26 years of the Splendor of Truth

jp2_and_maryTwenty-six years ago today, Saint Pope John Paul II gave the Church an outstanding gift, his letter on the moral life: Veritatis Splendor.

The letter closed with the following reflection and prayer:

Mary shares our human condition, but in complete openness to the grace of God. Not having known sin, she is able to have compassion on every kind of weakness. She understands sinful man and loves him with a Mother’s love. Precisely for this reason she is on the side of truth and shares the Church’s burden in recalling always and to everyone the demands of morality. Nor does she permit sinful man to be deceived by those who claim to love him by justifying his sin, for she knows that the sacrifice of Christ her Son would thus be emptied of its power. No absolution offered by beguiling doctrines, even in the areas of philosophy and theology, can make man truly happy: only the Cross and the glory of the Risen Christ can grant peace to his conscience and salvation to his life.

O Mary,
Mother of Mercy,
watch over all people,
that the Cross of Christ
may not be emptied of its power,
that man may not stray
from the path of the good
or become blind to sin,
but may put his hope ever more fully in God
who is “rich in mercy” (Eph 2:4).
May he carry out the good works prepared
by God beforehand (cf. Eph 2:10)
and so live completely
“for the praise of his glory” (Eph 1:12).

Given in Rome, at Saint Peter’s, on 6 August, Feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord, in the year 1993, the fifteenth of my Pontificate.

The Jeweler’s Shop

In the fall of 2014, Open Window Theatre in Minneapolis performed The Jeweler’s Shop, one of my favorite plays. It was written by Karol Wojtyla (who later became Pope St. John Paul II).

The Jeweler's Shop - Open Window Theatre

On Wednesday, October 22, 2014, immediately following a performance of the play, I joined three others in a panel discussion of the text. I don’t know nearly as much about John Paul II, the theater, or the play as the others on the panel, but on the basis of my sheer enthusiasm for the play, I was invited to participate.

Here’s a short description of the play, from the official English translation:

Love is “one of the greatest dramas of human existence,” writes Pope John Paul II. In this illuminating three-act play — here in the only English translation authorized by the Vatican — he explores relationships between men and women, the joys — and the pain — of love and marriage. The action unfolds in two settings at once: a street in a small town, outside the local jeweler’s shop (people go to buy their wedding rings there), and the mysterious inner landscape of personal hopes and fears, loves and longings. Each act focuses on a different couple: the first happily planning their wedding, the second long-married and unhappy, the third about to marry but full of doubts. Writing with power and understanding about a love that survives the grave, a love that has withered and died, a love budding out of complexes and insecurities, the Pope addresses such fundamental human concerns as: What does it mean to fall in love? When do we know that a love is real — and can it last? If it dies, how do we go on living — and loving — again? There are no easy answers, and there is no happy ending — such is the nature of men and women, and such is the nature of love — but there is hope, if we only acknowledge our need and accept the risks of a deep and lasting commitment. This is a play full of wisdom on a subject of great relevance to all, and it provides a special insight into the thoughts of the man who, like no other, has captured the imagination of people of all faiths throughout the world…. Karol Wojtyla — Pope John Paul II — has long been involved with the theater. As a student of literature, then priest, bishop and archbishop, he acted, directed, wrote dramatic criticism, made a Polish translation of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, and has authored six plays. (source)

The panel discussion lasted about an hour. Here it is in audio format:

something Unplanned

On Friday, I saw Unplanned in Burbank.

Abby Johnson’s story is unique in that it gives insight into the thinking behind both sides of a supremely important debate over a uniquely crucial issue. It makes an appeal to the conscience of every human being about the value of life itself. Forming conscience correctly is essential: the stakes could not be higher.

Today, I’m not writing a review. Steven Greydanus has an insightful and balanced review over on his Decent Films site.

movie tickets for UnplannedThe movie was so compelling that I bought 7 tickets on my way out of the theater. I drove over to the nearby Burbank Planned Parenthood, and rang the door buzzer. I said I had seven tickets for the 7:20 pm show if they wanted them. The woman said they wouldn’t be interested. I said I thought maybe they would want to see it so they could be part of the conversation. She said they wouldn’t be interested. So I offered to leave them on the ledge outside the door, but she asked me not to do that. So I said I would offer them to people in the parking lot.

As it turns out, there weren’t many people in the lot, so I started entering other shops in the strip mall.

strip mallIn El Criollo Cuban Bar & Grill, I found four older men conversing in Spanish. I introduced myself and explained I had free tickets to a movie tonight just down the street. I explained it was about Planned Parenthood. They kind of lit up and said they would be happy to take them and get them in the hands of interested viewers.

Thank you, gentlemen. Well done.

Anyone else in? Please consider buying some tickets for your local Planned Parenthood clinic and offer them the chance to see the movie at no (financial) cost to them.* If they don’t want tickets, surely you know others that would. But start with the people that might benefit the most.

*Conscience sold separately

if you wish to enter into life…

The moral life proposed in the Gospel is connected to a promise. What is the character of this promise? In paragraph 12 of Veritatis Splendor, Pope Saint John Paul II takes up this very question.

12. Only God can answer the question about the good, because he is the Good. But God has already given an answer to this question: he did so by creating man and ordering him with wisdom and love to his final end, through the law which is inscribed in his heart (cf. Rom 2:15), the “natural law.” The latter “is nothing other than the light of understanding infused in us by God, whereby we understand what must be done and what must be avoided. God gave this light and this law to man at creation.”19 He also did so in the history of Israel, particularly in the “ten words,” the commandments of Sinai, whereby he brought into existence the people of the Covenant (cf. Ex 24) and called them to be his “own possession among all peoples,” “a holy nation” (Ex 19:5-6), which would radiate his holiness to all peoples (cf. Wis 18:4; Ez 20:41). The gift of the Decalogue was a promise and sign of the New Covenant, in which the law would be written in a new and definitive way upon the human heart (cf. Jer 31:31-34), replacing the law of sin which had disfigured that heart (cf. Jer 17:1). In those days, “a new heart” would be given, for in it would dwell “a new spirit,” the Spirit of God (cf. Ez 36:24-28).20There are several senses — even several stages — in man’s relationship with goodness. It begins at creation, when man is fashioned in the image of Goodness itself. This is what Saint Paul is referring to in Romans when he writes about the law of God inscribed in the human heart. From the very beginning, the moral life is not “out there,” but is instead intimately connected to our very identity and the shape of our existence. The Pope lifts a beautiful description of this natural law from the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Natural law is “nothing other than the light of understanding infused in us by God, whereby we understand what must be done and what must be avoided.”

But there is more. Not only are the requirements of goodness woven into our very existence as human beings; additionally, Goodness Himself comes in pursuit of us and reveals Himself to us in the course of human history. Goodness wants to be in continuous relationship with us, and thus extends to us a covenant. In the history of Israel, this initiative appears in a particular way when God reveals the Decalogue (ten commandments) to Moses. These commandments are the terms of the relationship… the way in which we can remain in relationship with the good. They are not arbitrary conditions on the part of God, but simply a fleshing out into words of the law written on our hearts at creation. In the Decalogue, God says to us, in effect: Here is who I am; here is who you are, both personally and corporately; and here is how you and I can remain in communion with each other.

And there is still more. Through the New Covenant, the requirements of this relationship will be written anew and definitively upon the human heart. The Pope quotes several passages in the Old Testament that prefigure this development, particularly from the prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel.

Consequently, after making the important clarification: “There is only one who is good,” Jesus tells the young man: “If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments” (Mt 19:17). In this way, a close connection is made between eternal life and obedience to God’s commandments: God’s commandments show man the path of life and they lead to it. From the very lips of Jesus, the new Moses, man is once again given the commandments of the Decalogue. Jesus himself definitively confirms them and proposes them to us as the way and condition of salvation. The commandments are linked to a promise. In the Old Covenant the object of the promise was the possession of a land where the people would be able to live in freedom and in accordance with righteousness (cf. Dt 6:20-25). In the New Covenant the object of the promise is the “Kingdom of Heaven”, as Jesus declares at the beginning of the “Sermon on the Mount” — a sermon which contains the fullest and most complete formulation of the New Law (cf. Mt 5-7), clearly linked to the Decalogue entrusted by God to Moses on Mount Sinai. This same reality of the Kingdom is referred to in the expression “eternal life,” which is a participation in the very life of God. It is attained in its perfection only after death, but in faith it is even now a light of truth, a source of meaning for life, an inchoate share in the full following of Christ. Indeed, Jesus says to his disciples after speaking to the rich young man: “Every one who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and inherit eternal life” (Mt 19:29).

Jesus, the mediator of the New Covenant, does not abolish the commandments, but confirms them and proposes them anew. The Pope notices that the commandments are connected to a promise. While many today may think of the commandments primarily as a series of prohibitions, or perhaps even warnings, the essence of the commandments is that they are linked to a promise: the promise of life.

The commandments open a doorway for us… revealing new possibilities for grace to inhabit our lives. As the Pope says, they give us an inchoate (“just begun” or “rudimentary”) share in the full following of Christ.

In the Old Testament, the promise was connected to the gift of a land, and in the New, to the gift of a kingdom: the kingdom of God… eternal life. In proposing the way of perfection, Jesus does not ask us to give up our lands without promising us a new land, a new dwelling place: his own heart.

there is only one who is good

In this post, I’ll continue to examine the opening meditation of Veritatis Splendor, John Paul II’s encyclical letter on the moral life.

“There is only one who is good” (Mt 19:17)

9. Jesus says: “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments” (Mt 19:17). In the versions of the Evangelists Mark and Luke the question is phrased in this way: “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone” (Mk 10:18; cf. Lk 18:19).

Before answering the question, Jesus wishes the young man to have a clear idea of why he asked his question. The “Good Teacher” points out to him — and to all of us — that the answer to the question, “What good must I do to have eternal life?” can only be found by turning one’s mind and heart to the “One” who is good: “No one is good but God alone” (Mk 10:18; cf. Lk 18:19). Only God can answer the question about what is good, because he is the Good itself.

To ask about the good, in fact, ultimately means to turn towards God, the fullness of goodness. Jesus shows that the young man’s question is really a religious question, and that the goodness that attracts and at the same time obliges man has its source in God, and indeed is God himself. God alone is worthy of being loved “with all one’s heart, and with all one’s soul, and with all one’s mind” (Mt 22:37). He is the source of man’s happiness. Jesus brings the question about morally good action back to its religious foundations, to the acknowledgment of God, who alone is goodness, fullness of life, the final end of human activity, and perfect happiness.

Jesus and the rich young man

Jesus and the rich young man

John Paul II makes the connection between morality and faith by noticing that the question about the good is a religious question, ultimately… a question about the source of goodness. This understanding frees the moral life from being simply a series of human strictures about what should be done or not done. Many of us today have the sense that morality is largely about prohibitions, and some are tempted to suspect that these prohibitions arise from the desire of other human beings to oppress or use us. But the Pope notices that Jesus puts the focus on God as the source of the moral life… in a sense, Jesus gets out of the way, as if to say: the moral life is not about what one man wants from another, but about the good that God desires for us. The One who alone is good wants creation to share in His goodness.

10. The Church, instructed by the Teacher’s words, believes that man, made in the image of the Creator, redeemed by the Blood of Christ and made holy by the presence of the Holy Spirit, has as the ultimate purpose of his life to live “for the praise of God’s glory” (cf. Eph 1:12), striving to make each of his actions reflect the splendour of that glory. “Know, then, O beautiful soul, that you are the image of God“, writes Saint Ambrose. “Know that you are the glory of God (1 Cor 11:7). Hear how you are his glory. The Prophet says: Your knowledge has become too wonderful for me (cf. Ps. 138:6, Vulg.). That is to say, in my work your majesty has become more wonderful; in the counsels of men your wisdom is exalted. When I consider myself, such as I am known to you in my secret thoughts and deepest emotions, the mysteries of your knowledge are disclosed to me. Know then, O man, your greatness, and be vigilant.”17

What man is and what he must do becomes clear as soon as God reveals himself. The Decalogue is based on these words: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage” (Ex 20:2-3). In the “ten words” of the Covenant with Israel, and in the whole Law, God makes himself known and acknowledged as the One who “alone is good”; the One who despite man’s sin remains the “model” for moral action, in accordance with his command, “You shall be holy; for I the Lord your God am holy” (Lev 19:2); as the One who, faithful to his love for man, gives him his Law (cf. Ex 19:9-24 and 20:18-21) in order to restore man’s original and peaceful harmony with the Creator and with all creation, and, what is more, to draw him into his divine love: “I will walk among you, and will be your God, and you shall be my people” (Lev 26:12).

The moral life presents itself as the response due to the many gratuitous initiatives taken by God out of love for man. It is a response of love, according to the statement made in Deuteronomy about the fundamental commandment: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. And these words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart; and you shall teach them diligently to your children” (Dt 6:4-7). Thus the moral life, caught up in the gratuitousness of God’s love, is called to reflect his glory: “For the one who loves God it is enough to be pleasing to the One whom he loves: for no greater reward should be sought than that love itself; charity in fact is of God in such a way that God himself is charity.”18

The moral life touches the very core of man’s purpose and destiny: to live for the praise of God’s glory. Our purpose becomes clear when God reveals Himself as the Holy One and invites us into a relationship. The moral life is nothing other than the love by which we respond to this invitation.

And what is the reward of the moral life? As St. Leo the Great puts it, the reward is knowing the pleasure of the Beloved: For the one who loves God it is enough to be pleasing to the One whom he loves: for no greater reward should be sought than that love itself…. I’m reminded of what C.S. Lewis has to say about glory as the experience of knowing God’s pleasure:

I read in a periodical the other day that the fundamental thing is how we think of God. By God Himself, it is not! How God thinks of us is not only more important, but infinitely more important. Indeed, how we think of Him is of no importance except in so far as it is related to how He thinks of us. It is written that we shall “stand before” Him, shall appear, shall be inspected. The promise of glory is the promise, almost incredible and only possible by the work of Christ, that some of us, that any of us who really chooses, shall actually survive that examination, shall find approval, shall please God. To please God… to be a real ingredient in the divine happiness… to be loved by God, not merely pitied, but delighted in as an artist delights in his work or a father in his son — it seems impossible, a weight or burden of glory which our thoughts can hardly sustain. But so it is. (from The Weight of Glory)

11. The statement that “There is only one who is good” thus brings us back to the “first tablet” of the commandments, which calls us to acknowledge God as the one Lord of all and to worship him alone for his infinite holiness (cf. Ex 20:2-11). The good is belonging to God, obeying him, walking humbly with him in doing justice and in loving kindness (cf. Mic 6:8). Acknowledging the Lord as God is the very core, the heart of the Law, from which the particular precepts flow and towards which they are ordered. In the morality of the commandments the fact that the people of Israel belongs to the Lord is made evident, because God alone is the One who is good. Such is the witness of Sacred Scripture, imbued in every one of its pages with a lively perception of God’s absolute holiness: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts” (Is 6:3).

But if God alone is the Good, no human effort, not even the most rigorous observance of the commandments, succeeds in “fulfilling” the Law, that is, acknowledging the Lord as God and rendering him the worship due to him alone (cf. Mt 4:10). This “fulfilment” can come only from a gift of God: the offer of a share in the divine Goodness revealed and communicated in Jesus, the one whom the rich young man addresses with the words “Good Teacher” (Mk 10:17; Lk 18:18). What the young man now perhaps only dimly perceives will in the end be fully revealed by Jesus himself in the invitation: “Come, follow me” (Mt 19:21).

Belonging to God, and knowing the divine pleasure, is not something we can achieve by our own efforts, but is a gift of God offered to us, to which we can respond with the yes of our freedom.

In my next post, I’ll reflect on the relationship between life and the commandments: “If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.”