There are a number of saints who can be ranked among the world’s collection of geniuses. St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Catherine of Siena, and St. Teresa of Avila would definitely be among them. In our own time, Pope St. John Paul II no doubt also qualifies. As they often say of geniuses, they are sometimes misunderstood.
One of the least understood statements by St. John Paul appeared in his very first encyclical, “The Redeemer of Man.” In this letter, issued less than five months into his papacy, he declared, “Man is the primary route that the Church must travel in fulfilling her mission; he is the primary and fundamental way for the Church.”
Even though the encyclical came out at the beginning of Lent 1979 and just a few weeks before the feast of the Annunciation, it seems fair to call it a Christmas letter.
The whole point of it is to emphasize how the birth of Christ and the redemption which followed totally changed human history and human destiny.
As we move into the Christmas season with all its gewgaws and glitter, it might be good to reflect on what this radical-sounding statement means. After all, Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life, right?
What does it mean to say that we are the way for the Church?
John Paul recalls for us that, by choice, our God has united Himself with every human being who has ever lived, does live, and will live.
By virtue of Christ’s birth, life, death and resurrection, we are called, ultimately, to perfect union with God. In this life, we are called to creative freedom and what this saint calls royal or kingly service.
He says that the Church’s mission, its way, must be to remind all people of their God-given dignity and their divine call to live their best lives.
When we celebrate Christmas, we retell the climactic story of salvation history. It is the tale of how the eternal God has joined himself to us as both Lord and brother. He took on flesh composed of cosmic dust. He grew up, worked, broke a sweat, laughed, sometimes felt lonely, got hungry and thirsty, and suffered aches and pains.
While our world remains broken and fallible, our contemporary saint reminds us that, because of the coming of Christ, so much more is possible. We can be better people and a better planet.
As we delight in the dazzle of Christmas, we are called to remember the One who came as Light of the World. He lights our lives to this day. And Jesus calls us, in the Sermon on the Mount, to know that we are and must be light for the world.
The only way people will see light is for us to be light. We can make the way with, as it were, flashers on our vehicles and blinking LED sneakers on our feet. That’s the Church way.
CNS photo/Arturo Mari, L’Osservatore Romano