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Of Resignation and Self Gift

“Mr. Lacourrege, can the Pope retire?” This was the question posed to me last Tuesday during my C period class. Its a group of about 30 freshmen, and Konnor Gaubert is one of the more curious of the bunch.

“Yes, Konnor, the Pope can retire, if he wants. Historically, its happened a couple of times before.”

“Do you think it will happen again, Mr. Lacourrege?”

“Well, certainly it could, but for the last six centuries or so, the attitude of the Popes has been to die with their boots on. You know, to keep the job until they pass away?”

“But do you think it could happen today, Mr. Lacourrege.”

“Probably not, Konnor. I mean, in today’s world, its highly unlikely that the Pope would ‘retire.’ Especially the current Pope. He’s a work-a-holic German.”

“So you really don’t think it could happen.”

“No, Konnor, I don’t. Now lets move on.”

Hahahahahahahahahahahahahahahhahhahahaha.

Heaven has the most vengeful sense of humor, especially when dealing with proud and impatient men such as myself. It is a great comfort to know that the Pope is neither proud nor impatient. It is my supreme hope that the next Pope follows in Benedict’s footsteps in this regard. Really, though, I woke up this morning feeling more proud to be a Catholic than I have ever felt in my life. The media has, as usual, put a completely wrong spin on the thing. They say he is stepping down because of political pressure (which is certainly not true). They say that the butler scandal has taken a toll on him (which may be true). Of course, fact is always stranger than fiction;

“I am well aware that this ministry, due to its essential spiritual nature, must be carried out not only with words and deeds, but no less with prayer and suffering. However, in today’s world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to steer the ship of Saint Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me.”
“For this reason, and well aware of the seriousness of this act, with full freedom I declare that I renounce the ministry of Bishop of Rome, Successor of Saint Peter, entrusted to me by the cardinals on 19 April 2005, in such a way, that as from 28 February 2013, at 20:00 hours, the See of Rome, the See of Saint Peter, will be vacant and a conclave to elect the new Supreme Pontiff will have to be convoked by those whose competence it is.”

This short statement might be one of the most profound things the Pope has ever written on vocation. I say this well aware of the many profound things that he has already written on vocation. Yet in so simple a statement, with words that qualify his action, the Pope explains that he feels no longer capable of praying and suffering and acting and speaking for the Flock of Christ. He cites age, not politics. He cites weakness, not scandal. In short, he says that he is unable to make a full gift of self, and that is why he is stepping down.
The sheer sanity of the Catholic faith can be missed by those who are not looking for it. Our Papa has just admitted that he is too old to sail the Ship. Its as simple a statement as could have been made by an 84 year old shrimper on Bayou St. John. Heck, it could have been made by St. John the fishermen! It could have been made by St. Peter the fishermen. That’s the whole point of this event. Sometimes, a teacher gives the wrong answer to a question. Sometimes a Pope runs out of strength. And when we do, the Holy Spirit is cool with it. He’s totally ready for it. He knows better than anyone that we hold this treasure in earthen vessels. Because the Church is more earthy than the world, the world misunderstands Her. The world assumes that a man only relinquishes power when power is wrestled from him. The Church, on the other hand, knows the natural law: when a man can no longer give, his giving up is not defeat, but victory for those to whom he gives. Pope Benedict XVI has not died physically, but his resignation represents a spiritual death that will bear fruit for us, his children. Now, excuse me: I must prepare a lesson plan in which I die to self, apologize and reward the curiosity of Konnor Gaubert.

QOTD – Sacraments, How to Change the World

Ever thought the last time you went to confession could change the world? Think again:

The sacraments are defining moments for Christians – and for the world. – Fr. Kurt Stasiak, OSB

Seven Sacraments Altarpiece by Rogier van der Weyden
Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp

The Integral J.R.R. Tolkien

‘I threw down my enemy, and he fell from the high place and broke the mountain-side where he smote it in his ruin. Then darkness took me, and I strayed out of though and time, and I wandered far on roads that I will not tell. 

‘Naked I was sent back – for a brief time, until my task is done. And naked I lay upon the mountain-top. The tower behind was crumbled into dust, the window gone; the ruined star was choked with burned and broken stone. I was alone. forgotten, without escape upon the hard horn of the world. There I lay staring upward, while the stars wheeled over, and each day was a long as a lofe-age of earth. Faint to my ears came the gathered rumour of all lands: the springing and the dying, the song and the weeping, and the slow everlasting groan of overburdened stone. And so at the last Gwaihir the Windlord found me again, and he took me up and bore me away.

 ‘”Ever am I fated to be your burden, friend at need,” I said

‘”A burden you have been,” he answered, “but not so now. Light as a swan’s feather in my claw you are. The sun shines through you. Indeed I do not think you need me any more: were I to let you fall, you would float upon the wind.”

I wish I could claim this writing as my own. We are taken in a realm that is beyond sense while simultaneously being hyper sensory. Am I in a dream? Or is this real? It sounds sort of like Scripture until Saxon-like name appears.

This is the writing of one J.R.R. Tolkien. To the fan-boy, the first paragraph will sound familiar. It is Gandalf speaking of his defeat of the Balrog from Khazad-Dûm in The Two Towers.

(via http://www.theonering.com/ )

In his magnum opus, Tolkien left us something rich and complex. It is not merely an imitable fantasy story nor merely the perfect story to translate into motion picture. It is a myth and myths are powerful. They contain within them much more than mere words and stories and lessons. They contain and communicate Truth.

The excerpt above is my example. Among the mysterious syntax and hazy description comes forth something almost other worldly. For the mind seeking Truth, “naked I was sent back …” has a familiar ring to it. “Do we return to our mother’s womb?” Nicodemus asked. “You must be born again of water and the spirt.”

“The tower behind was crumbled into dust, the window gone; the ruined star was choked with burned and broken stone.” Babel had been destroyed. The veil in the Temple was torn in two. The Light of the world was place in a new tomb hewn from rock.

Tolkien forcibly communicated that he had no intention of writing a ‘Catholic’ novel, or so I here from many sources. While having never reading those words from his pen, I can see why he would be so adamant. That being said, he did write a Catholic novel – not because it was intended to be one, but because he was Catholic. “Nominal” was not in his religious vocabulary. He was singularly dedicated  Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. He lived that dedication as a father, as a professor, as philologist, and as a writer. When you dedicate yourself to one thing, that one thing permeates all other parts of your life. “I desire that they may all be one as You and I are one.” Integrality.

What we have to learn from Tolkien is that to be Catholic is to allow Christ to permeate our entire existence, from breathing to washing the dishes to filling TP reports to calculating the amount of fuel needed for a rover to arrive at the planet Mars.

‘”A burden you have been,” he answered, “but not so now. Light as a swan’s feather in my claw you are. The sun shines through you.

Concupiscence, True Communion, and ‘Friends’

I decided to repost my first thoughts posted on blog format. This post originally was written on Monday, June 30, 2008.

It does not correspond to the personal union or ‘communion’ to which man and woman have been reciprocally called ‘from the beginning,’ in fact, it is contrary to it, that one of the two persons should exist only as a subject of satisfaction of sexual urge and that the other should become exclusively the object for such satisfaction. Further, it does not correspond to this unity of ‘communion’–in fact, it is contrary to it–that both the man and the woman should mutually exist as objects for the satisfaction of sexual urge, and that each of them on his or her own part should be a subject of such satisfaction. Such a ‘reduction’ of the rich content of reciprocal and perennial attraction among human persons in their masculinity and femininity does not correspond to the ‘nature’ of the attraction in question. Such a ‘reduction,’ in fact, extinguishes the meaning proper to man and woman, a meaning that is person and ‘of communion,’ through which ‘the man will… unite with his wife and the two will be one flesh’ (Gen 2:4). ‘Concupiscence’ removes the intentional dimension of the reciprocal existence of man and woman from the personal perspective ‘of communion,’ which are proper to their perennial and reciprocal attraction, reducing this attraction and, so to speak, driving it toward utilitarian dimension, in whose sphere of influence one human being ‘makes use’ of another human being, ‘using her’ only to satisfy his own ‘urges.’
Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body by Blessed John Paul II

Friends was one of the big sitcoms in the 90’s (you can hear the claps from the theme clap-clap-clap-clap). It had a lot of influence on my generation. Yet, this quote from John Paul II puts forward the basic weakness of the series.

There is a total reduction of the relationship between man and woman to one of sexual satisfaction. The two friends who ended up marrying each other began their intimate relationship with sex. When they hid the ‘relationship’ from the other friends, they where hiding the fact that they were having sex. To my knowledge, which is limited and finite, and possibly wrong, they didn’t go out on a ‘date’ until it was public knowledge that they were dating.

A relationship which ended in marriage was based and grounded upon a sexual relationship, i.e. sand. This is what my generation saw each week, and it is what John Paul II called the utilitarian dimension, wherein the person of the opposite sex is an object for sexual gratification. The ideal in this dimension is mutual sexual gratification, which, to many nowadays, means a basis for a solid marriage.

Is Collecting Bad?: The Fountain Pen and Our Consumerist Culture

To “have” objects and goods does not in itself perfect the human subject, unless it contributes to the maturing and enrichment of that subject’s “being,” that is to say unless it contributes to the realization of the human vocation as such … The danger of the misuse of material goods and the appearance of artificial needs should in no way hinder the regard we have for the new goods and resources placed at our disposal and the use we make of them. – Bl. John Paul II Sollicitudo Rei Socialis 28,29


These seem to be contrary statements, but are rather intended to moderate our use of material goods. We live in  a society that idolizes materiality. I feel like I’m preaching to the choir being that most of us realize this. Realizing it is one thing, and not participating in it, is another thing altogether.

Take myself as a poor example. Back in January, I fell in love with fountain pens (they write so much better than ballpoints). They’re messy. They are really nice looking, and they leave you open to an endless possibility of inks.

I loved taking notes with them while in my final semester of classes. I actually no longer took notes on my laptop or iPad. Over the course of six months, I have purchased a total of … 1, 2, 18 fountain pens. My latest purchase is a set with Benedict XVI’s signature on it. I got caught by the collector consumer bug, courtesy of Amazon and eBay. 

Now, seriously Kyle what are you going to do with eighteen fountain pens? Well, I use this one for this and this one for that and that one for signing checks and that one for homilies. I still don’t use them all. I gave one to my sister. A few ended up being duds and unusable (which in itself proves the point).

Pens hold a certain nostalgia to them. Some of them make really cool fancy lettering. Some of them just look cool (like the one second from the left in the picture that is made from olive wood from the holy land.) 

Pens can contribute, as Bl. John Paul II, to the realization of the human vocation. They can be used to write down thoughts (I write out my homilies because for me, typing requires less energy and less memory). Thoughts are very important in the realization of the human vocation. They can communicate truth and beauty. But “to ‘have’ objects and goods does not in itself perfect the human subject.” In other words, I don’t need 17 pens to write my homily. I only need one. 
Where is the line drawn (no pun intended)? Is collecting things a pursuing something that does not bring us closer to God? Are there moral justifications for collecting, whether it be baseball cards, stamps, or fountain pens? Does such a hobby build us up? Dear reader, these are questions for which I do not have an answer. Sound off if you so desire and let me and others know what you think.

Go to Confession and Go Out to the World

True conversion of hearts, which means opening ourselves to the transforming and regenerative action of God, is the ‘motor’ of all reform and turns into an authentic force for evangelisation. During Confession, the repentant sinner, thanks to the gratuitous action of divine Mercy, is justified, forgiven and sanctified. … Only those who allow themselves to be profoundly renewed by divine Grace can internalise and therefore announce the novelty of the Gospel.

Bl. John Paul II Dives in Misericordia

The Contests Between Political Parties and What a Pope Thinks

To these evils we must add the contests between political parties, many of which struggles do not originate in a real difference of opinion concerning the public good or in a laudable and disinterested search for what would best promote the common welfare, but in the desire for power and for the protection of some private interest which inevitably results in injury to the citizens as a whole. – Ubi Arcano Dei Consilio Pius XI

This was written in 1922. It was the encyclical of the pontificate of Pius XI. This is part of what he had to say. I do not normally enter into the realm of politics when I blog, but I read this a few months back and was struck by the force of its truth as well as the appropriateness for our current political situation in the United States. I’ll let him speak for himself.

Pius XI in his office (via Wikimedia Commons)

Of Hair and Health Care, by GKC

This is a Chesterton essay that acts as the conclusion of his book What’s Wrong with the World. Though written over a century ago, it asks just how far the government can go in matters of health and hygiene. It’s pertinence to our current situation cannot be overstated.

A little while ago certain doctors and other persons permitted by modern law to dictate to their shabbier fellow-citizens, sent out an order that all little girls should have their hair cut short. I mean, of course, all little girls whose parents were poor. Many very unhealthy habits are common among rich little girls, but it will be long before any doctors interfere forcibly with them. Now, the case for this particular interference was this, that the poor are pressed down from above into such stinking and suffocating underworlds of squalor, that poor people must not be allowed to have hair, because in their case it must mean lice in the hair. Therefore, the doctors propose to abolish the hair. It never seems to have occurred to them to abolish the lice. Yet it could be done. As is common in most modern discussions the unmentionable thing is the pivot of the whole discussion. It is obvious to any Christian man (that is, to any man with a free soul) that any coercion applied to a cabman’s daughter ought, if possible, to be applied to a Cabinet Minister’s daughter. I will not ask why the doctors do not, as a matter of fact apply their rule to a Cabinet Minister’s daughter. I will not ask, because I know. They do not because they dare not. But what is the excuse they would urge, what is the plausible argument they would use, for thus cutting and clipping poor children and not rich? Their argument would be that the disease is more likely to be in the hair of poor people than of rich. And why? Because the poor children are forced (against all the instincts of the highly domestic working classes) to crowd together in close rooms under a wildly inefficient system of public instruction; and because in one out of the forty children there may be offense. And why? Because the poor man is so ground down by the great rents of the great ground landlords that his wife often has to work as well as he. Therefore she has no time to look after the children, therefore one in forty of them is dirty. Because the workingman has these two persons on top of him, the landlord sitting (literally) on his stomach, and the schoolmaster sitting (literally) on his head, the workingman must allow his little girl’s hair, first to be neglected from poverty, next to be poisoned by promiscuity, and, lastly, to be abolished by hygiene. He, perhaps, was proud of his little girl’s hair. But he does not count.


Upon this simple principle (or rather precedent) the sociological doctor drives gayly ahead. When a crapulous tyranny crushes men down into the dirt, so that their very hair is dirty, the scientific course is clear. It would be long and laborious to cut off the heads of the tyrants; it is easier to cut off the hair of the slaves. In the same way, if it should ever happen that poor children, screaming with toothache, disturbed any schoolmaster or artistic gentleman, it would be easy to pull out all the teeth of the poor; if their nails were disgustingly dirty, their nails could be plucked out; if their noses were indecently blown, their noses could be cut off. The appearance of our humbler fellow-citizen could be quite strikingly simplified before we had done with him. But all this is not a bit wilder than the brute fact that a doctor can walk into the house of a free man, whose daughter’s hair may be as clean as spring flowers, and order him to cut it off. It never seems to strike these people that the lesson of lice in the slums is the wrongness of slums, not the wrongness of hair. Hair is, to say the least of it, a rooted thing. Its enemy (like the other insects and oriental armies of whom we have spoken) sweep upon us but seldom. In truth, it is only by eternal institutions like hair that we can test passing institutions like empires. If a house is so built as to knock a man’s head off when he enters it, it is built wrong.


The mob can never rebel unless it is conservative, at least enough to have conserved some reasons for rebelling. It is the most awful thought in all our anarchy, that most of the ancient blows struck for freedom would not be struck at all to-day, because of the obscuration of the clean, popular customs from which they came. The insult that brought down the hammer of Wat Tyler might now be called a medical examination. That which Virginius loathed and avenged as foul slavery might now be praised as free love. The cruel taunt of Foulon, “Let them eat grass,” might now be represented as the dying cry of an idealistic vegetarian. Those great scissors of science that would snip off the curls of the poor little school children are ceaselessly snapping closer and closer to cut off all the corners and fringes of the arts and honors of the poor. Soon they will be twisting necks to suit clean collars, and hacking feet to fit new boots. It never seems to strike them that the body is more than raiment; that the Sabbath was made for man; that all institutions shall be judged and damned by whether they have fitted the normal flesh and spirit. It is the test of political sanity to keep your head. It is the test of artistic sanity to keep your hair on.


Now the whole parable and purpose of these last pages, and indeed of all these pages, is this: to assert that we must instantly begin all over again, and begin at the other end. I begin with a little girl’s hair. That I know is a good thing at any rate. Whatever else is evil, the pride of a good mother in the beauty of her daughter is good. It is one of those adamantine tendernesses which are the touchstones of every age and race. If other things are against it, other things must go down. If landlords and laws and sciences are against it, landlords and laws and sciences must go down. With the red hair of one she-urchin in the gutter I will set fire to all modern civilization. Because a girl should have long hair, she should have clean hair; because she should have clean hair, she should not have an unclean home: because she should not have an unclean home, she should have a free and leisured mother; because she should have a free mother, she should not have an usurious landlord; because there should not be an usurious landlord, there should be a redistribution of property; because there should be a redistribution of property, there shall be a revolution. That little urchin with the gold-red hair, whom I have just watched toddling past my house, she shall not be lopped and lamed and altered; her hair shall not be cut short like a convict’s; no, all the kingdoms of the earth shall be hacked about and mutilated to suit her. She is the human and sacred image; all around her the social fabric shall sway and split and fall; the pillars of society shall be shaken, and the roofs of ages come rushing down, and not one hair of her head shall be harmed.

Graceful Freedom


The topic of freedom and grace remains one of the most difficult discussions in Christian theology. When John Paul II writes about it, at the heart of the matter is the matter of the heart: what is the heart made for, how can it love, what model does it take? In the post Christian west, we are told that salvation is liberation, and liberation is at the service of the individual. But if freedom and grace are only ordered to the self, then it becomes clear that human dignity means nothing more than autonomy, and salvation is reduced to selfishness. If, however, human freedom exists to be at the service of others, then human beings ‘become like God’ when they empty themselves for the sake of everybody else. In light of this truth, JP II knew that it was counter-productive to present a God of triumph when, in fact, the mystery of the Christian God is that He Himself is a God of surrender. “In his intimate life, God ‘is love,’ the essential love shared by the three divine Persons: personal love is the Holy Spirit as the Spirit of the Father and the Son. Therefore he ‘searches even the depths of God,’ as uncreated Love-Gift. It can be said that in the Holy Spirit the intimate life of the Triune God becomes totally gift, an exchange of mutual love between the divine Persons and that through the Holy Spirit God exists in the mode of gift.” (Dominum et Vivificatem, 10.)


In the Holy Spirit, God exists in the mode of gift. God exists in the mode of gift. God exists in the mode of gift! While all the power and progress of this world promises to move mankind toward some infinite pleasure or individual indulgences, Christianity, alone of all the world’s religions and philosophies, presents a man’s end as the God Who IS Gift. Who IS selflessness. And when choosing to make this fundamental reality of His existence known to men, He became a man and died, thus fully inaugurating a new law of Gift (or, in Latin, gratia, grace). JP II phrases it this way: “Christ is the centre of the economy of salvation, the recapitulation of the Old and New Testaments, of the promises of the Law and of their fulfillment in the Gospel; he is the living and eternal link between the Old and the New Covenants…Jesus himself is the living “fulfillment” of the Law.” (Veritatis Splendor, 16.) This new law of gift is the great revolution of our religion. Its not just about helping people or ‘making the world a better place’: it’s about making heaven a better place, or rather, making both heaven and earth a place where the King of Gift can actually be given something Himself. For grace (gift) is, after all, how Christians have access to the God who exists in the mode of Gift (grace).

Anyone familiar with Pauline theology or the evangelical applications thereof will know that this is no new theme in Christianity. In her most recent century, fundamentalists and street preachers commonly talked about it within the context of conversion. JP II’s himself approaches the topic of grace from the same angle; “The Apostle Paul invites us to consider in the perspective of the history of salvation, which reaches its fulfillment in Christ, the relationship between the (Old) Law and grace (the New Law). He recognizes the pedagogic function of the Law, which, by enabling sinful man to take stock of his own powerlessness and by stripping him of the presumption of his self-sufficiency, leads him to ask for and to receive ‘life in the Spirit.'” (Veritatis Splendor, 23) Once we ‘take stock’ of our own powerlessness, however, we are invited into a new freedom where we extend ourselves beyond the limits of our own person by giving of ourselves for the sake of the Other (‘the Other’=Christ and other humans). Therefore, JP II points out that “Perfection demands that maturity in self-giving to which human freedom is called….Human freedom and God’s law are not in opposition; on the contrary, they appeal one to the other. The follower of Christ knows that his vocation is to freedom.” (Veritatis Splendor, 17.) No longer are we slaves to the things of this world, to sex, to food, to cloths, to the news, to politics, to even culture itself. All of these things are created good, culture included, but JP II knows that it is important that “man does not become the prisoner of any of his cultures, but asserts his personal dignity by living in accordance with the profound truth of his being.” And the truth of man’s being is the truth of gift (grace).
Man’s graceful freedom can only come through the gospel of Christianity. This gospel is itself Christ’s gift: it is not an imposition or a burden. As JP II puts it; “On her part, the Church addresses people with full respect for their freedom. Her mission does not restrict freedom but rather promotes it. The Church proposes; she imposes nothing.” (Redemptoris Missio, 39) To accept Christ’s word in freedom is to become free to live for others and the Other, for a destiny far greater than the autonomous self could ever provide. “Hence, human activity cannot be judged as morally good merely because it is a means for attaining one or another of its goals, or simply because the subject’s intention is good. Activity is morally good when it attests to and expresses the voluntary ordering of the person to his ultimate end and the conformity of a concrete action with the human good as it is acknowledged in its truth by reason.” (Veritatis Splendor, 72.)

GKC was fond of saying that you cannot argue with a man unless you can sympathize with his perspective. It’s not simply a matter of understanding his view, but truly feeling the pain he feels. In our day and time, there are many who feel that ‘the Church’ (it matters little whether they mean Roman Catholicism or merely the body of Christians) stands as an institution in contrast with individual freedom. The fact of the matter is that Christianity does, in a very real way, stand in contrast with (if not opposition to) our contemporary conception of freedom. If by ‘freedom’ we mean ‘privacy,’ than Christianity accepts it as only a condition of worldly existence, and a rather negative one at that. In heaven, there will be no privacy for there will be no ability to hold back a part of yourself from anyone else. It would be foolishness to stand before the pearly gates and say to God and the angelic court, the Saints and the Martyrs: “I will share anything with you except this small part. I need it for myself and would feel insecure were I forced to give it away.” Heaven knows nothing of such privacy. The Church admits of the right to privacy as she admits to the right to property: as a temporal affair. That is to say, she concedes to it as temporary, something that will disappear with the coming of the Kingdom. And she prays earnestly, each day, that the Kingdom come sooner rather than later.

In his writing, John Paul II certainly sympathizes with this situation in which Christianity and the world’s opposing ideas of freedom war for men’s hearts. However, he never let this sympathy (which is an emotion) interfere with his love (which is an action). He was willing to admit that complex modern realities, tied into the perennial scandals of humanity-this-side-of-heaven, leave Christianity an easy target of ridicule and suspicion. The question is whether or not we can separate the teachings of Christ from the communion of love he personally established, a communion called the Church. As he says in Veritatis Splendor, “At times, in the discussions about new and complex moral problems, it can seem that Christian morality is in itself too demanding, difficult to understand and almost impossible to practice. This is untrue, since Christian morality consists, in the simplicity of the Gospel, in following Jesus Christ, in abandoning oneself to him, in letting oneself be transformed by his grace and renewed by his mercy, gifts which come to us in the living communion of his Church.” (119) In this self-abandonment, the human person breaths again, living not just for herself, but gracefully for the Other.

Excitingly Manly

I’m reading the encyclicals of JP II, all of them, back to back, and IT IS THRILLING! Not just interesting. Not just instructive. Not just edifying. Thrilling like a roller coaster is thrilling. Think of the experience of being on a roller coaster. There are the ‘dull’ moments, usually associated with the loading of the cars or with the slow making-the-way-up to the first or second drop, but after that it is all rush and wind and screaming. Well, that’s what reading a JP II encyclical is like. There are sections that are tedious or difficult to follow. They usually concern the setting of the historical context; “In 1890, my venerable successor Leo XIII wrote that…” and you can usually forgive the JP II because 1) like a good actor, he is trying to set the scene and 2) like a good Christian, he is trying to give credit where credit is due. So he lulls us into his pleasant nostalgia of papal documents that we’ve never heard of or historical situations that we could care less about. And then, with something like a whoop or holler, he brings us to the top of the track, shows us the horizon, and sends us flying on our way right into the heart of the abyss.

And at the heart of every JP II encyclical is the topic of God and man. The sheer substance of his discourse is their relationship, a relationship more dramatic, more mesmorizing and more unexpected than any relationship in any other writing. The trouble is that most contemporary authors ignore this relationship, or if they do write about it, they bring with them all sorts of hang ups, be they intellectual or emotional. The topic of God becomes so specialized, that reading about God and man becomes like an instruction manuel or, worse still, a cheap romance novel (The atheist authors tend to be the worse about this sort of thing, which is why I don’t read them much: its not just that they’re wrong, but that they’re terribly boring). To return to my first statement, it might not be difficult for you to believe that a theologian could find JP II thrilling precisely because I’m already acquainted with his particular language or ‘jargon.’ That idea is not exactly what I meant to communicate with my first statement, however. What I meant to say is that I, as a human being, as one of the actors in the great drama between God and man, I find these encyclicals thrilling. And you will too.
I know full and well that, in your life time, you’ve probably read as many papal encyclicals as you have tax forms, looking forward to both exercises with equal anticipation. Therefore, I only ask that you hear me out as I lay before you some of the thrills I have experienced.

1) The Incarnation in JP II’s words: “God entered the history of humanity and, as a man, became an actor in that history, one of the thousands of millions of human beings but at the same time Unique!” (Redemptor Hominis)
God as an actor!? Wouldn’t that infer that Jesus was just ‘playing around’ with us during the Incarantion? No! JP II means to shock us with this language (a language, I might add, that we was borrowing from an equally mind-blowing theologian, Hans Urs von Balthasar). God’s becoming an actor in human history in no way demeans us, making the world nothing more than a stage, not because the world can’t be demeaned, but because God won’t be. Therefore, if he became an actor in the drama of human history, as a human, than that means our ‘roles’ have now been elevated to that of leads! Human beings are now the principle characters in the drama of creation, precisely because God took center stage as one of us. Thus, JP II concludes; “Through the Incarnation God gave human life the dimension that he intended man to have from his first beginning; he has granted that dimension de-finitively—in the way that is peculiar to him alone, in keeping with his eternal love and mercy, with the full freedom of God.”

2) ‘Justice’ in JP II’s words; “Although justice is an authentic virtue in man, and in God signifies transcendent perfection, nevertheless love is “greater” than justice: greater in the sense that it is primary and fundamental. Love, so to speak, conditions justice and, in the final analysis, justice serves love.” (Dives in Misericordia) Many people think that Christian love ‘defeats’ justice or ‘overrides it.’ JP II’s words make it clear that justice is not abolished by love, but ‘re-orders’ itself toward love. That is why the Christian must always strive for justice (overcome racism, fight abortion, end wars, etc.) at the service of love (have blacks and whites live together in love, mothers love their children, brothers live in peace with each other, etc). Read in this light, the great tragedy of injustice in NOT what it does to us and how it scars us, but rather what it prevents us from being able to do: love each other. Thus, JP II concludes; “Love, by its very nature, excludes hatred and ill – will towards the one to whom He once gave the gift of Himself: Nihil odisti eorum quae fecisti, ‘you hold nothing of what you have made in abhorrence.'”

I give these two examples of the thrill of JP II because they demonstrate perfectly just what type of excitment lies in store for the reader. Many of us feel like we know the gospel. We’ve heard that Christian thing before. We’ve gone to Church, gone to Catholic school, watched the movies, sat through CCD, stood through Christmas mass, slept through homilies…you can’t tell me anything new. JP II laughs at you! He says, “Ha!, You think you know Christianity? You think you know about Jesus?” And then he takes you on a theological roller coaster ride that is radically different, more inviting, more intimadating and ultimately more exhilrating than the grand majority of ‘religious writings’ in book stores. He does it all with that signature smirk. But you must be willing to talk with him. Over the next couple of blogs, I plan on sharing more tidbits from these writings of the late, great Holy Father. See them as a chance to take a look at Christianity from the perspective of a man who fought Hitler with plays, fought Stalin with poetry and fought the devil with the sloppy wet kisses he planted on the foreheads of thousands during the course of his pontificate. I think you will find, as I have, a new approach to the gospel, one that is faithful to its Founder because it is obcessed with His personhood and humanity.