One hundred years ago May 18, in a small town in southern Poland, a child was born who was destined to change the coming century as few others have. The impact that Karol Wojtyła, better known as Pope St. John Paul II, has had on the Church and the world since that day in 1920 is difficult to quantify.
Though he lived — and led the Church — through some of the most troubled times in her long history, his message from the beginning was, “Be not afraid.” This great witness to hope traveled the globe preaching Christ in 129 countries, inspired a generation of young Catholics to give their lives for the One who gave his life for us, published the first universal catechism in more than 400 years, and stood up to the godlessness of the Soviet empire, helping to bring it to an end without war.
In 1992, I had the privilege of meeting the man that many refer to as “St. John Paul the Great.” I count that among the greatest moments of my life.
It is too soon for us to be able to judge which of the many accomplishments of his legacy and teaching will prove to be the most significant. But one of the chief contenders has to be his “theology of the body.”
From 1979 to 1984, John Paul II devoted his weekly general audiences to a catechesis on the human person, the body and sexuality. As the secular culture increasingly reduced the body to an object to be controlled and used, the Pope provided a radical view of the body as a gift and sacrament of the person. He gave the Church a profound way of viewing the human person and the vocation to love.
Guided by the Holy Spirit, John Paul II’s teaching came at a most opportune moment. His theology of the body addressed some of the most dangerous errors of our time, including a highly disordered view of the body.
The circumstances we find ourselves in today have highlighted one particular aspect of this disordered view. Contemporary culture has an inordinate fear and loathing of suffering and death. The antidote for this is hope.
As I point out in my book Hope to Die: The Christian Meaning of Death and the Resurrection of the Body, our world places a high priority on physical life while disregarding spiritual life altogether. When the coronavirus crisis emerged, many people were forced to face the idea of death and suffering in a more immediate way. Death is the ultimate enemy in a world that places all value in how much pleasure we can gain using our bodies.
Catholics often accuse the culture of being too materialistic. But our real problem is that the culture isn’t materialistic enough. We undervalue matter. We undervalue how God works through the physical to affect the spiritual. Most of all, we undervalue the body.
We live in a world that primarily sees the body as one of two things: a burden or a barrier. People see the body as a burden because it grows sick; it grows old; it dies. It fails all of us by not being strong enough or fast enough or attractive enough; by not being fertile enough or by being too fertile; by limiting us in a thousand different ways and preventing us from living the life we think we should be living.
People also see the body as a barrier or a boundary. We struggle to communicate to others who we really are, and we struggle to understand who others really are. We long for communion, but don’t know how to give ourselves in the right way or receive the gift of others. We think we’ve been hemmed in by the body and long for the day we can be free of it.
But Pope St. John Paul II proposed another way of seeing the body — as a bridge.
Our body isn’t the barrier that prevents others from knowing us. It’s the bridge that allows others to know us. By our words and gestures, facial expressions and actions, our bodies communicate the invisible truths about who we are to the world. Our bodies make us known in time and space. They allow us to serve others and be served by them.
Our bodies also allow others to see something of God. Made in the image of God, every body of every person expresses a profound truth about who God is. Our bodies’ abilities to create and give and love reflect a God who is the Creator, the giver of all good gifts, and love himself. Moreover, in their ability to bring new life into the world, they image a God who is, from all eternity, life-giving love.
Everything about our bodies — their beauty, their strength, their tenderness, their endurance, their swiftness, their grace, their life-giving capacity — all of it reflects truths about who we are and who God is. They are the bridge by which the invisible passes into the visible and by which the eternal passes into the temporal.
God reached us by entering time and taking on a body. Grace reaches our souls by traveling through our body. And grace reaches out into the world by traveling back through our bodies — through our hands, feet, eyes and mouths. God’s love, God’s kindness, God’s mercy and God’s care are made manifest in the world through our love, our kindness, our mercy and our care.
Every single day, our bodies have the capacity to convey some of the most important truths about God and man to the world. Even in death, they speak about who we are. They attest to our weakness and our need for Christ. But they also remind us that there is more to come.
The body at rest in death is not meant to stay at rest. The very wrongness we feel when we look at the body of a person who was just alive helps us know that death isn’t the end. More is still to come. Our bodies continue to teach the world about the dignity of the human person and the extraordinary fate that awaits us on the last day. Death is not the end. We owe a great debt to Pope St. John Paul II for revealing the true beauty of the body. It is a bridge. It is a gift. And even in death, it still serves as a sign of what is yet to come.
We should not take lightly that God has promised to raise our bodies on the last day. As I say in Hope to Die, if God places such importance on our body, then we should, as well. We still have much to learn from the teachings of John Paul II, even a century after his birth.
Scott Hahn, Ph.D., is the bestselling author of more than 40 books, including Hope to Die: The Christian Meaning of Death and the Resurrection of the Body.
He is the founder and president of the St. Paul Center and holds the Father Michael Scanlan Chair of Biblical Theology and the New Evangelization at Franciscan University.