Karol Wojtyla regularly escaped.
He escaped from not one, but two of history’s most terrifying totalitarian regimes: German Nazism and Soviet Communism. His method of escape was not to rally across the border with military might. Nor was it simply to negotiate footholds through diplomatic skill. Rather, Wojtyla escaped into the mountains of Poland with young married couples to discuss with them the nature and meaning of the human person and marriage as a communion of persons through the authentic gift of self.
The Nazis and Communists knew that the first step to destroy a people was to take away their cultural identity. Karol Wojtyla knew this too. The regimes outlawed discussion of the prime coordinates of culture: the meaning of the human person and marriage. That which the regimes forbade, the mountains invited.
The theology of the body was not born in a lecture hall or a library. It did not originate as a discourse of academics or theoreticians. It arose from the common conversation of ordinary parishioners with their concerned pastor. The theology of the body is, therefore, front-loaded with pastoral experience. The reflections that led to the theology of the body emerged on a grassroots level from Wojtyla’s own combination of reading, reflection and risk. As a result, it is ready-made for pastoral effectiveness.
Even in Rome, after Karol Wojtyla was elected pontiff and took the name John Paul II, the theology of the body was delivered not at a symposium among world experts, but as a catechesis of the universal pastor to his flock. What began on the mountains of Poland was proclaimed amidst the hills of Rome to the entire world, as John Paul II and the Church now faced a third totalitarian regime: the secular relativism of the culture of death.
The combination of reading, reflection and risk that gave rise to the theology of the body represents the very sequence by which its treasures are released in pastoral effectiveness.
The one who approaches the text of the theology of the body finds familiar links. The text is based on passages of sacred Scripture that serve as anchors. In fact, the text is similar to a prolonged meditation on various verses of Scripture. For example, John Paul begins the text with Jesus’ response to the Pharisees concerning the question of divorce in Chapter 19 of the Gospel of St. Matthew. In his response to the Pharisees, Jesus quotes the two creation accounts from the Book of Genesis.
John Paul carefully guides us along the path to Genesis and explains both what it means to be a human person and the meaning of marriage. It can be intimidating for Catholics to turn to Genesis. We sometimes feel embarrassed, hesitant or even apologetic about the creation accounts. Ever since we learned that the creation accounts of Genesis are myth, we have been convinced that they aren’t true. John Paul points out that mythical does not mean the same thing as false. In fact, myth in the classic sense actually conveys a robust truth that is too dense to fit into a mere fact.
John Paul shows that Genesis reveals that the human person is created, is a gift given, and, therefore, the human person’s deepest identity is to be a gift of self, one to another. This takes place in a pre-eminent manner in marriage, in and through the body, and is uniquely expressed in the conjugal marital act in which the moment of love is the moment of life, the moment of the gift. As we patiently read, re-read and discuss John Paul’s teaching, its treasure is yielded up. We learn that the human person is created to be a gift of self that opens him or her to an authentic communion of persons. One reason for the traction of John Paul’s teaching is that he presents in a personalist key the same truth we have already heard, though we may have heard it previously in a more juridical tone or with a strong emphasis on duty and obligation.
As we read the text, we must reflect on it and also on the signs of the times. How different the pages of the theology of the body are from those of the cable news or talk shows or popular magazines. Everywhere we turn, the popular notion is that to be a person we must always be a success. And being a success means: Make straight As; be more popular; get into the college of our choice so that we earn the most money after graduation; live in the upscale zip code; to have bought gold 10 years ago, get $7 trades and have kids who get straight As when they are not on summer break at the vacation house. … The all-too-routine failure to comprehend the mystery of the gift of self again plays itself out.
Our culture talks us into the lie that to be a person we must acquire pleasure quickly, at all costs … of family, life, blood pressure and ulcers. And if we miss out on any one of the status requirements, we are somehow a loser and do not count. John Paul overturns this notion just as surely as Jesus overturned the tables. John Paul shows that the Genesis text, as well as the texts of St. Matthew and St. Paul, are saturated with the reality that to be human means not that we acquire pleasure quickly, but that we give beauty slowly. And through the gift of self we come to an experience of an authentic communion of persons. And from the communion of human persons, we are led to the inscrutable mystery of the communion of divine Persons in the Trinity.
Finally, to open up the pastoral effectiveness of the theology of the body, we take the risk. We begin to live life as a gift received and to be given. We turn again to the sacraments, to the teaching of the Church, to our prayer life, to the path of virtue, and we make a gift of self. These are not automatic steps. They take time and grace. They are the training ground that forms us to live the life of virtue through the impetus of the Holy Spirit. It is on this path that we respond to temptation, weakness, human frailty and sin.
In our training we learn to slow down. As we slow down, we awaken to a new momentum. As we awaken to this new center of gravity, we learn that the nucleus of love is the gift of self, found first in the sacrificial self-gift of Jesus on the cross. On the cross, the Son of God reveals the Father and his love. The Holy Spirit invites us into this communion of love. The only thing better than reading or reflecting about the gift of self is risking it. And we dare once again: Husband and wife take the risk. They risk seeing beauty — the beauty of the communion of persons — and are led beyond themselves in love.
Through patient reading and careful reflection, the teaching on the gift of self, on the communion of persons, finds its way to marriage-preparation programs, RCIA, homily preparation, catechetical instruction and daily life. Husbands and wives, engaged couples, and each one of us are released from the hypnotic spell of acquire pleasure quickly as we discover again the happiness of the vocation to give beauty slowly. We learn to see the other as a person rather than a thing.
And all of a sudden, we realize, we have escaped.
Father J. Brian Bransfield, STD, is a priest of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and currently serves as
assistant general secretary at the USCCB. He is the author of The Human Person: According to John Paul II (2010, Pauline Books).