On April 2, 2005, the Pope lay dying. After a nearly-27 year pontificate, one of the most famous men in the world was on his death bed. I sat at home, alone, and watched news coverage of this holy man’s last hours. That afternoon, the pope died. A few days later, as I watched coverage of his funeral, I joined in as the crowds chanted “Santo subito! Santo subito!” (Make him a saint now!)
This pope had had a profound effect on my life. I was 17 years old when he died, and he was the only pope I had ever known. I was blessed to be raised in a profoundly Catholic family, in a profoundly Catholic community in rural Oregon, and attend a profoundly Catholic parish and grade school. I was surrounded at home and school by images and stories of the Holy Father. Hanging next to my bed, and used as bookmarks in everything I read, were holy cards featuring John Paul II’s image. As I grew older, and began to explore the writings and teachings of this pope, I saw a clear thread running through everything he did – we are all children of God, and God has given his children and their world a beautiful, ineffable gift in marriage and family life. While I may have been unable to understand all of his writings as a young person (or now…let’s be honest), his theology of the family has had an indescribable influence on myself and countless others.
St. John Paul II had a mind virtually unparalleled in recent times. He was truly one of the intellectual heavyweights of the 20th century. Philosophically gifted, some of his earlier pre-papal writings are beyond the ken of even the most educated among us. In fact, Karol Wojtyla’s major philosophical work, his 1969 book The Acting Person, was essentially a child of his extensive and detailed study of Max Scheler’s magnum opus, Formalism in Ethics and a Material Ethics of Values: A New Attempt toward the Foundation of an Ethical Personalism. The history of philosophical thought is greatly represented in the thought of St. John Paul II, including in his extensive theological explorations into the nature and beauty of the family.
In the late 1950s, Karol Wojtyla, the future Pope John Paul II, published a book called Love and Responsibility, exploring exactly what one would expect. This was perhaps the earliest major work of the man on the topic of love, sexuality, and family life, and it would inform his work and teachings for the rest of his life.
After his election to the papacy, John Paul II convened an Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops in 1980 on the topic of the Christian Family. The post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation which resulted from the Synod’s discussions is known as Familiaris Consortio, and this is one of the most profound and in-depth examinations of the Christian family, and the role of the Christian family in the modern world. It was promulgated on November 22, 1981, and explores challenges faced by the family in today’s world, as well as the meaning of marriage and family life, as well as their role in society. The simple fact that this Synod was convoked so soon after John Paul’s election (similar to the way in which Pope Francis convoked an Extraordinary, and then Ordinary, Synod on the Family within 3 years of his own election) speaks to the importance of the family in the thought and heart of this holy pope.
A further move by the Holy Father following the Synod of 1980 was to erect and establish the Pontifical Council for the Family, on May 9, 1981. This Council was the successor to the Committee for the Family which Blessed Paul VI had established in 1973. According to the Apostolic Constitution Pastor Bonus, promulgated in 1988 and detailing/reforming much of the government of the Catholic Church, “The Pontifical Council for the Family promotes the pastoral care of families, protects their rights and dignity in the Church and in civil society, so that they may ever be more able to fulfill their duties.” (Pastor Bonus V, Art. 139)
This Council is not merely a theological think-tank, nor a group of lobbyists attempting to push the Church’s views on secular society. No. Rather, the Council strives to attain a “deeper understanding of the Church’s teaching on the family,” and to spread this deeper understanding to the faithful through “suitable catechesis.” (Ibid., Art. 140) Beyond pure doctrinal instruction, the Council also promotes and encourages “studies in the spirituality of marriage and the family.” (Ibid.) It does this work universally, working in tandem with bishops and episcopal conferences all over the world “to ensure the accurate recognition of the human and social conditions of the family institution everywhere.” (Ibid.)
The work of this Council is truly practical, as well, and not merely an academic pursuit. John Paul II, in his establishing and reforming of the work of the Council, ensured that the Council would strive “to ensure that the rights of the family be acknowledged and defended even in the social and political realm. It also supports and coordinates initiatives to protect human life from the first moment of conception and to encourage responsible procreation.” (Ibid., emphasis added) This Council is truly a passion project for Pope St. John Paul II, and demonstrates the deep love that the man had for the family.
(As a note of interest, Pope Francis’ council of nine cardinal advisors has recommended integrating the Pontifical Council for the Family, along with the Pontifical Council for the Laity and the Pontifical Academy of Life, into the single Congregation for Laity, Family, and Life. This has been recommended to the pontiff, but it remains to be seen if this is the course Pope Francis takes.)
Another enduring legacy of John Paul’s theology of the family is his establishment of the tri-annual World Meeting of Families, the most recent of which was held in Philadelphia this past September. This meeting is arranged by the Pontifical Council for the Family. According to a welcome letter written by this year’s host, Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, the Meeting was created “to explore the critical role the family plays in society and to give families opportunities to talk about the challenges and blessings that all families have.” This is a fulfillment of the mandate of the Pontifical Council for the Family, and right at the heart of the theology of John Paul II. This Meeting is a real world, practical application of the theology.
Pope St. John Paul II was a gift to the Church and the world. He accomplished more than he is given credit for, certainly, and contributed to much else. He was a staunch defender of the family and the dignity of the human person; he preached to a fallen world about the beauty of the sexual act, its purpose, its true role in a committed, monogamous union; he essentially shouted from the rooftops of the glory of God’s gift to man and woman, and the Trinitarian character of committed, life-giving marital love. The theology of St. John Paul II is a theology of the human person-as-child-of-God, and reflects the profound gifts which God has given to His children, and promotes a recognition of and gratitude for, in particular, the gift of the family.