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“God has given you to me.” St. John Paul II’s Economy of Gift.

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For many reasons St. John Paul II still lives vividly in the minds of many people, Catholic and non-Catholic alike. The biggest reason is the simple fact that his earthly pilgrimage took place in the not so distant past, passing from this side of eternity to the next in 2005. A second reason are the naturally hagiographical episodes of his life: his major role in the downfall of communism without the use of any weapons save the Gospel and some political savvy, and his willingness to go and forgive the man who shot him in person, to name just two. A third reason is the fact that he was one of the longest reigning popes in history, occupying the chair of Peter for nearly a full 27 years, from October 1978 to April 2005. His long tenure as pope had much to do with his being elected at the age of 58 (a veritable youth in ecclesial years), and resulted in many ripple effects that made his papacy unique. First, it gave him time to write more than 50 major documents that are sure to have a lasting effect on the life of the Church for many years to come. Second, along with the motivation to do so, he had the opportunity to canonize 482 saints. Third, his predilection for travel, which gave him the nickname of the globe-trotting pope, resulted in his visiting over 130 countries and it is estimated that he was seen in person by over a half a billion people, which some claim make him the most seen person in history.

Just before my third birthday, I became one of the half billion who saw St. John Paul II in person during a trip with my family to Mexico City in 1990. Very few things remain vividly in my memory of this trip, in fact, I do not even remember seeing the pope himself. Instead, what I remember is the massive crowds of people, many wearing t-shirts with the face of St. John Paul II emblazoned on them, and the push forward by the crowd to advance at least an inch closer to catch a glimpse of this man, some even using homemade cardboard periscopes to look over the swarm of people. Why this sense of urgency, why this desire by so many to see this man? One reason is just that he was the pope, this central figure of the Catholic Church always attracts large crowds. However, if you ask those who remember the life of this pope more vividly what they remember of him, they speak of a charismatic and vibrant figure, full of energy and love. They speak of a man who loved all things human, who loved sports, especially to ski, an avid outdoorsman who loved to be in God’s creation; they speak of a man who loved poetry, who was a playwright; they speak of a theologian, whose scholarly work spoke of God’s love manifested in the human person. All of these characteristics reveal this great saint’s deep humanism, and it was this profound love for all things human that made the crowds literally flock to see him, sensing deep within themselves that somehow, and in some way, this man loved them. In other words, they saw and felt the presence of Christ in St. John Paul II, which is precisely what it means to be a saint. In what remains here, I want to suggest that what people saw and felt in this man was the lived embodiment of his vision of reality that displayed itself in every facet of his life, and which he expressed in his teachings as pope in the hopes that we too would come to share this vision so as to draw others to Christ through the beauty of our lives.

“God has given you to me.” This one line statement sums up the core of St. John Paul II’s vision of reality. He treats the idea at some length in a posthumously published essay entitled “A Meditation on Givenness.” As an aside, I would recommend this essay to anyone looking to understand the late pontiff’s thought more deeply, it is a short but profound read. The piece is very closely related to the saint’s more well-known work which, in its final form, was delivered over the course of several years as a set of catechetical talks during his papal audiences, known as the Theology of the Body. This essay, like the Theology of the Body, reveals a theology that is at once firmly based on Scripture and deeply influenced by the philosophical method known as phenomenology, especially as put forth by the German philosopher, Max Scheler. The main deficit in the latter’s thought, according to John Paul II, was a displacement of the human person (see, e.g., Person and Community, 53), a deficit which John Paul II sought to correct in his own theology to the point where it might be said that at its root, the Theology of the Body is most basically a theological anthropology. That said, John Paul II’s theological anthropology is rooted in Scripturally based cosmology and metaphysics. What “A Meditation on Givenness” reveals to us is that John Paul II understood the idea of gift, or givenness, to be at the center of God’s created order from the very beginning. Creation, in short, is itself an economy of givenness. Thus, he writes: “God, in creating, revealed his glory and gave the whole richness of the created world to man; he gave it to man for him to rejoice in it, to rest in it. For the poet Norwid—to rest, to restore, to reset, to renew—denotes to be conceived anew, to be reconceived. God gave the world to man for him to find God in it and so also to find himself” (“A Meditation on Givenness,” 872). We might say, then, that for John Paul II, in the act of creation the language uttered by God is one of givenness, through which God simultaneously reveals the inward dynamics established of creation rightly ordered and His own inner life. In short, creation as a reflection of the Triune life of God is intended to be one of constant and dynamic loving exchange (ibid., 872 & 875). The givenness at the core of creation, for John Paul II, prior to the Fall was readily recognized by Adam in the Garden. With his eyes as yet undimmed by sin, when God gives Eve to Adam he is able to hear and see the language of gift in her beauty, which John Paul II describes as a living microcosm encapsulating the beauty of creation (ibid., 876). Accordingly, the beauty of Eve moves Adam to instinctively act and respond: “God gave you to me” (Gn. 2:23), and thus, the late pontiff concludes “awareness of gift and givenness is clearly written into the biblical Creation account” (ibid., 873). Such is the nature of all beauty for John Paul II, beauty is what gives dynamism to life and moves us to act. As he writes: “beauty is a source of strength for man. It is inspiration for work…” (ibid., 877).

Sadly, as we all know, our first parents chose to turn away from this economy of givenness and its language of love, depriving us, their ancestors, of this, our native tongue. Consequently, we were rendered deaf to the call of beauty issuing forth from the very fabric of creation, made dumb in our ability to speak it, and paralyzed in our ability to love. It is nothing less than the Incarnation, Passion, death and Resurrection of the Son of God which opens ours ears to this language of love (Mk 7:31-37), loosening our tongues so that we might once again, through, with, and in Him in the unity of the Holy Spirit speak it (Mk 9:14-21) and live it (Mk 2:1-12) to the glory and praise to God the Father. As the late pontiff writes, the thread of beauty is woven into the whole of human history, culminating in the Resurrection of Christ, which “is the revelation of the greatest beauty, a revelation foreshadowed at the Transfiguration.” It is this beauty, exceeding every other that is “a light that guides us through the darkness of human existence and allows us to overcome all evil, all suffering, with good, since hope in the Resurrection cannot be misplaced” (ibid., 877). For John Paul II, the event of Christ radically renews creation, gifting it once again to be what it was intended to be from the beginning. He explains it this way: “Redemption affirms the sacredness of the whole of creation…The source of this sacredness is in the holiness of God himself who became man. As the sacrament of God present in the world, Christ transforms this world into a sacrament for God” (ibid., 880). In short, the coming of Christ renders creation’s, and most of all the human person’s, enfleshed whisper of God’s beauty, life, and love into a thunderous exclamation, enabling it to break through our fallen deafness. For John Paul II, it is first and foremost in the human person that this call of beauty is uttered as it was at the beginning. However, the only way the human person is able to be so transfigured by beauty is through participation in the death and Resurrection of Christ. Such participation is what enables the human person to become holy as God is holy (e.g., Lev. 19:2; Matt. 5:48 & 1 Pt 1:16), and at bottom it is holiness which is truly beautiful.

It is the beauty of holiness lived out, for John Paul II, that evangelizes the world. Thus he places the Second Vatican Council’s universal call to holiness (Lumen Gentium, Ch. 5) at the very center of his theology together with its teaching that the human person is the only creature God created for its own sake, and who finds him or herself in a complete and sincere gift of self (Gaudium et Spes, 24). It is this gift of self that is ultimately the expression of human beauty and holiness which proclaims the Gospel more forcefully than anything else. For this reason, there is a recognition in the work of John Paul II of the Council’s honest teaching that Christians bear some responsibility for the unbelief of others (Gaudium et Spes, 19). Put simply, how is the world to know of God’s love if Christians do not speak of this love with their lives (cf. Rom. 10:14)? Thus, John Paul II desired that the Council’s universal call to holiness be taken up anew, so that Christians might come to see that the gift of Christ’s holiness first bestowed upon them in baptism is a gift, but that “the gift in turn becomes a task, which must shape the whole of Christian life: ‘This is the will of God, your sanctification’ (1 Th 4:3)” (Novo Millennio Ineunte, 30). That said, Christians only become beautiful by participation in the life of Christ and by way of continual training in imitation of Him. Therefore, much of what John Paul II left us as a testament relates to us the means by which we are rendered beautiful with the beauty of Christ.

Without going into a great amount of detail, we might broadly characterize St. John Paul II’s program for training in holiness and aesthetic formation in three steps: participation in the liturgical-sacramental life of the Church, prayer, and imitation of the saints. The first of these pertains most especially to the Eucharist. Again, following the teaching of the Second Vatican Council, St. John Paul II speaks of the Eucharist as “the source and summit of Christian life” (Ecclesia de Eucharistia, 1; cf. Sacrosanctum Concilium, 10). However, in elaborating upon this idea he uses the language of givenness, writing: “The Church has received the Eucharist from Christ her Lord not as one gift—however precious—among so many others, but as the gift par excellence, for it is the gift of himself, of his person in his sacred humanity, as well as the gift of his saving work” (Ecclesia de Eucharistia, 11). Consequently, just as baptism is at once gift and responsibility, so too the Eucharist, John Paul II writes:

Proclaiming the death of the Lord ‘until he comes’ (1 Cor 11:26) entails that all who take part in the Eucharist be committed to changing their lives and making them in a certain way completely ‘Eucharistic.’ It is this fruit of a transfigured existence and a commitment to transforming the world in accordance with the Gospel which splendidly illustrates the eschatological tension inherent in the celebration of the Eucharist and in the Christian life as a whole: ‘Come, Lord Jesus!’ (Rev 22:20)” (Ecclesia de Eucharistia, 20).

Put simply, partaking of the Eucharist has at its goal our deification which transfigures us into Eucharist for the world (Ecclesia de Eucharistia, 16 & 20). We might ask, how do we live as Eucharist for the world? To live as Eucharist for the world consists of two parts for St. John Paul II: a life of prayer and of virtuous living, the latter of which is characterized especially in works of mercy (Ecclesia de Eucharistia, 10 & 36; cf. Novo Millennio Ineunte, 32). Through these actions we are continually transfigured into little Christs, i.e., Christians, and rendered able to make the life and love of our God known and present to the world. However, the Church does not expect us nor desire us to reinvent the wheel here. Instead, beginning with Christ, the Church places before us a great cloud a witnesses (Hb. 12:1), exemplars of the Christian life of prayer and virtue for us to imitate.

After Christ, the exemplar par excellence for St. John Paul II, following the whole Tradition, is Mary, the Mother of Jesus. For John Paul II, Mary’s whole life can be said to be Eucharistic, he wrote that “In a certain sense Mary lived her Eucharistic faith even before the institution of the Eucharist, by the very fact that she offered her virginal womb for the Incarnation of God’s Word” (Ecclesia de Eucharistia, 55). However, her Eucharistic life did not stop here. Rather, as John Paul II saw it, Mary’s Magnificat expresses the Eucharistic spirituality that animated the whole of her life. Therefore, Mary’s spirituality serves as an exemplar and help for us “to experience the mystery of the Eucharist. The Eucharist has been given to us so that our life, like that of Mary, may become completely Magnificat!” (Ecclesia de Eucharistia, 58). Consequently, because John Paul II saw in Mary the Lady of the Eucharist, he made the promotion of the devotion to the Rosary a central part of his pontificate, even adding the Luminous Mysteries to its practice (Rosarium Virginis Mariae, 19). For John Paul II, the power of the Rosary is threefold. First, in praying the Rosary, we join Mary in contemplating the face of Christ (Rosarium Virginis Mariae, 15). When we pray the Rosary, the late pontiff taught, we are mystically transported “to Mary’s side as she is busy watching over the human growth of Christ in the home of Nazareth. This enables her to train us and to mold us with the same care, until Christ is ‘full formed’ in us (cf. Ga. 4:19)” (Rosarium Virginis Mariae, 15). Second, because the Rosary is so Christocentric, it simultaneously prepares us for and compels us toward the Eucharist (Rosarium Virginis Mariae, 13). Thirdly, in praying the Rosary, we both contemplate the life of Christ as portrayed in Scripture and, in doing so, imitate both the Blessed Virgin and the saints, precisely in their imitation of Christ (Rosarium Virginis Mariae, 1, 8, 18, & 28).

Praying the Rosary links, as it were, the second two elements of John Paul II’s spiritual training program, for it simultaneously engages us in prayer and the imitation of the saints. The saints for John Paul II, are those who have cooperated with the grace of Christ in becoming Eucharist for the life of the world, and it is in them that the beauty of God is revealed, a beauty which at once calls others to saving communion with Christ in the economy of gift. Thus, in his encyclical letter on the Eucharist, St. John Paul II exhorts us: “Let us take our place, dear brothers and sisters, at the school of the saints, who are the great interpreters of true Eucharistic piety.  In them the theology of the Eucharist takes on all the splendor of a lived reality; it becomes ‘contagious’ and, in a manner of speaking, it ‘warms our hearts’” (Ecclesia de Eucharistia, 62). It is the fact that John Paul II was such a great member of the school of the saints that made him so attractive to the masses who gathered to see him. In him they glimpsed the radiance of Christ, His eternal call of Love that once spoke us into being and now beckons us to eternal communion.  It is in this love of Christ that John Paul placed all his hopes and directed all his efforts at proclaiming with joy. His memory proclaims the same to us today, summoning us to join the school of the saints that we might call others to Christ’s saving economy of love, even as we struggle amidst much chaos and anxiety in our own time and place. Only by joining the school of the saints will we be able to recognize the givenness of our existence, transforming our encounters so that we can look upon one another through divinized eyes and respond: “God has given you to me.” This central refrain of the economy of gift expresses the vision of reality that we are called to live now, and which we hope to experience in eternity with Christ. And so, in closing, we might perhaps remember the words this great saint wrote to the great theologian, Henri de Lubac, for they are words of encouragement for us today: “…I, too, do not lose hope that the great crisis that now shakes us so painfully will lead humanity to the royal way. Perhaps it will no longer be open to us, but we have firmly hoped, we will always hope, and we are and will be happy” (Henri de Lubac, At the Service of the Church, 172).

Your servant in Christ,

Tony

4 thoughts on ““God has given you to me.” St. John Paul II’s Economy of Gift.

  1. 20:29). There is something of the Apostle Thomas in every human being. Each one is tempted by unbelief and each one asks the basic questions: Is it true that God exists? Is it true that he created the world? Is it true that the Son of God became man, died and rose from the dead? The answer comes as the person experiences God’s presence. We have to open our eyes and our heart to the light of the Holy Spirit. Then the open wounds of the Risen Christ will speak to each of us: “Because you have seen me, you have believed: blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe”.

  2. May Mary most holy, the Virgin who said “yes” to God throughout her whole life, may Saints Peter and Paul and all the Saints who have lighted the Church’s journey down the ages, keep you always faithful to this holy resolve!

  3. Tony-
    The reference to the Crescio family visit in 1990 to Mexico
    City for St. John Paul’s visit allows that important
    human contact to reverberate in this erudite treatise.

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