Jun 1, 2012
George Weigel poignantly has called the period of Blessed John Paul II’s final suffering and death the “Last Encyclical”. In many respects, it was the most important of his pronouncements, as he lived, suffered, and died as he had preached, showing the world how to live, suffer and die with dignity. Among the greatest works of his Pontificate is his Catecheses on Human Love (Cat.), also known as “Theology of the Body”, profoundly beautiful but theologically complex teachings on human love that at times have been subject to misinterpretation.
In this “Last Encyclical”, Blessed John Paul II demonstrated in a truly consummate manner the authentic meaning of his Catecheses: Aware of the gift of his own life and vocation, the Holy Father gave over his entire person -- body and soul -- as a complete gift of self to God through his suffering. In doing so, he gifted to God an entire, virginal person whose body was broken, in communion with Christ’s Bride, the Church, in her nuptial union with Jesus the Bridegroom. Consecrating his suffering along with that of the Church to God, John Paul walked most intimately with Mary alongside our Lord until the foot of His Cross, uniting himself to our suffering Lord all the way to the Cross. In so doing, Blessed John Paul II gave himself in total self-abandonment to God as Mary had done without reserve throughout her entire life, as one who trusts God and always is sure of the love of the Father’s Divine Mercy.
It is in light of this theology that I have examined Christopher West’s new book, At the Heart of the Gospel: Reclaiming the Body for the New Evangelization (New York: Image, 2012). West indicates in his new book that lust first and foremost is a disorder of the heart, but it is not clear what he means precisely by his reference to the “heart” in this new book, given his discussions on “purity of heart” in his previous work. He argues throughout At the Heart of the Gospel that a more complete spousal understanding of the “body” provides the key to rectifying sinful diseases of the “heart”. However, West’s argument raises the same question posed over his previous discussions: Does his presentation give adequate attention to the Church’s teaching on concupiscence, that the tendency to sin is objectively present in the body even after the Sacrament of Baptism, however much such concupiscence may be mitigated by grace and virtue? The repeated testimony of countless saints makes abundantly clear that, even after baptism, saints are human beings and do not escape the tendency to sin. People who ultimately have been declared saints in the Church, in their striving to fulfill God’s universal call to holiness, had to wage battle daily in their thoughts and actions and were not suddenly free from concupiscence during their earthly lives. Those who have become saints have, rather, cooperated with grace and become victorious in their fight.
It is important to note that the “heart” of a person in Christian teaching does not refer merely to his “feelings”. Rather, the image of the heart is used symbolically in both the Old and New Testaments to indicate who a human person is in his totality -- body and soul – comprising all of his thoughts, actions, and personality. Indeed, the heart has served for millennia as a preeminent symbol – in pagan and Christian cultures alike – for the core of the human person. We must discover our meaning as human beings in our own heart’s face-to-face encounter with the Heart of the suffering and crucified Jesus, just as Mary’s Immaculate Heart understood, just as Blessed John Paul II did most vividly during his final days on earth when nothing bodily cooperated with his will … that is, nothing except his heart. When the heart of man in his entire person – body and soul – authentically meets the pierced Heart of Jesus, this encounter is the sacred place of our salvation where we ask Jesus to be the Lord of our hardened hearts, exchanging them for His Heart so completely full of love and life, as the Holy Spirit pours forth into us as a living spring of the Father’s Divine Mercy (cf. Ezekiel 36.26-28). The human Body of Christ dies on the Cross, and the ultimate gift of self that Jesus has made is confirmed by the piercing of his Sacred Heart. As God, Jesus actively permits Himself to be pierced, ceaselessly pouring forth from Himself a perfect merciful Love that has its source in the Father and invites man’s heart to enter into interpersonal communion with the Heart of God.