Understanding Catholic friendship

I am not a papal historian or expert on the life of Pope St. John Paul II. Nor have I read any of the letters between this saintly pope and a longtime female friend that have come into recent media focus. Their extended correspondence is no surprise to respected papal scholars or his numerous other longtime friends. But the sensational media speculations now being extracted from them may lead the faithful to question this beloved pope’s character.

While the media sheds its own light on the subject of their friendship, the light of faith leads to a different set of questions. Among those questions one might ask is what is the nature of true friendship from a Christian perspective? As one turns to such questions, the media frenzy becomes another catechetical moment to reflect on what it means to be a person of Christian faith and to walk in the footsteps of one of the great saints of our time.

Friendship with God and neighbor is the whole point of Christian existence, from beginning to end. Our creation by God is an eternal and unique act of divine friendship for which no one, however saintly, ever expresses an adequate response of thanksgiving and praise to God. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says it this way: “The first man was not only created good, but was also established in friendship with his Creator” (No. 374). And also: “God created man in his image and established him in his friendship. A spiritual creature, man can live this friendship only in free submission to God” (No. 396).

Friendship with God then is the reason for our creation, our ongoing existence and our eternal goal. Friendship with God is the divine invitation to which we must respond to in the present moment and each and every day of our lives. The saints radiate into the Church and into the world the fruits of their friendship with God, deepened over a lifetime of prayer, nurtured by the Church’s sacraments, and the exercise of the theological virtues of faith, hope and love.

The eternal community of divine friends is the Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Their divine friendship spills out into the world. God’s desire for friendship with creation is fulfilled perfectly in the sending of his own beloved Son, Jesus Christ, redeemer of man. In his life, death and resurrection, the divine offer of friendship is extended to you and to me as “… embracing in his human heart the Father’s love for men, Jesus ‘loved them to the end,’ for ‘greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends’” (Jn 15:13; CCC, No. 609).

Christ’s saving work continues in every age into the present in the Church’s sacramental life. The sacraments are real tokens of divine friendship as they initiate, restore, heal and lead us into the abundant graces that overflow from the font of God’s love. In the sacraments, “God shows forth his almighty power by converting us from our sins and restoring us to his friendship by grace” (CCC, No. 277).

Media speculations on the appropriateness of relationships between clergy and laity raise questions about the virtue of chastity. Once again, the Catechism opens a path of reflection when it teaches that, “the virtue of chastity blossoms in friendship. It shows the disciple how to follow and imitate him who has chosen us as his friends, who has given himself totally to us and allows us to participate in his divine estate. Chastity is a promise of immortality” (CCC, No. 2347).

To reduce relationships to physical intimacy alone is to impoverish the human and spiritual weight that friendships are often capable of carrying. It denies the graced human capacity for chaste friendships. And it leads us to forget the foundation of all genuine human friendships in the very life and eternal communion of God.

“I have 100 friends on Facebook!” A teenage girl was overheard boasting to a peer, who replied almost instantly, “And I have close to 200 friends!” In an age when friendship itself is counted by as superficial a measure as a mouse click, the media frenzy about the “friendships” of John Paul II need not drain our attention. Instead, in this Lenten season in this Jubilee Year of Mercy, we are given a renewed chance to take up once again the invitation of the Church and the example of St. John Paul II to walk in true friendship with Christ. For Jesus is the One who suffered, died and rose from the dead so we might be restored to friendship with God, from whom every genuine, lasting and true human expression of friendship flows.

Jem Sullivan, Ph.D., is the author of “Opening the Door of Faith: A Study Guide for Catechists and the New Evangelization” (OSV, $19.95).

A version of this story appears in the March 13, 2016, issue of OSV Newsweekly on page 7.