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St. John Paul II: Missionary of Love and Life


In the early 1950s, during Poland's worst period of communist repression, Father Karol Wojtyła made an interesting discovery while building a campus ministry in Kraków. 

jpii82Pope John Paul II greets a family
at Cardiff Castle, Wales in 1982

As he coaxed young men and women out of their shells of reticence and into conversation with him and each other, he found that their most urgent questions didn't have to do with the existence of God or the relevance of the Church; despite relentless communist propaganda and bullying, they were believers.  Their most urgent questions involved love, marriage and family.

What did it mean to love someone else, and for a lifetime?  How could love grow?  How did one raise a family in a political system that tried to fragment the bonds between husband and wife, parents and children?  What did all of this have to do with sex, treated by the communists as a kind of value-free contact sport — free love, Stalinist style?

As he helped his young friends build friendships, and as those first "Wojtyła kids" fell in love, married and began families, the young Polish priest and nascent philosophy professor found grist for his literary and academic reflections.  One of Wojtyła's plays, The Jeweler's Shop, grew out of his spiritual direction of young men and women, his pastoral work in preparing his friends for marriage, and his accompaniment of the young couples whose babies he baptized and homes he visited.  (Some of those young friends later said they had "heard" their spouse's voice in the words of the characters in the play.)

And then there was Wojtyła's 1960 book, Love and Responsibility, another by-product of the author's pastoral work — in this case a philosophical and theological meditation on the integrity of human love and its bodily expression.  There, he proposed an ethic of "responsible love," in which husband and wife each makes a gift of self to the other, and each receives that gift of self in "an encounter of two freedoms."  This, Wojtyła proposed, was an icon of the entire moral life — for a truly human life is one lived as a gift of self to others, not an assertion of self against others, or a use of another for one's own satisfaction.

This, Wojtyła proposed, was an icon of the entire moral life — for a truly human life is one lived as a gift of self to others, not an assertion of self against others, or a use of another for one's own satisfaction.

Knowing all of this about the man he had appointed archbishop of Kraków in December 1963, Pope Paul VI asked Karol Wojtyła to participate in the work of the commission he had appointed to study contemporary problems of marriage and the family, including the question of contraception.  Wojtyła responded by forming a commission of Krakovian theologians to examine these questions and analyze an initial draft of a papal encyclical reiterating the Church's moral objection to artificial means of birth control.

The Kraków commission's report urged that the classic Catholic teaching be explained in a more humanistic way: The responsibility of family planning should be emphasized, for the Church did not teach an ethic of reproduction at all costs; the possibility of exercising responsible family planning through the natural rhythms of fertility should be discussed; and the rejection of chemical or mechanical contraceptives should be presented as a matter of the integrity of love — sexual love artificially sundered from procreation violated the truth about love-as-freegift that had been built into humanity at creation.  Contraception reduced loving to using.

Elements of the Kraków commission report influenced the drafting of Humanae Vitae, which, as written by Paul VI, lifted up married love as a great good and emphasized the honest exchange of self-gift as the moral and spiritual essence of sexual expression within marriage.  But in the cultural meltdown of 1968, very few people were willing to hear, much less seriously consider, what Paul VI had to say — even within the Church.  So when Cardinal Karol Wojtyła was elected bishop of Rome on Oct. 16, 1978, he knew he had work to do.

Drawing on his extensive pastoral experience with men and women trying to live love with integrity, and 30 years of reflection on those encounters, Pope John Paul II embarked in September 1979 on a four-year series of general audience addresses aimed at putting the Church's discussion of sexual love, marriage and family on a thoroughly humanistic foundation.  Creatively re-reading the Old and New Testaments, drawing on insights from contemporary philosophy, and borrowing themes from classic and modern literature, John Paul II developed what came to be known as his "theology of the body" — an extensive reflection on the integrity of human love that has had a profound effect on both the Church and the world over the past three decades.

What is "natural" in family planning, the Holy Father proposed, is what best mirrors the dignity of the human person — and that is the family planning that respects the natural patterns of fertility.

Here, John Paul II, who would later be called the "Pope of the Family," wove together insights he had been developing since his early ministry as a university chaplain: Marriage is a covenant of love, not a mere contract.  In that covenant, husband and wife should exercise responsible parenthood, building a family according to the virtue of prudence.  The sexual expression of married love is the fullest embodiment of marriage as a covenant of faithful and fruitful mutual donation — the offer and reception of another's freedom, in a bond from which new life is born.

What is "natural" in family planning, the Holy Father proposed, is what best mirrors the dignity of the human person — and that is the family planning that respects the natural patterns of fertility.  So the real question for marital chastity is not so much "What are we forbidden to do in marriage?" but "How can we live a life of sexual love that conforms to our dignity as human persons?"

From his catechesis on the theology of the body and his 1981 exhortation on the family, Familiaris Consortio, to various teachings later in his pontificate, John Paul II said to the sexual revolution, in so many words, "I'll see you and raise you."

Blessed Paul VI had been right: Widespread artificial contraception led to a culture in which men used women and children were reduced to a mere lifestyle choice.  The Catholic Church has continued to proclaim, with St. John Paul II, that the sexual gift of self, freely offered and freely received within the covenant of marriage, is an icon of the inner life of the Trinity, for God is a community of self-giving love and receptivity.  And by being that icon, faithful, chaste and fruitful married love is a way to sanctify the world.



columbiajuly18George Weigel. "St. John Paul II: Missionary of Love and Life." Columbia  (July  2018).

Reprinted with permission of Columbia and George Weigel.

The Author

weigel777smweigel5smGeorge Weigel, a Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, is a Roman Catholic theologian and one of America's leading commentators on issues of religion and public life. Among his books are The Fragility of Order: Catholic Reflections on Turbulent TimesLessons in Hope: My Unexpected Life with St. John Paul II, Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st-Century Catholic Church, Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II, Roman Pilgrimage: The Station Churches, Evangelical Catholicism, The End and the Beginning: John Paul II – The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy, God's Choice: Pope Benedict XVI and the Future of the Catholic Church, Letters to a Young Catholic: The Art of Mentoring, The Courage to Be Catholic: Crisis, Reform, and the Future of the Church, and The Truth of Catholicism: Ten Controversies Explore.

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