What I Learned at the John Paul II Institute

COMMENTARY: My two years of study were far more formative than I could have ever believed possible.

Pope St. John Paul II, who in 1982 founded the theological institute that is now named for him, gestures to the crowd during Mass in St. Louis, Missouri, Jan. 27, 1999.
Pope St. John Paul II, who in 1982 founded the theological institute that is now named for him, gestures to the crowd during Mass in St. Louis, Missouri, Jan. 27, 1999. (photo: MASSIMO SAMBUCETTI/AFP/Getty Images)

Recent events have brought the Pontifical John Paul II Theological Institute for Marriage and Family Sciences in Rome into focus. Likely for many, it seems a far-off place with little bearing on the everyday experience of most people in the Church.

As an alumna of the Washington, D.C., session of the John Paul II Institute for Studies of Marriage and Family at The Catholic University of America, even for me it’s been surprising how much my education informs my everyday life and not just the confines of theological academia.

Eleven years ago this month, when I walked into orientation day, I thought I was strolling into How to Change the World 101.

All of my life I’ve been a go-getter — the highly motivated, energetic sort of person that rarely feels too busy to tackle a new project. Somewhere in college I heard of the John Paul II Institute and determined that I would one day be a student there. Without visiting or doing much research, I decided it was the place for me simply because it was founded by now Pope St. John Paul II.

With a vague notion that I would be receiving an excellent theological education, I also assumed it would involve training in how to actively do things, like speak, teach, write, argue and create.

And then I sat in my first class and quickly realized I didn’t really know where I was. The theologically precise language was above my head, the philosophy gave me a headache and the intensity of reading hundreds of pages each week was crushing.

I felt guilty as I confessed to one of the Sisters of Life that I was no longer able to pray in front of the local abortion business because of the time commitment of my studies. She smiled and said, “But you are doing pro-life work right now. Your studies are your contribution to the pro-life movement, and they are important.”

It was difficult to believe at the time, but today I am convinced that my two years of study for my master’s in theological studies at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute in Washington were far more formative than I could have ever believed possible.

My classmates and I walked away with so much more than a diploma. When I first entered the institute’s doors, I hoped to change the world in the biggest way possible.

In the months after graduation, finally with time to reflect on the whirlwind of the past years of study, I realized that when I started at the institute, I had only wanted to skim the surface. Instead, the institute opened my eyes to the labyrinthine layers undergirding the foundation of the faith. As I left the institute and went out into the world I began to glimpse the incredible depth of all I had learned.

Whereas I initially focused on what I would do with my degree, I now realize I first need to be. I receive my life as a gift from God, and everything I do is a response to that generosity. For a choleric like me, being is far more of a challenge than doing.

After two years being immersed in the meaning of marriage and family as rooted in God’s unending generosity, love and fruitfulness, one can’t respond more fittingly than to live one’s state in life, simply and profoundly. I know other institute alumni feel the same.

The alumni — single, married, priests and religious — together form a sort of constellation throughout the world. Against the bleakness pervading our world today, the stars are small, but they are beautiful. Together, they form connections that shine wherever they exist. They don’t attempt to do what they know they cannot — transform the world instantaneously from dark to light. But they quietly, simply, hope-fully do what they know they can — exist as one who has received a gift, responding by living a communion of love.

At the same time, graduates of the John Paul II Institute aren’t just sitting on the couch, watching the world pass by through the window. I spent six years authoring a high school theology of the body curriculum. Alumni are working in diocesan leadership, high school classrooms and the mental health field. They are canon lawyers, professors, writers, speakers, doulas, designers and mechanics.

Core to all of these professions and fields of service is one’s knowledge of our deepest identity as a gift created out of love by God. Though it might seem intangible, recognition of this gift bears fruit — one conversation, one family, one community at a time.

Any fruit visible on a wide scale is possible only because of the everyday, seemingly insignificant living out of one’s life as a gift.

What is significant about the John Paul II Institute? It’s not about isolated issues. Rather, the institute has a vision of reality as a whole that enables one to articulate and defend fundamental and contemporary moral issues resting on the foundation of Scripture, Church Fathers, theological anthropology, metaphysics and other dimensions of the symphony of truth.

As students, we were told countless times that we were being taught to “think with the mind of the Church.” While this is vital, I think we were also taught what it means to be human. Learning to be truly human in all that we do has become a lifelong task that we must live out — at home, at work, at church and in the grocery store.

In our world of unspeakable violence and disregard for the dignity of each human person, could there be anything more relevant than an education and formation in what it is to be human?

Pope St. John Paul II left the world a legacy in the Institute bearing his name that not only seeks to articulate the vision of the human person’s call to greatness for the sake of the world, but also simultaneously transforms the individual student. This a priceless gift.

Emily Macke is the author of the Called to Be More curriculum through Ruah Woods Press and lives with her husband and children in Indiana.