Gloria Dei vivens homo! Man is the glory of God!” These words, often quoted from St. Irenaeus (Advuses Heresies IV, 20, 7), captures the Church’s vision of man. St. John Paul II’s pontificate was, in many ways, an unpacking of this rich statement, an articulation of the total vision of man as expressed and found in Humane Vitae(see HV 7). The human person is not the self-made-man plastered all over billboards and magazines, but is God’s greatest masterpiece of creation, a sign of the Mystery that is present in the world. “Man is the only being which God had created for its own sake (see Gaudium et spes 24). In his “Letter to Families”, John Paul said,
Human beings are not the same thing as the images proposed in advertising and shown by the modern mass media. They are much more, in their physical and psychic unity, as composites of soul and body, as persons. They are much more because of their vocation to love, which introduces them as male and female into the realm of the “great mystery” (LF 20).
Again, John Paul II did not intend for his teaching about man to remain in the realm of academics or theoretical speculation. If left as such, it would reduce man to an abstraction. Nor was he willing to settle for a utopian vision of man—a man too lofty for this side of heaven, unattainable and therefore un-relatable. Instead, he chose not to ignore the predicament that man is situated in a fallen world, but recognized that fallen man is always and everywhere in need of redemption. At the same time, John Paul II believed that this fallen man could be remade in Christ, to become “fully alive” through the redemption accomplished by Christ. The goal of the Christian life is to live as the “new man” (cf. Rom. 13:14, Eph. 4:24) since, as St. Paul asserted, it is no longer “I who live but Christ who lives within me” (Gal. 2:20). This is our highest calling; this is the truth about the person that St. John Paul II wishes the family to recognize, realize, and live.
The Catechism states that “the divine image is present in every man. It shines forth in the communion of persons, in the likeness of the unity of the divine persons among themselves. From his conception he is destined for eternal beatitude. He finds his perfection in seeking and loving what is true and good” (CCC 1702-1704). We are beings created in love and for love, as “love is the fundamental and innate vocation of every human being” (FC 11). For this reason it is imperative for spouses to meet Christ, the source of love and the one who “fully reveals man to himself” (GS 22). In marriage, in their one flesh union, man and woman are to live as the new man by forming a communion of persons, through a sincere gift of self. Love forms the inner dynamism of family life and of conjugal communion.
The Evangelizing Mission of the Family
The “future of evangelization”, insisted John Paul, “depends in great part on the Church of the home” (FC 52). In Redemptor Hominis, he stated that “the missionary attitude always begins with a feeling of deep esteem for what is in man” (RH 12). In a seemingly radical statement John Paul proclaimed that “Man is the primary and fundamental way for the Church, the way traced out by Christ Himself, the way that leads invariably through the mystery of the Incarnation and Redemption” (RH 14). In “Letter to Families”, John Paul repeated this theme, stating that “Christ entrusted man to the Church; he entrusted man to her as the way of her mission and ministry. Of all the many paths that man walks, the family is the first and most important. It is a common path to all, yet one which is particular, unique and unrepeatable just like every individual is unrepeatable” (cf. LF 2).
The family, as a way of the Church, makes sense in light of the Gen 2:24, “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh”. Ever since the fall, this unity of man and woman has been threatened; therefore the Church exists for man and for the family, for its sanctification and protection. Man passes through and forms a family as part of his created nature; the formation of this community of life and love is a deeply human act. The family for its part is not only the object of the Church’s missionary activity but also a way for its activity, that is, a participant in the mission of the Church which is an important focus of the New Evangelization.
In turn, the Christian family is grafted into the mystery of the Church to such a degree as to become a sharer in its own way, in the saving mission proper to the Church. For this reason they not only receive the love of Christ and become a saved community, but they are also called upon to communicate Christ’s love to their brethren, thus becoming a saving community (FC 49).
The family’s first task is to live with fidelity, working to develop an authentic community of persons. The inner logic that animates the family is love; love forms the basis of the family as a communio personarum. God is love (cf. 1 Jn. 4:8); if love is the bond of the Trinitarian communion then, by grace, love is the bond of conjugal communion of spouses. Simply stated, authentic love forms the essence of the gift of self, that is, Christian marriage. Just as the love of God in himself is fruitful and superabundant, so too should the grace of the sacrament of matrimony overflow from the couple to their children and to society. To the extent the Christian family accepts the Gospel and matures in faith, it becomes an evangelizing community. Each member of the family, the spouses in particular (who are the primary educators of their children) must have an encounter with Christ in order to generate within themselves an evangelical spirit. John Paul reminds us that “the very preparation for Christian marriage is itself a journey of faith. It is a special opportunity for the engaged to rediscover and deepen the faith received in Baptism and nourished by Christian upbringing” (FC 51).
The family’s mission is to actively participate in the sanctification of the temporal order. “The Christian family is called upon to take part actively and responsibly in the mission of the Church in a way that is original and specific, by placing itself, in what it is and what it does as an intimate community of life and love at the service of the Church and society” (FC 50). Families, of course, are very busy today, often swimming against the tide of a fast-paced culture that can be distracting and oppressive. How can the family begin to evangelize and build a civilization of love? By authentically living their vocation from the heart of the Church. John Paul notes that in order for the family to be a sign of Christ’s presence in the world and to take up its mission as evangelizing community, each member of the family, particularly the spouses, must end the reign of sin in their lives (cf. FC 63). You cannot bear fruit if you are severed from the vine, you cannot give what you do not have. In order for the family to participate in this task it has to be constantly nourished and sustained at the wellspring of grace in the Liturgy. Furthermore “the little domestic Church, like the greater Church, needs to be constantly and intensely evangelized: hence its duty regarding permanent education in faith” (FC 51).
Likewise, in order to fulfill its missionary mandate, the family has to abandon the view that it is more of a victim of the culture, rather than a protagonist in its transformation. We are not defeated. We have freedom in Christ to embrace and live the truth of our humanity, a freedom that is neither understood or experienced in a life of sin. Building a civilization of love is contingent upon the sacramental living and active commitment of spouses:
By means of the sacrament of marriage, in which it is rooted and from which it draws its nourishment, the Christian family is continuously vivified by the Lord Jesus and called and engaged by Him in a dialogue with God through the sacraments, through the offering of one’s life and through prayer. In this priestly role, the Christian family is called to be sanctified and to sanctify the ecclesial community and the world (FC 55).
The civilization of love is the extension of God’s love as radiated in and through the family. It is tempting to think that this civilization of love is somehow the Church’s version of a utopian society, as something unobtainable. However, the civilization of love originates in God who is Love; it is not the result of wishful thinking. Rather, “it grows as a result of the constant cultivation which the Gospel allegory of the vine and branches describe in such a direct way, ‘I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch of mine that bears no fruit, he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruits’ (Jn. 15:1-2)” (LF 13). The family will bear fruit as an agent of the New Evangelization insofar as it is grafted to Christ.
John Paul’s vision of family life instill confidence in the fact of Christ’s victory over sin and the failure to truly love. This victory of Christ is a real event—not merely an historical occurrence tacked onto the Christian life as a desperate plea for affirmation. It is a fact, one that we can believe in with certainty. The family situated in the economy of salvation is saved by Christ but also saves in Christ; it is a participant vital to the transformation of culture. The genius of John Paul II’s vision for family life generates within us today the reality of living the Christian life in such a way as to engage the crisis of marriage and family by being remade in Christ.
Let us remember with gratitude the gift of his Pontificate. St. John Paul II, pray for us!