As we celebrate St. John Paul II’s first official feast day, it strikes me that a extraordinary thing about the extraordinary Synod on the Family was the near absence of any reference to the teaching of the man that Pope Francis declared to be the “Pope of the Family.” What might we extrapolate from this rather extraordinary oversight? Perhaps at next year’s Ordinary Synod on the Family — in the middle of which, we will celebrate his second feast day — the silence will be lifted.
Having worked in youth and young adult ministry for almost two decades, I am certain about this: no one comes even close to John Paul II in capturing the hearts and minds of young people with the beauty of the Church’s teaching on marriage and family. And no one inspires them with more enthusiasm to embrace and evangelize their peers with the Church’s teaching on chastity and the dignity of the human person.
This has been confirmed by my own experiences working with young people and many others who work with young people. All major youth and young adult conferences — e.g., Steubenville summer conferences, FOCUS conferences, the National Catholic Youth Conference, Theology on Tap programs — include at least one talk inspired by the Theology of the Body (TOB), many include several. Most successful youth groups and young adult ministries include TOB and Love and Responsibility as part of their curriculum.
It is the JPII Generation and those educated by them who are on the frontlines of youth and young adult ministry, battling for the Church’s teaching on marriage, family, chastity and pro-life issues. In fact, it is not an overstatement to say that everyone who fully embraces the Church’s teaching on these issues and is passionate about helping young people to embrace them considers John Paul II their go-to guy.
Further, he is not only their best resource, he is frequently cited as the most influential figure who inspired them to take up this kind of work in the first place. This includes, in a special way, the dynamically-orthodox young priests and young people who have answered the call to enter religious life in vibrant religious communities.
I offer here a brief reflection on just one concept of TOB that is particularly effective in piercing through the darkness of the culture of death that utterly surrounds—and threatens to engulf—our young people: Original Nakedness.
In the course of reflecting on the second creation narrative (Gen 2), John Paul II is struck by the phrase used to describe the situation of man and woman before the Fall: “The man and his wife were both naked, yet they felt no shame” (Gen 2:25). The Holy Father explains that this original nakedness — the capacity for the original man and woman to be naked before each other — is made possible by the fact that they literally share in God’s own vision of themselves and each other. The man sees the woman as God sees her, and the woman sees the man as God sees him. Before the Fall, in other words, they see each other in truth: as persons to be loved, not objects to be used. The temptation to reduce the other to the status of an object to be used has not yet entered.
Young people immediately grasp this insight of John Paul II and recognize how it is operative in their lives and in the culture that surrounds them. When you ask a group of young people if they believe our culture fosters an attitude that views women as persons to be loved or an attitude that reduces women to objects for use, they all chuckle and respond that it is obviously the latter.
It is here that I like to tell them about a billboard I once saw, which further drives home the point. The billboard was advertising a chicken wing restaurant (not the one you’re thinking of, but along the same lines). It displayed a huge image of three women holding beer mugs and wearing tight, low-cut tank-tops. The billboard image cut the women off at the neck. In other words, the restaurant didn’t think it was important to show their faces — obviously reducing them to mere objects, whose worth consisted only in their capacity to incite sufficient lust to motivate men to walk through the restaurant’s doors. To the young ladies, I would then ask: How would you like to be the waitress that serves these men? To the young men, I would ask: How would you like your future daughter to be the waitress that these men?
One of the great appeals of John Paul II’s teaching is that it is based on universal human experience. Everyone has the experience of being used in one way or another; and everyone experiences being used as an awful experience that offends not only our dignity, but our very identity. Moreover, on the flip side, everyone has used someone in one fashion or another; and, unless our conscience has been dulled by repeated sin, we experience a profound shame when we violate a person’s human dignity.
All of us experience not only the desire to be protected from being used and violated but also the deep longing to be freed from the temptation to violate and use others. This illustrates and confirms on an accessible level the Church’s teachings about original sin and one of its major effects: concupiscence. And, who would of thought that young people would ever become excited and enthusiastic about “old school” teachings such as original sin and concupiscence?
While there is not space here to elaborate upon this in detail, I can assure you that this one insight — original nakedness — can be used to effectively persuade young people to enthusiastically embrace the Church’s teaching on a whole range of issues: e.g., the evil of contraception; the beauty of chastity before and during marriage; the truth that marriage can only be defined as the life-long, fruitful union of one man and one woman; the evil of abortion; and so forth.
In my experience, I have observed that young people receive John Paul II’s teaching in two main ways, depending on how they’re living:
The first group consists of the slow learners; this is the group to which I belonged. We rejected the Church’s teachings and tried to seek happiness and fulfillment outside God’s plan for sex. Thus, we receive John Paul II’s teaching as an incredibly accurate explanation for the heartache and wounds we’ve experienced as the result of sinful lifestyles. However, we experience his teaching as profound healing of our wounds and brokenness, and this motivates us with a passion to use TOB as a healing balm for those who’ve experienced our pain; and as a preventative medicine for those have not yet gone down the road we traveled.
The second group contains the quick learners. This group observes the pain and heartbreak their peers are experiencing and wonder how they can avoid it. They receive TOB as a beacon of light that shows them the way to happiness and fulfillment. However, just as important, they are motivated with a passion to share this light with their peers, in order to share their happiness and fulfillment. Moreover, they are motivated to heal the pain of their peers who have wandered from God’s plan.
While John Paul II’s prophetic vision seemed to be largely absent from the extraordinary Synod, my hope is that synod fathers and lay people alike will rediscover his teaching in the time leading up to next year’s Ordinary Synod on the Family. This is precisely the message the Church needs to proclaim if she wishes to capture the hearts of young people with the Gospel of the Family, and the message she needs to offer to find and heal the marginalized and broken sheep who have lost their way.