What made John Paul “the Great” great is not a secret. It was something he publicly proclaimed and about which he frequently wrote, even long before becoming pope. It was a message as early as his penetrating study on human sexuality in Love and Responsibility (1960s), and it is intrinsic to the Gospel.
Call to Personhood
The message he proclaimed and which made him great through his daily effort to live it was that every human has the vocation to love. It was nothing less than Christ’s command “that you love one another as I have loved you” (Jn 14:12). He helped the modern world to see that we are not fully human until we fully embrace that message. In fact, his message was that we were created to become fully persons through participating in authentic relationships with others; true human growth is patterned after the real model for being persons and that real model is the Trinity.
According to the pagan philosopher Boethius (ca. 500 AD), a person is “an individual substance of rational nature,”an individual capable of knowing and loving. It was a great definition that Christians could and did apply to humans, angels, and to the Persons of the Trinity. However, it is extremely abstract and needed to be developed and brought into the concrete reality of human persons and divine Persons (i.e. the Trinity). After all, no person human or divine has actually existed as an isolated individual possessing just an intellect and will. Persons have always existed in relationship to another person. To be a person is to be in relationship.
What “causes” the Persons of the Trinity to be real and distinct persons is different from what causes humans to be real and distinct persons. For humans, our bodies make us easily distinguishable. We are unequal in our powers (natural attributes) and it is easily identifiable as to who is operating our powers. If you say to me, “I’m hungry,” I do not wonder who is wanting to eat. I do not attribute your desire to eat to any other person.
For the Persons of the Trinity there is no distinction in powers. They are one in being, pure Spirit (Jn 4:24). As concerns power (nature), the Persons are identical in every way. In fact, in the relationship of the Persons towards man (before the Incarnation), they are indistinguishable. So what makes them distinct persons?
A brief article directed to a wide audience such as this can only say so much. (Complicating things, there is no space to explain the metaphysics and epistemology of the Church Fathers and Doctors.) But since my point is to express why we have the vocation to love, it suffices to answer that God has revealed that in the mystery of His eternal existence, the divine nature is in relationship to the divine nature through two eternal processions which are real and distinct Persons from the Father.
If you just said, “Huh?”, then let me put it the way Pope John Paul the Great did: God is a communion of love.
For the sake of keeping this short, we can probably get away with the following explanation: The divine nature as “begotten” is the Son. The divine nature as “unbegotten” is the Father. The divine nature as “proceeding” is the Spirit. Though we can never fully understand this greatest of mysteries, we can have insights into it. One that is important to grasp is that the Father was always a distinct Person because He had the relationship of always generating the Son (who was always “with” the Father (Jn 1:1)). What makes the Father a real and distinct person is His having always generated the Son and therefore being in relationship. He would not have always been a person without there having always been another person real and distinct from Himself.
Through the Incarnation of the Son, we got a glimpse of the interactions between the divine Persons; we got a glimpse of what it means to be a person to be in relationship. The Incarnation allowed human beings to witness the interactions of those in whose image we were made. This gave man the most profound insight into the purpose of our intellects and free wills.
When the Son became a man, He revealed on earth how the persons of the Trinity act towards one another from all eternity. Jesus made a complete gift of Himself to the Father (and to us) without pulling back. He revealed how divine persons pour themselves out for one another especially in His overcoming the human temptation to try to preserve oneself from suffering when being a gift means having to suffer. In this pouring-out of Himself for the Father we need to remember Jesus’s words: “He who has seen Me has seen the Father” (Jn 14:9). In these words He reminds us that He is only acting as He has always seen the Father act (Jn 5:19): as total gift.
Becoming Truly Human
For this reason the Second Vatican Council wrote in its Pastoral Constitution, Gaudium et Spes:
Furthermore, the Lord Jesus, when praying to the Father “that they may all be one… even as We are one” (Jn 17:21-22), has opened up new horizons closed to human reason by implying that there is a certain parallel between the union existing among the divine persons and the union of the sons of God in truth and love. It follows, then, that if man is the only creature on earth that God has wanted for its own sake, man can fully discover this true self only in a sincere giving of himself (paragraph 24).
Thus, we see our human vocation as necessarily a vocation to love and we come to better understand Christ’s desire that we love one another as He has loved us.
More than forty years later, after having helped to construct the above passage of Gaudium et Spes, and, after repeatedly pointing to it in his Wednesday audiences at the beginning of his papacy, Pope John Paul the Great elaborated on this idea within his Apostolic Letter on the Dignity of Women, (Mulieris Dignitatem):
The fact that man “created as man and woman” is the image of God means not only that each of them individually is like God, as a rational and free being. It also means that man and woman created as a “unity of the two” in their common humanity, are called to live in a communion of love, and in this way to mirror in the world the communion of love that is in God, through which the Three Persons love each other in the intimate mystery of the one divine life. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one God through the unity of the divinity, exist as persons through the inscrutable divine relationship. Only in this way can we understand the truth that God in Himself is love (cf. 1 Jn 4:16) (paragraph 7).
Like Pope John Paul, we too can become “great” if we choose to live out our Trinitarian vocation. Our vocation is to love and to make ourselves gifts to one another. It is the call to us from the heart of the Holy Trinity.
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Matthew Tsakanikas is a freelance Catholic writer. You can contact him at email@example.com