From the opening days of his pontificate, when he was pictured cuddling babies, to the day of his famed assassination attempt — when his life was spared in part because he bent down to speak to a little girl — to some of his final pictures showing him shooing a dove from the papal apartments flanked by a young boy and girl, Pope John Paul II exemplified the Gospel admonition to “bring the little children unto me.”
And not just children, but mothers and fathers and grandparents and whole families.
Heart of the man
While his reign was marked with numerous impressive political achievements including the defeat of Marxist communism, and spiritual achievements including his ceaseless battle against the secular consumerism of Western society,the true heart of the man may be revealed most tellingly in his extensive writings — and dealings — with families.
For this Pope, family life lay at the center of spiritual life. As he said in his “Letter to Families,” “The history of mankind,the history of salvation, passes by way of the family.”
Three themes centering on families consistently appeared in his speeches and writings.
First, through the sacrament of marriages, families become what he, echoing the words of Vatican II, frequently referred to as the “domestic church.”
“Marriage is an act of will that signifies and involves a mutual gift,which unites the spouses and binds them to their eventual souls, with whom they make up a sole family — a domestic church,” he explained.
Throughout his reign, the Pope stressed that the concept of family as church requires a new examination of the spirituality of fatherhood and motherhood. “Greater pastoral attention must be given to the role of men as husbands and fathers, as well as to the responsibility which they share with their wives for their marriage,the family and the raising of their children. Also required is a serious preparation of young people for marriage, one which clearly presents Catholic teaching on this sacrament at the theological, anthropological and spiritual level,” he said in his post-synodal apostolic letter, Ecclesia in America (“The Church in America”).
Bulwark of faith
The concept of family as domestic church, the crucible in which virtue is discovered and refined, led to his second theme, the importance of families as the first bulwark against the culture of death. It is within the family that threats from a culture that does not respect life from the moment of conception to the point of natural death are the most apparent.
“The family is placed at the centre of the great struggle between good and evil, between life and death, between love and all that is opposed to love.To the family is entrusted the task of striving, first and foremost, to unleash the forces of good, the source of which is found in Christ the Redeemer of man,” he said in his “Letter to Families.”
His third major theme was integrally tied to his theology of the body and the inherent dignity of all humans. Emphasizing that Jesus himself was born into and nurtured by a human family, he continually stressed the need for strong marriages in which husband and wife respect and build up each other through their continual openness to the gift of new life. This is the “fundamental role which the family is called upon to play.”
He went on to explain: “In this sanctuary life is born and is welcomed as God’s gift. The word of God, faithfully read in the family, gradually builds it up as a Domestic Church and makes it fruitful in human and Christian virtues; it is there that the source of vocations is to be found.”
Because of the essential role of the family, Pope John Paul II stressed the need to safeguard the holiness of marriage and the family, often saying that only when the family is defended can the full truth about the human person be revealed and the dignity of each individual be fully respected.
God’s strength suffices
While Pope John Paul II presented an ideal of family life to which he encouraged all families to strive, he was also pragmatic and realistic in his assessment of the challenges.
“Love is demanding,” he said in his “Letter to Families.”He went on: “To maintain a joyful family requires much from both the parents and the children. Each member of the family has to become, in a special way, the servant of the others.”
Nevertheless, he encouraged families to remain true to their vocation,“Do not be afraid of the risks! God’s strength is always far more powerful than your difficulties!”
When history assesses the impact of Pope John Paul II, his emphasis on the rights and responsibilities of families will undoubtedly be one of his greatest legacies. As he said to the London Observer on Dec. 7, 1986,“As the family goes, so goes the nation and so goes the whole
world in which we live.”
His words,prophetic for their time, continue to inspire and challenge us in the third millennium.
Woodeene Koenig-Bricker edits OSV’s Catholic Parent magazine.