Thursday, October 05, 2006

John Paul II’s Theology Of The Body

(Twenty-seventh Sunday of the Year (B): This homily was given on October 8, 2006, at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Genesis 2: 18-24; Mark 10: 2-16.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Twenty Seventh Sunday 2006]

What was the greatest contribution that John Paul II made to the Church and to the world during his 27 years as pope?

That’s not an easy question to answer, because our former Holy Father did many incredible and noteworthy things as the Successor of St. Peter.

Some might answer the question by focusing on all that he did to bring down the Iron Curtain and put an end to Soviet Communism in Eastern Europe. Others might focus on his many travels: he made over 100 trips to foreign countries during his pontificate, taking the Gospel to the world in a way that no other pope before him had done.

Others might say that his greatest contribution was in his outreach to young people. As some of us remember, it was his idea to call youth from all over the world to Rome in 1984, for what he described as a “World Youth Day”. Many people thought he was crazy to think that teenagers and young adults would travel thousands of miles to listen to him—a man in his 60s!—talk about Jesus Christ. They were wrong: 300,000 showed up! And in the Philippines 11 years later a record 5,000,000 young people came to hear the same man when he was in his 70s! Apparently John Paul II didn’t know the meaning of the term “generation gap”.

Some might say that his greatest contribution was in the area of ecumenism and inter-religious dialogue. After all, our former Holy Father did quite a bit to heal the thousand-year-old division between Catholics and the Orthodox, and the 500-year-old division between Catholics and Protestants. And he did a great deal to establish good relations with leaders of Islam and other non-Christian faiths.

But many of those who followed the career of John Paul II most closely, and who studied his teachings most intently, would say that his most significant contribution was not any the four I just mentioned (as great as each of them was). They would say that his most important contribution was, without question, his “theology of the body.”

Perhaps this is the first time you’re hearing about this aspect of his thought; perhaps it’s the first time you’ve ever heard the expression, “the theology of the body”.

If so, you’re not alone.

And yet, this just might be the subject that dominates conversations about John Paul II in future generations. This may prove to be, as many experts have said, the most enduring aspect of this pope’s incredible legacy.

If you were in Rome between September of 1979 and November of 1984, and attended a general audience with the pope when you were there, then you have heard at least something about the theology of the body (although you might not realize it). That’s because the Holy Father shared his thoughts on this subject during the 129 talks he gave at his Wednesday audiences in that 5 year period.

In these talks—which begin with a reflection on the Gospel text we heard a few moments ago from Mark 10—John Paul reiterates all the traditional teachings of the Church on marriage and human sexuality. No surprises there.

But he does it in a unique way.

For example—concerning sins of the flesh—instead of simply saying, “These acts are wrong because they violate the Ten Commandments and the Natural Law” (as many before him had done), John Paul goes one step further and says, “Yes, these acts violate the Natural Law and the Decalogue, but at a deeper level they also contradict the meaning of our bodies as designed by God.”

In his theology of the body, the pope approaches moral issues in the same way that Jesus does in his encounter with the Pharisees in today’s Gospel: by going back to God and his creative intent.

The Pharisees in this story want to discuss the morality of divorce by referring exclusively to the Law of Moses in the Old Testament.

Jesus responds to them by saying, in effect, “That’s the wrong way to deal with the issue. If you want to understand whether divorce is morally good or not, you need to go back further than the time of Moses. You need to go back to creation: to God’s creation of our first parents. Once you understand God’s intention in creating men and women at the very beginning of human history—before the Fall—then you’ll understand the truth about marriage and divorce.”

At that point he quotes a passage from Genesis 2 (which was part of the text we heard in our first reading): “’God made them male and female. For this reason, a man shall lave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined, no human being must separate.”

For Jesus—and for John Paul II—the self-giving of a husband and wife to one another in marriage, expressed most profoundly in the marital act, is something “of God”; it’s part of the Lord’s creative intent. (So much for the idea that the Church thinks sex is dirty!) In fact, in a very real way the self-giving of a husband and wife to one another in marriage mirrors the divine self-giving that is present in the inner life of the Blessed Trinity.

So of course divorce isn’t possible! Is it possible for the Father to get a divorce from the Son in the Blessed Trinity? Or the Son from the Spirit? Or the Spirit from the Father? No way! Well, if it’s not possible for the 3 Persons of the Triune God to divorce themselves from one another, how can it be possible for a marriage bond to be broken, if that bond is supposed to reflect the inner life of the Trinity?

(Here, obviously, I’m referring to a valid, sacramental marriage. The fact is, not every wedding ceremony causes a true, sacramental bond to form between the couple. The Church recognizes that. Sometimes there’s a problem—a defect—present at the beginning, which, unfortunately, doesn’t become apparent until long after the couple has exchanged their vows. Some of you, perhaps, know this by experience. In those cases, separation is acceptable and an annulment is possible.)

The main point here is that John Paul II and Jesus both go back to “the beginning” in order to unfold the true meaning of marriage. John Paul does the same thing throughout his ‘theology of the body’ talks in dealing with dozens of other important questions and issues.

In his mind, for example, if you want to know who you are as a human person; if you want to know the meaning of this earthly life; if you want to understand the sacraments and the nature of the Church; if you want to understand moral issues like divorce; and if you want some legitimate insights on what eternal life is like, you have to go back to the beginning when God made the bodies of our first parents. There you will begin to discover the truth about all these other matters.

Consider, for instance, the meaning of life. In the beginning we are told that God made us “male” and “female”. He made our bodies different (I’m sure you’ve already figured that out!). That difference, John Paul would say, is extremely significant. It means something very important that points us to life’s true meaning.

The difference we experience in our bodies as male and female is a sign of the fact that we need others; it’s a sign of the fact that we need community. Our bodies thus have a “nuptial meaning” whereby we are called to give of ourselves to God and to other people in love and in service. As the Holy Father put it in one of his talks: “The human body includes right from the beginning . . . the capacity of expressing love, that love in which the person becomes a gift—and by means of this gift—fulfills the meaning of his being and existence.”

So you want to know why there are so many lonely and miserable people living in the United States right now?

It’s because they don’t know this truth! They don’t know the meaning of their own bodies! They think their bodies are primarily designed for “receiving” and “taking”; they don’t realize that their primary purpose for being on this earth is to “give”. Consequently they are miserable in their selfishness and hedonism! They think the meaning of life is about “getting” and “possessing” and “accumulating”. They don’t realize that the real meaning of life is about the giving of themselves to others.

In closing, I highly encourage you to learn more about this crucial subject. Understanding John Paul II’s theology of the body can bring many blessings and benefits. If you don’t want to read all 129 talks of the Holy Father, there are some very good commentaries available which explain the essentials of the pope’s teaching in about 100 pages. There are also some great talks you can purchase on CD, by Christopher West and other recognized experts on the subject.

The basic message of John Paul II in all this is simple and clear: Know your body! Really know your body and its meaning! It’s ultimately the best thing you can do for your body—and your soul.