At the beginning of the fourth chapter of his Rule, Saint Benedict emphasizes the primary importance of love as the greatest instrument, and indeed the goal, of every good work his monks would seek to accomplish: First of all, love the Lord God with your whole heart, your whole soul and all your strength, and love your neighbor as yourself (Mt 22.37-39, Mk 12.30-31, Lk 10.27) (RB 4.1-2). Likewise, Saint Benedict states later in the same chapter that the love of Christ must come before all else (RB 4.21).
The phrase “first of all” is important to underline here, as it shows the primacy of place (in primis) that love is to hold in our lives as human beings. We must embrace love as our primary vocation if we desire to live life to the fullest, that is, if we seek to please God and to discover full communion with Him, which is cojoined intimately with our love for neighbor and growing in communion with our fellow man.
Concerning God’s divine plan for such human love, the feast of Our Lady of Fatima on May 13 marked the 30th anniversary of two important events in the Church’s history that happened to coincide on the same day, and it seems not by coincidence. On May 13, 1981, Blessed Pope John Paul II held a public audience at which he had intended to announce the new establishment of the John Paul II Institute for Studies in Marriage and Family, which he had opened earlier that day at the Pontifical Lateran University in Rome.
However, before he had a chance to share his passionate vision at having created this new research institute within the Church, both to study love within the sacred institutions of marriage and the family and to counter threats working against them, a gunman opened fire on the beloved Pope in an assassination attempt that shook the world. By the grace of God, and through the heavenly intervention of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Fatima to whom the Pontiff credited the sparing of his life, the firm resolve of Blessed John Paul II to carry out the mission of evangelizing anew the authentic love of God and neighbor within the Church and across the globe only strengthened.
In his recent speech marking the anniversary of both of these historic events, Pope Benedict XVI highlighted that the Blessed Pontiff had entrusted to the John Paul II Institute the study, research, and dissemination of his Catecheses on Human Love (known commonly now in the United States as the “theology of the body”). This Magisterial teaching profoundly reflects upon the meaning of the human body in God’s divine plan for human love. On May 13, 2011, Benedict XVI emphasized a crucial development in this “theology of the body” for the Institute and thus for educating the world in its proper interpretation: Joining the theology of the body with that of love in order to find unity in the human journey: this is the theme I would like to point out to you as a horizon for your work.
Our Holy Father’s words here provide crucial insight as we move forward in seeking both personally to comprehend, then subsequently to educate individuals, couples, and families in Blessed John Paul II’s Magisterial teachings on human love in the divine plan. We discover in Pope Benedict’s words here that the theology of the body is most importantly a theology of love, as reflected in his first and great encyclical on human love, Deus caritas est. in his remarks on May 13, Pope Benedict highlighted to the Institute that our bodies hide a mystery, one in which the spirit is manifest and active, pointing us to our ultimate vocation as human beings to “be spiritual bodies” (cf. 1 Cor. 15.44). Our bodies “are not inert, heavy matter but, if we know how to listen, they speak the language of true love.”
We understand at a theological level that our human bodies are called to be sacred, by virtue of Jesus’ Ascension body and soul into heaven. In ascending to the throne of His Heavenly Father, Jesus shows Himself to us as the Way, the Truth, and the Life and the path to eternal life upon which we are called to walk if we truly desire perfect communion with the Triune God, Who is Being-in-Communion. The theology of the body, when correctly understood and applied, marks God’s vocation of man to love God and neighbor perfectly. Man is to be conformed fully into the image and likeness of His Son Jesus Christ Who is the Love Incarnate of God the Father, so that the human person may become sacred in body and soul like Christ and dwell forever with Him in perfect communion with God the Father in heaven.
It is in this manner that we discover God’s destiny for man: From the moment of the mysterious Incarnation of our Lord, when Jesus takes on human flesh and sanctifies it in the eyes of the Father (cf. image), and through His Nativity and life of ministry on earth, Jesus manifests in His body and spirit the love of God the Father through perfectly loving, virtuous action and points the way to perfect communion with God (cf. likeness). When we live excellently by way of choosing virtuously loving action, we thereby reflect God’s glory and fulfill God’s desire for the human person, becoming a fragrant and pleasing offering to God Who Is Love, Deus Caritas est.
Pope Benedict teaches us that the first word in the language of love is discovered in the creation of the human person, highlighting that the body “speaks to us of an origin that we have not conferred upon ourselves”. In revealing our origin to us, the body “bears a filial significance” [emphasis added] as it helps us to understand that we are generated, pointing us back — through our parents who first gave us life — to God the Creator as the Source of our life and love. Pope Benedict wisely instructs that only when we recognize the originating Love Who has given us the gift of life can we as human persons accept ourselves fully and “be reconciled with nature and with the world.”
The theology of the body, in manifesting most importantly a theology of love, demonstrates that God has designed our human sexuality to open us as human beings to the vastness of His love through genuine love of neighbor. Properly understood, the theology of the body is much more a theology of loving communion and not a mere “theology (or Gospel) of sex”, which would reduce and even risk debasing Blessed John Paul’s real intent in promulgating his Catecheses on Human Love.
Reflecting on Blessed Pope John Paul II’s teachings, Pope Benedict elaborates that human sexuality is born of the vastness of God’s Love, leading us to discover “integral beauty, the universe of the other person and of the ‘we’ that is born of the union, the promise of communion that is hidden therein, the new fruitfulness, the path towards God, the source of love, which love opens up.”
When the body is separated from its filial meaning, from its origin in the Creator, it “rebels against the person, loses its capacity to let communion shine through and becomes a place for the appropriation of the other.” The Holy Father poses a crucial question here for our reflection: “Is this not perhaps the drama of that sexuality which today remains enclosed in the narrow circle of one’s own body and emotions, but which in reality can only find fulfilment in that call to something greater?”
Pope Benedict leads us to the family as the place where we engage the process of redemption of the body. Emphasizing a key theological development here concerning the meaning of the human family, Benedict XVI proclaims: The family: this is the place where the theology of the body and the theology of love are interwoven. Here we learn the goodness of the body, its witness to a good origin, in the experience of the love we receive from our parents. Here lives the self-giving in a single flesh, in the conjugal charity that unites the spouses. Here we experience that the fruitfulness of love and life is interwoven with that of other generations. It is in the family that the human person discovers that he or she is not in a relationship with an autonomous person, but as a child, spouse or parent, whose identity is founded in being called to love, to receive from others and to give him or herself to others.
We discover more deeply, in light of Pope Benedict’s recent words, the value of family as the place where we discover both love of God and love for God, and as well as the love of neighbor and find our meaning in relationship. Saint Benedict established monastic community in his Rule specifically to form his monks as such a family, to provide the forum where love of God and love of neighbor might be fostered and nurtured through the monks’ daily rhythm of prayer and work dedicated to God. Indeed, Saint Benedict calls his monks cenobites (RB 1.2), people who live together in the communion of family surrounding the table of the cena, that Supper of our Lord which is the Eucharist, where the monk most expressly receives and gives God’s love openly within the intimate exchange of loving communion in spiritual family.
The monastic community thus provides a model for families to embrace in light of these two great modern popes, that gathered around the altar of the Lord where we receive Jesus as our Eucharistic food for this life’s journey toward life eternal in Him, we become authentic family as we grow in perfect loving communion with God and neighbor. When we finally realize this communion in God’s perfect love, we receive the fulfillment for which we long: What the eye has not seen nor the ear heard, God has prepared for those who love him (1 Cor 2.9) (RB 4.77).