When people discuss the Wednesday audiences of Blessed John Paul’s Man and Woman He Created Them, there are a lot of theories as to what the Pope is trying to say. Some of them are right, some are wrong; some are a mixture of both. To help arrive at a solid reading of the texts, I think it is important to keep one thing in mind.
When the texts are frequently discussed (amongst aficionados and critics alike), the texts are frequently discussed in a vacuum. The Wednesday audiences are treated as a ground zero of Catholic thought. I believe this does a grave disservice to the text, since when we read it in line with greater tradition; we are able to learn quite a bit. We learn that far from being something entirely new, John Paul II’s audiences were a modern day Hexameron.
Unless you are a Church Fathers wonk, you probably have no idea what a Hexameron even is. In Greek, the word means “six days”, in early & medieval Christian literature it was used to offer a Biblical study into the first few chapters of the book of Genesis which outlines the creation of the world. Some of the greatest minds in Christianity performed this study, such as Sts. Basil, Ambrose, Augustine, Aquinas, Bonaventure, and many others. Their reflections frequently focused on how creation was done in a rational order: we can learn a lot about God and learn of his existence through the created order. (This view was officially sanctioned by the Church in the First Vatican Council.) If this sounds pretty deep, it is: Ambrose devoted a lengthy chapter just to what birds flying in the air say about God and even the Gospel to come.
It is in this line of work that the Wednesday audiences should be referenced, albeit with one significant development. More than any source before him, John Paul II pondered what the creation of man said about God, and just as important, what the nature of God reveals about His highest creation. The first thing it tells about God is that He is in reality plural. Right from the beginning, God states “Let us make man in our image.” (Gen 1:26) The Old Testament seemed to have little concept of a Triune God (only bits and pieces), but they seemed to understand that God, while one, was at the same time more than one. The fullness of revelation teaches us that God is One Lord, One God, not the unity of a single person, but in the Trinity of a single substance. (Preface of the Most Holy Trinity, Extraordinary Form.)
Another phrase worth reflecting on is the phrase “our image.” What is the “Image of God?” Centuries of Trinitarian theology by the brightest minds in the Church have settled upon viewing the Trinity as a family. While human words can never do a divine reality justice, family is about as close as we are going to get. St. Augustine (On The Trinity) develops this a bit further when he posits that the Holy Spirit, while being a Divine Person, is the love between the Father and the Son, and that this love is sent forth from the Father and the Son in the creation of all things.
A final question to consider is the one that men have been pondering since the beginning of time. Why were we created? In John Paul’s eyes, the two terms which best describe the very reason of our existence are love and gift:
Only love gives a beginning to good and delights in good (cf. 1 Cor 13). As the action of God, the creation signifies not only calling from nothingness to existence and establishing the existence of the world and of man in the world. It also signifies, according to the first narrative, beresit bara, giving. It is a fundamental and “radical” giving, that is, a giving in which the gift comes into being precisely from nothingness. (General Audience 1/2/80)
If man is a gift, who is the recipient? On the one hand, it is certainly true that we were created for our own sake. Yet it is also equally true that our creation signifies that “we are impelled, by our very nature, to the enjoyment of the Creator.” (Leo XIII, Sapientiae Christianae) God created us so that we may be united with him, for “having come from Him, we must return to Him.” (Leo XIII, Libertas) The Catechism of St. Pius X confirms this view when they state the following about the original final destination of man:
If Adam and Eve had not sinned and if they had remained faithful to God, they would, after a happy and tranquil sojourn here on earth, and without dying, have been transferred by God into Heaven, to enjoy a life of unending glory.
When one keeps these truths in mind when studying the Wednesday audiences, a lot of the difficulties melt away, because we are drawing on the same sources that Pope John Paul II would have been familiar with. (John Paul II was a great student of Leo XIII, and in many ways could be viewed as a model of his pontificate.) When we read things through the lens of previous teaching, we can also come to appreciate just what a lovely development of those teachings Pope John Paul’s Wednesday audiences were.