As we celebrate the canonization of John Paul II on April 27, it is tempting to focus on so many of his accomplishments: his traveling as a "pilgrim pope of evangelization" — the equivalent of three round-trips to the moon — his helping to tear down the Iron Curtain and other triumphs as a world leader; the lengthy litany of renewals and innovations he brought to the papacy; and his important governing and doctrinal legacies, like the reform of the Code of Canon Law or the publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
But it’s important for us to avoid the error John Paul told biographer George Weigel many people make in trying to understand him. The problem, he forthrightly stated, is that they "try to understand me from outside. But I can only be understood from inside."
To understand John Paul from the inside, as his right-hand man and eventual successor stated at his funeral, begins with recognizing that he was a radical disciple of Jesus Christ.
"The key to understanding the message that comes to us from the life" of Karol Wojtyla, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger preached, was that his whole existence was a response to the Lord’s command, "Follow me!"
Understanding him from the inside likewise involves grasping how this interior bond with Christ drove him outward to share the Gospel. In the 1993 book-length interview, Crossing the Threshold of Hope, John Paul II allowed us "inside," helping us to understand what drove his indefatigable apostolate.
"As a young priest," he wrote, "I learned to love human love. This has been one of the fundamental themes of my priesthood — my ministry in the pulpit, in the confessional and also in my writing."
He said that he felt almost "an inner call" to "teach love" — and added that he soon devoted himself to this vocation within his vocation in all aspects of his pastoral work. "If one loves human love," he stated, "there naturally arises the need to commit oneself completely to the service of ‘fair love,’ because love is fair; it is beautiful."
This "service of fair love" effectively summarizes his entire priestly, professorial, episcopal and papal ministry.
It describes his untiring work as a confessor and spiritual director of students at Krakow’s technical university, helping to form them toward the gift of self in the context of communist attacks on love, sex, marriage and family.
It explains the motivation behind plays he wrote, like The Jeweler’s Shop, to show the beauty of spousal love despite marital difficulties.
It elucidates the background to his most famous pre-papal work, Love and Responsibility, which he wrote in order to "introduce love into love," namely, to infuse human romantic love with the purifying leaven of the most beautiful love of all: Christlike self-sacrificial love.
It accounts for the priority he always gave to the family, shown most powerfully in two documents: his 1981 apostolic exhortation, Familiaris Consortio, dedicated to the role of the Christian family in the context of modern challenges; and his 1994 "Letter to Families," in which he sought to help married couples and their children to understand that the history of salvation is the "history of fair love" within which their sacramental love is meant to be inserted.
It synthesizes his whole pastoral approach to the young. John Paul wrote in a letter to the young people of the world for the first World Youth Day that, "to a large extent, the future of humanity" will be determined by whether "fair love" will be "born in young hearts," a love he always sought to midwife.
And it accounts for his most original, famous and important papal theological work, the five-year series of Wednesday catechetical audiences that he entitled "Human Love in the Divine Plan," popularly known as his theology of the body.
Through profound insights into what sacred Scripture reveals about the human person before original sin, about our present fallen but redeemed state and about life in heaven, he sketches out a "synthesis and program" for the redemption of the person through fair love, expressed both in the sacrament of marriage and in chaste celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom of heaven.
In all of these expressions of his complete commitment to the service of fair love, he sought to help us see that it is Jesus who incarnates and teaches us how to love in all its beauty.
During the Second Vatican Council, the future pope helped craft the section of the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes) that reminded us that Christ "reveals man fully to himself and makes his supreme calling clear" — and that man "cannot fully find himself" except by imitating Jesus Christ in the "sincere gift of himself" to others.
"The most important thing about love," he said in Crossing the Threshold, "is the sincere gift of self. In this sense, the person is realized through love," achieving his supreme vocation through putting into action Christ’s command to love others as he has loved us first.
Learning from Christ how to form a communion of self-giving love with others is the secret to human happiness, John Paul would write in his first encyclical, Redemptor Hominis, which delineated the pastoral and theological program for his papacy.
"Man cannot live without love," he stated. "He remains a being who is incomprehensible to himself, his life is senseless, if love is not revealed to him, if he does not encounter love, if he does not experience it and make it his own, if he does not participate intimately in it."
When he was elected pope, he said he was "carrying" these central convictions about how to help the human person to solve the riddle of the deepest longings of his humanity. "I had only to ‘copy’ from memory and experience what I had already been living on the threshold of the papacy," he wrote in Crossing the Threshold. Those convictions found expression throughout his 26 years of papal service.
In an age of increasing confusion about human love and sexuality and the growing crisis affecting marriage and the family, John Paul’s profound insights into human love in the divine plan are more relevant now than ever. We thank God that the "theological time bomb" of his theology of the body has detonated in so many places, thanks to the hard work mainly of dedicated laypeople whose love lives have been dramatically changed by this Gospel.
At the same time, however, we cannot take this treasure for granted or bury it in the ground.
Cardinal Carlo Caffarra of Bologna, whom John Paul II chose in 1981 as the founding president of Rome’s John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family, said recently that he was "flabbergasted" that, in the preparation for the Extraordinary Synod on the Family to be held this October, many senior Churchmen are totally ignoring John Paul II’s theology of the body and treating his magisterium on the family "as if it didn’t exist."
As we celebrate John Paul II’s canonization, it’s a time for all those in the Church to make the effort to grasp him on the inside, to "fall in love with human love" with him and, following his example, to commit ourselves completely to the service of fair love, a crucial part of the Gospel that both the Church and the world need to hear.
Father Roger Landry is pastor of St. Bernadette parish in
Fall River, Massachusetts,
and is national chaplain of