All can agree that the family is under attack under many forms, but we do not often discuss how to protect the family from the modern culture. How are Catholics to foster a “civilization of love” (12), a term coined by Pope St. John Paul II in his 1994 Letter to Families, within their own families, when the culture habitually works against their efforts? Families can begin with this letter by John Paul II, in which he expounds upon the vision of the family as a community of persons, living in truth and love, for the sake of the civilization of love. In particular, John Paul II considers the term “fairest love” within the family, exploring its scriptural, anthropological, and genealogical meaning.
John Paul II begins not with a definition of fairest love but a model in Mary, the Mother of God, as the model of fairest love for all families. This truth is revealed in Mary’s “yes” to the will of God; she chose to become the Mother of “God from God and Light from Light” (20). It is her “yes” that allows for the Incarnation: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). Furthermore, Joseph accepts Mary as his bride, even though he “had the right to consider his promised bride as his wife and the mother of his children” (20). While Joseph wanted to divorce Mary quietly, for he was a “just man” (Matthew 1:19), the angel in his dream told him that such would not be consistent with his vocation. In fact, it would contradict the spousal love to which he was called with Mary. As John Paul II writes, “This mutual spousal love, to be completely ‘fairest love,’ requires that he should take Mary and her Son into his own house in Nazareth” (20). Joseph was also to give his fiat to the will of God, accepting the Son of God into his life with Mary. John Paul II says that we ought to thank Joseph that “the mystery of the Incarnation and, together with it, the mystery of the Holy Family, came to be profoundly inscribed in the spousal love of husband and wife, and in an indirect way, in the genealogy of every human family” (20). What a beautiful reality: the fairest love that comprised the Holy Family through the fiat to God’s will is now part of every human family, if the family should follow the same path. Indeed, the “great mystery” that St. Paul discusses finds its “most lofty expression” in the Holy Family (Ephesians 5:32; 20).
John Paul II then makes the connection of fairest love to the beginning of creation. He writes, “It can be said that the history of ‘fairest love’ began, in a certain way, with the first human couple: Adam and Eve” (20). This concept is present throughout John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, in which he considers the idea that the love—imitative of God’s love—between man and woman in marriage is discovered in the Garden of Eden with Adam and Eve. This primordial love follows in the typological tradition: Mary, as the new Eve, fulfills the fairest love that the first Eve shunned. Although the sin of Adam and Eve “did not completely deprive them of the capacity for ‘fairest love’” (20), it was still necessary for Christ to become Man in order to save them and bring them deeper into His fairest love. Indeed, Christ is the “new Adam,” who came into the world through the Holy Family of fairest love to save man from his sin. For this reason, John Paul II writes, “He [Christ] comes to renew everything that is God’s gift in man, everything in him that is eternally good and beautiful, everything that forms the basis of ‘fairest love.’ This history of ‘fairest love’ is, in one sense, the history of man’s salvation” (20).
Here we find the first attempt to define “fairest love.” Fairest love is rooted in the Garden of Eden, but then, through sin and death, becomes marred and hidden. Certainly, the fairest love of God for mankind is not completely absent before the Incarnation, for God often reveals His love through nuptial imagery, as evidenced in the Song of Songs and Hosea. And indeed, as we read in 1 John 4:7, “God is love,” and He can never contradict His nature. Nevertheless, it is through Christ’s Incarnation that fairest love is redeemed. If we continue reading: “In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only-begotten Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the expiation for our sins” (1 John 4:9-10). The history of fairest love is discovered in the salvation of man through the Incarnation of Christ, for God loved man so much that He sent His only Son into the world (cf. John 3:16).
How can we apply this understanding of the history of fairest love to the family? John Paul II continues: “‘Fairest love’ always begins with the self-revelation of the person” (20). In the creation of Adam and Eve, both reveal themselves to each other as a gift, for both are made in the image and likeness of God. “Bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh,” Adam exclaimed when he first beheld Eve (Genesis 2:23). This model is transferred to the family: “The family thus begins as a union of the two, and through the Sacrament, as a new community in Christ. For love to be truly ‘fairest,’ it must be a gift of God, grafted by the Holy Spirit on to human hearts and continually nourished in them (cf. Romans 5:5)” (20). For John Paul II, the common good of marriage is comprised of the persons giving themselves to each other in self-gift, as understood in Gaudium et spes 24. “This likeness [to God’s image] reveals that man, who is the only creature on earth which God willed for itself, cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself.” Indeed, this is why John Paul II continues, “If love is truly to be ‘fairest love,’ a gift of one person to another, it must come from the One who is himself a gift and the source of every gift” (20). Thus, the fairest love that is discovered in the person, created in God’s image and likeness, and then fulfilled through a gift of self to another, particularly in marriage, finds its source in God’s own self-giving love in the love of Christ.
As we are all aware, the modern world does not advocate this kind of love. Indeed, John Paul II wonders whether the influence of the modern media actually supports the “truth about man” (20). John Paul II says that we should “realize that…it [our culture] is a society which is sick and is creating profound distortions in man” (20). Particularly in the mass media, the dignity of man and the person is not recognized; his ability to give and receive “fairest love” is disregarded as insignificant and detrimental to his “flourishing.” In denying the gift of persons in marriage and the family, John Paul II writes, “This is the real drama: the modern means of social communication are tempted to manipulate the message, thereby falsifying the truth about man” (20). Given the overwhelming sway of the modern media, the family must fight against the contradictory message of love that it presents by truly living the example of fairest love.
Despite the seeming impossibility to live fairest love in a society that does everything to desacralize it and disenchant persons from pursing it, John Paul II offers the path for developing this fairest love within the family’s small community. While fairest love is indeed written into what it means to be man and woman, as John Paul II has shown, he also writes, “‘Fairest love’ is learned above all in prayer. Prayer, in fact, always brings with it, to use an expression of Saint Paul, a type of interior hiddenness with Christ in God; ‘your life is hid with Christ in God’” (Col 3:3, 20). Thus, through imitating the Holy Family in its acceptance of the will of God in prayer, the family can deepen its “fairest love” by uniting its activities with Christ, who sacrificed Himself for all men. In offering up its daily trials, sufferings, joys, and victories in union with Christ, the family can grow more deeply in “fairest love.” Indeed, in John Paul II’s final words, “The future of each family unit depends upon this ‘fairest love’: the mutual love of husband and wife, of parents and children, a love embracing all generations. Love is the true source of the unity and strength of the family” (20).