“Love is the fundamental and innate vocation of every human being.” These words were spoken by St. John Paul II in his 1981 Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio (On the Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World). In a world immersed in a complexity of problems, they are important words to remember. In fact, when we seriously contemplate this truth, we can discover the very meaning of our existence.
I recently heard about a group of young adults who had been good friends during their years in Catholic high school who got together at the end of their first year in college. As they sat around the fire pit in one friend’s family’s backyard, their conversation drifted to reminiscing about writing their college essays. One by one they retrieved from their handy smart phones what they had written about a year and a half before, no doubt with a bit of anxiety at the thought that their future might depend on it (or so it seems when you’re only 17). As they carefully tried to remember all their English teachers had taught them about crafting a good college essay, they did their best to accomplish the assigned task to write about life experiences that had affected them deeply. But there was a particularly striking aspect of this impromptu exercise of nostalgia: about half of the young people had written about the trauma of their parents’ divorce. It sort of takes your breath away to realize the tragic impact of this phenomenon. These young men and women have suffered a profound loss and it has affected their lives deeply; and not only their own lives, but also that of their companions from intact families, as they accompanied them with their friendship.
Studies tell us that the divorce rate has held steady for many years now at about fifty percent, and sadly, Catholics divorce at about the same rate as the rest of the population. Interestingly, as is often the case, sound science confirms Church teaching. Numerous sociological studies demonstrate that people who practice their faith – whatever their religious affiliation happens to be – have better, long-lasting marriages. Surely this gives us a clue as to how the divorce rate might be diminished.
When we are preparing engaged couples for marriage, we try and get across to them the advice given by Pope Pius XI in Casti Connubii. He recommends that to have a good marriage, couples should do two things: they should meditate on God’s plan for marriage, and, they should shape all their ways of thinking and acting according to His plan. It’s pretty simple advice actually. The problem is that so many today don’t know God’s plan; in fact, they don’t even know God. Sometimes it seems we are really starting from square one. A few generations ago (at least before the advent of the sexual revolution spurred on by the invention of the contraceptive pill in the 1960’s), the divorce rate was a mere fraction of what it is today and most people had the example of faith-based marriages within their own family. Now this is all too rare.
As engaged couples learn about marriage through the lens of St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, it is not unusual for them to remark that they wished they had heard this teaching when they were younger. Indeed this indicates their hunger for the truth about love and it makes a great deal of sense to teach these truths with renewed vigor and enthusiasm if we want to truly build a Culture of Life and a Civilization of Love.
Many young people today have questions, doubts, and fears. Inadequate models of good marriage can create insecurity about their own future. Today’s hook-up culture has certainly been destructive by promoting a very distorted view of what love is and what marriage means.
In this beautiful teaching of the Theology of the Body, St. John Paul plumbs the depths of the human heart by reflecting on two fundamental questions: Who am I? and How do I live my life in a way that brings true happiness? No matter what our vocation in life – marriage, priesthood or religious life, or the single state – we need to be able to ask and to answer these two questions in order to live out our vocation to the fullest.
There is a famous line in The Sound of Music that can offer some simple guidance. When the Mother Abbess asks Maria, who is in the process of discerning her vocation, what is the most important lesson she has learned at the Abbey, Maria replies without hesitation, “To find out what is the will of God and to do it wholeheartedly.” This is the signature line for each and every one of us, and it is a particularly helpful guide for our young people’s healing and formation. If marriage is to succeed, we must put God first, not ourselves. When we begin to understand love as a complete and total gift of self – which is quite a countercultural concept – we are well on our way to understanding that we are infinitely loved by God; and it is then, even in our brokenness, that we can in turn be healed and impelled by love to live and share this gift in all its authenticity.
The children of divorce understand all too well the truth of the famous saying, “the best gift a father can give his children is to love their mother”. They understand this from their wounds. But no problem is insurmountable when we walk with the Lord. For someone in the midst of great suffering it can be hard to imagine that their wounds could ever be healed. But our God is a God of mercy and love. Human beings may fail us, but God never does. As we tell the engaged couples, “When you begin to trust God, you learn that God is trustworthy.” It is by walking in faith and growing in our relationship with Christ that we can find our wounds transformed. He will help us overcome the hurt and find the peace and strength to not only overcome it, but to also help to bring the light of Christ to others. St. Padre Pio said, “The cross will not crush you; if its weight makes you stagger, its power will also sustain you.” It is the power of the Cross that redeems us from sin and death and brings us to the joy of the resurrection, but we need to muster the courage to make the journey with Christ. It is not an easy one but it is definitely worth it.
St. John Paul II wrote in Redemptor Hominis (n. 10), “Man cannot live without love. He remains a being that is incomprehensible for himself, his life is senseless, if love is not revealed to him, if he does not encounter love, if he does not experience it and make it his own, if he does not participate intimately in it.” Let us not grow weary in proclaiming the truth about love in word and deed. If we can help our young people to know the truth about love, the truth about God and what He asks of us, it can truly set them free and help them change the world.