As John Paul II’s canonization draws closer, it is worthwhile to revisit and meditate on his writings. The spiritual reading of the theology of the body is particularly fruitful, especially for those who struggle with a negative self-image and have difficulty loving and seeing the good in themselves and others.
In fact, John Paul’s catechesis in this regard is all about seeing — learning how to share in God’s own vision of ourselves and the persons in our lives. By pointing us back to "the beginning" (Genesis), the Holy Father reminds us that God’s vision of the human person is one that — in the most radical way possible — affirms the intrinsic goodness of our existence: We are created in God’s image, and this is not only good, but "very good."
Pope Francis is building upon the insights of the theology of the body — especially with respect to the fundamental goodness and dignity of the human person — by privileging love of the poor as a centerpiece of the New Evangelization, something he has done both through his actions and teaching.
This was perhaps most widely recognized in the viral picture of Pope Francis embracing Vinicio Riva. As reported, Riva suffers from a genetic disease that causes serious disfigurement to his face. After being embraced and kissed by Pope Francis, Riva described his experience as like "being in paradise." His encounter with the Holy Father "marked a new beginning for him," as expressed to his aunt with, "Here, I leave my pain."
Blessed John Paul II taught us that, "in the beginning," before the Fall, we quite literally shared in the Divine vision of ourselves and the cosmos. We saw ourselves and the world as God did: That is, we saw them in truth, beauty and goodness. Imagine for a minute what it would be like to automatically see yourself as God sees you, to see your spouse as God sees him/her and to see your children as God sees them.
After the Fall, however, our communion with God was shattered. We no longer have the capacity to spontaneously share in the Divine vision of ourselves and the ones we love. Our capacity to see persons as they truly are has been greatly diminished. A spiritual reading of Blessed John Paul II’s theology of the body, however, offers the best remedy this side of heaven.
I say this side of heaven because John Paul II’s theology is realistic, not naive. As St. Paul taught: "Now, we see in a mirror dimly" (1 Corinthians 13:12). The Holy Father understood there is an impassible boundary between man’s experience before the Fall (original innocence) and afterwards (concupiscence, or the tendency to sin). And there is, of course, no question of going back to Eden.
In light of this situation — where the human heart has become a "battlefield between love and lust" — the Holy Father asks the question: "Does this mean we should distrust the human heart?" His answer is as definitive as it is inspiring: "No! It only means we must keep it under control" (Theology of the Body, 7.23.80).
John Paul II affirms that the sacramental character of the human body persists — even after the Fall. To say that the body is a sacrament is to say it is a visible sign of an invisible reality. While the human body has almost "lost the capacity of expressing love," it nevertheless continues to do so, because the "nuptial meaning of the body has not become completely suffocated by concupiscence, but only habitually threatened."
In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus addresses fallen man (that is, all of us) with a new ethos. Our hearts have been "hardened" and deeply affected by concupiscence. Nevertheless, John Paul II reminds us that we have been redeemed, and our fallen state must always be viewed within the horizon of redemption. The meaning of the body remains "as a commitment given to man by the ethos of the gift, inscribed in the depths of the human heart, as a distant echo of original innocence" (TOB, 2.20.80).
From the perspective of redemption, then: "The body, and it alone, is capable of making visible what is invisible: the spiritual and the Divine. … This is the mystery of truth and love, the mystery of Divine life, in which man really participates."
Sin is, then, the fundamental obstacle or screen which prevents us from seeing ourselves and others as they truly are. For example, if I am dominated by lust, I will not see a beautiful woman as she truly is: a person to be loved. Rather, I will see her only through the screen of lust: as a mere object to be used for my own pleasure. Other "screens" come to mind easily: consumerism, racism, jealousy and envy, hatred, ideology, etc.
While there is not space here to fully engage Pope Francis’ first apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, it is clear that he believes certain sinful economic structures exist that fail to recognize and promote the dignity of the poor as persons to be loved, but, rather, reduce them to objects to be manipulated and used according to a utilitarian and consumerist ethic. Arguing that these unjust economic structures of exclusion are creating a "globalization of indifference," Francis adds: "Almost without being aware of it, we end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people’s pain and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own."
In perhaps the most striking comment in his apostolic exhortation, Pope Francis poignantly asks: "How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?"
John Paul II teaches us that Jesus comes to tear down the obstacles and screens that distort our capacity to see. Jesus comes to redeem us from sin and, thereby, restores our capacity to see things as he sees them. He restores our capacity to see things in their truth and beauty. It is grace then, especially in the sacraments of the Eucharist and penance, that gives us "new eyes" — eyes that see as God sees.
Blessed Teresa of Calcutta was an exemplar for living out John Paul’s teachings of the theology of the body. She used to say: "Unless I can detect Jesus under the humble appearance of the Bread, I cannot see his presence hidden under the distressing disguise of the poor."
When she went out into the slums, she quite literally saw people differently. Most would step over or around the dying men lying in the gutter. Mother Teresa, however, was able to see the presence of Christ in these men. Everyone else saw a bum, a piece of trash and refuse. Mother Teresa, on the other hand, was able to see a person to be loved, a person to be served, a person who manifested the suffering face of Christ.
As in the case of Pope Francis and Vinicio Riva, this works conversely as well. For example, one dying man had abandoned his belief in God. However, after Mother Teresa washed his body and his sores, fed and took care of him, the man said: "I can believe in God again!" Mother Teresa asked him why. His response: "Because you have loved me."
I believe both Blessed John Paul II and Pope Francis want us to recognize we are suffering from what could be called sacramental blindness: the inability to see the presence of God in ourselves and in the people and circumstances we encounter in our everyday lives. What we need is renewed sacramental awareness: eyes that are able to see the presence of God as he manifests himself to us every day — especially "under the distressing disguise of the poor" (whether the "poor" are ourselves or others).
In the Gospels, Jesus’ miraculous physical healings always point to deeper, spiritual healings. When Jesus cures physical blindness, he points us to the spiritual blindness that he wants to cure and heal. In God’s word, we encounter Christ — the words and deeds of Christ recorded in the Gospel are re-presented and are made present to us here and now.
A prayerful reading of John Paul II’s catechesis on the body can lead to this real encounter with the Lord as well — an encounter that can heal us and set us free to see and love ourselves and others as God sees and loves us.
Bill Maguire is a writer,
editor and speaker who lives in Naples, Florida.