“If you are what you should be, you will set the whole world ablaze!” This famous quote attributed to St. Catherine of Sienna could very well describe the good fruit of the second international Theology of the Body Congress held this July in Philadelphia. The event brought together a first-class roster of speakers (Damon Owens, Christopher West, Dr. Janet Smith, Fr. Michael Gaitley, Dr. John Grabowski, Dr. Deborah Savage, and many more) that provided the 700 attendees from all over the world with a wealth of knowledge, a deepening spiritual growth, and a sense of mission, and it was applicable to the many people of all ages who were present – from young adults to senior citizens and everyone in between.
The Theology of the Body is St. John Paul II’s exquisite articulation on human love in the Divine plan, which was given as a series of 129 Wednesday audience addresses from 1979 to 1984. It was the first major teaching project of his pontificate. Papal biographer George Weigel, in Witness to Hope, describes Theology of the Body as: “one of the boldest reconfigurations of Catholic theology in Centuries…a kind of theological time-bomb set to go off with dramatic consequences… perhaps in the 21st century.” Weigel also predicts that as the Pope’s vision continues to shape the Church’s theology, preaching, and religious education, it will “compel a dramatic development of thinking about virtually every major theme in the Creed.”
The message of the Theology of the Body is indeed a message for our times. It becomes increasingly obvious that we live in a world where moral relativism is rampant, and logic and reason are obscured by a false sense of reality. There are so many wounded hearts, so many souls longing for truth and yet “looking for love in all the wrong places”. Pope Francis couldn’t have been more on target when he described the Church as a “field hospital” tending to a broken humanity. And when taken to heart, we can see how the life-giving message of the Theology of the Body is not only the medicine for the wounded heart, it is also a prescription for maintaining health and wholeness.
We are a people who have lost sight of who we are. What does it mean that we are created in the image and likeness of God? We could meditate on this profound truth continuously and never really exhaust the awesomeness of the mystery. But if we are to have hope, if we are to “save the world”, then we must reclaim our dignity and our identity as beloved sons and daughters of God.
St. John Paul II asks essentially two main questions in his Theology of the Body: Who am I? and How do I live my life in a way that brings true happiness? He invites us to rediscover the truth and beauty of the human person, created as male and female, through reflecting on human experience in light of the Word of God; and if we are honest with ourselves, we come to recognize the harmony between human experience and God’s Word. In doing so, we are transformed and motivated to love better.
He also invites us to embrace our true dignity, even when we have failed to do so in the past, even when we have settled for counterfeit versions of love. This is a message of healing and redemption for a world greatly in need of hearing it. It is also a message of conversion for each and every one of us, no matter where we are in our lives and in our faith journey. “The way we understand and express our sexuality [what it means to be male and female, and how we are called to live out our vocation] points to our deepest-held convictions about who we are, who God is, the meaning of love, the ordering of society, and even the ordering of the universe.” (TOB, 10/29/80)
There is so much that can be said about the Theology of the Body. But it is much more than simply a “teaching”. It expresses the depths of what it means to be a Christian. It draws us closer to God as it opens our hearts to the fullness of truth in a unique and profound way. It teaches us Christ’s way of love. In a culture that reeks of so much selfishness, we are called to be selfless. We can learn to experience the beautiful paradox that “Man can only find himself in a sincere gift of self.” That is the power of the cross, a love unto death, the only Love that satisfies the deepest longings of the human heart.
Pope John Paul reiterated this message in his 1998 encyclical Fides et ratio, where he said, “God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth—in a word, to know Himself—so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves.”
At the first Theology of the Body Congress in 2010, now retired Cardinal Justin Rigali expressed something very profound. He said, “The Theology of the Body is the curriculum for the Culture of Life.” I have never forgotten those words. They are both sobering and inspiring. We have a mission from God to lead as many souls to heaven as we can. Let us take these truths of our faith to heart and strive to fulfill this mission with all our heart, soul, mind and strength.