John Paul II Addresses Humanity's Identity Crisis

Interview With Father J. Brian Bransfield

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By Genevieve Pollock

WASHINGTON, D.C., JUNE 7, 2010 ( The human person today has lost sight of his identity due to confusing ideologies, but John Paul II’s teaching responds to this crisis, says the author of a new book.

Father J. Brian Bransfield explained this crisis and the Pontiff’s response in a book, «The Human Person: According to John Paul II,» which was just released by Pauline Books and Media.

Father Bransfield, a priest of the Philadelphia Archdiocese, is currently serving the U.S. bishops’ conference as assistant general secretary and executive director of the Secretariat of Evangelization and Catechesis. Before this position he was a moral theology professor at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.

In this interview with ZENIT, Father Bransfield explains the importance of Pope John Paul II’s teaching for all persons to understand their identity, particularly faced to the current challenges in modern culture. He explores the Pontiff’s call for a renewal of moral theology and the role of the Holy Spirit in this endeavor.

ZENIT: Could you tell us about your new book, «The Human Person: According to John Paul II?» Is this a book that is primarily philosophical in nature? What type of audience did you write it for?

Father Bransfield: «The Human Person: According to John Paul II» is geared to be accessible to a wide, everyday, popular audience as a tool to assist the current and next generation to be a generation of respect for the inviolable dignity of human life and the sanctity of marriage.

The popular mindset today is that to be human means to acquire the next pleasure as quickly as you can, whether that be in the form of money, luxury, fashion or sex.

John Paul II attracted an entire generation, indeed, the entire world, by showing that being human meant not that we acquire pleasure quickly, but that we give beauty slowly, contemplatively.

This is the meaning of the human person: to be a gift.

«The Human Person: According to John Paul II» arose directly from my pastoral work with two audiences. The first is the average active adult Catholic. The second is the introductory undergraduate student.

The book has a built-in flexibility to serve both audiences well.

ZENIT: What aspects of John Paul II’s understanding of the human person do you think are most important for people in today’s society to know about? How does this topic affect the daily life of the ordinary Catholic «in the pew?»

Father Bransfield: The average Catholic seeks a center of gravity that relates to the endless tensions and trials of daily life.

Pope John Paul lived under the oppression of not one, but two of the worst totalitarian regimes in human history: Nazism and Soviet Communism.

He was tried by the fire and emerged to bury both of those regimes while at the same time turning his sights to a third totalitarian regime, that of materialist secularism and moral relativism.

Pope John Paul knew well the intense pain the world can inflict, and he reached the average person by showing that the human person is always and everywhere created for communion through self gift.

The majority of our pain and problems come from the fact that we have been lured into believing that if we just acquire the next good feeling we will be happy.

Communion is the authentic gift of self for the true good of the other — it is not about me getting what I want, and what I think I should have. It is about recognizing the true good and giving myself away, even in suffering, for this authentic good.

My book shows how this is John Paul’s resilient response to the contemporary crisis of the human person and it is geared to do so in accessible, readable, understandable terms.
ZENIT: Haven’t these truths about the human person been taught by the Church for centuries? What is new about the ideas of John Paul II? What contribution do you particularly hope to make to the body of teaching already out there?

Father Bransfield: These truths have been taught for centuries. Yet each new age in the world calls on the Church to express that same truth in a way that addresses the difficulties and crises of the world.

Today we are in an unparalleled crisis of the human person, marriage and family.

This crisis calls the Church to respond with the same truth expressed in a new key — one that aims the healing truth directly at the misconceptions of the era. This book attempts to show how John Paul II did just this.

ZENIT: Could you say more about the link between John Paul II’s teaching and the need for a renewal of moral theology, which Vatican Council II called for?

Father Bransfield: In «Optatum Totius,» the Decree on the Training of Priests, the Council called for a renewal of moral theology. Notice that this renewal was called for in the heart of a document on the training of priests.

Priests are called to be heralds to a hungry world. Despite all its temptations, vice and sin, people in the world are hungry to live a moral life, even if this hunger is deeply buried. Their hunger for real truth is one of our greatest allies in the New Evangelization. In many ways, the renewal of moral theology in terms of «Veritatis Splendor» is a main current within the New Evangelization.

The renewal called for is one to wake up the hunger, and to return to the scriptural and patristic sources, so that the whole person is addressed through an adequate anthropology.

John Paul II did just this throughout his magisterium, in particular in the theology of the body, and «Familiaris Consortio,» «Veritatis Splendor» and «Fides et Ratio.»

This renewal of moral theology forms the very heart of the New Evangelization summoned by Pope Paul VI. This is what «The Human Person: According to John Paul II» attempts to express.

ZENIT: What do you mean when you say that the gifts of the Holy Spirit have been misunderstood by modern moral theology? How does John Paul II encourage Catholics to see these gifts?

Father Bransfield: For so long the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit identified in Isaiah 11:2 have been treated as simply the realm of spiritual theology. Many contemporary courses in moral theology tend not to treat them.

In fact, the seven gifts along with the virtues and beatitudes are the very heart of the Church’s moral teaching, as St. Augustine and St. Thomas pointed out. Pope John Paul II inherits these in this theology of the body in particular, and in his teaching on moral theology in general.

The gifts initiate and continue to influence directly our configuration to Christ. John Paul II revived this focus as part of the renewal of moral theology.

For St. Augustine, the beatitudes were a kind of ladder that the believer advances upward to union with God; for John Paul II, the beatitudes are a fountain within, a «hidden wellspring» with the same upward movement.

The Holy Father demonstrated the important manner in which the gift of piety influences the «hidden wellspring» of purity of heart, the sixth beatitude.

ZENIT: Why does John Paul II place specific emphasis on the need for purity of heart? How can Catholics today exercise this virtue?   

Father Bransfield: Purity of heart pertains to the sixth beatitude. John Paul II’s emphasis shows us that purity of heart is not achieved by a clenched-teeth or white-knuckled approach to purity, but through the cultivation of the life of virtue and the beatitudes.

Purity of heart proceeds not only from what we avoid, but from what we receive: the poverty of spirit which leads us to turn to God; the meekness that is a deep-seated strength to live the good life.

When we see the truly good life of humility we mourn that others do not reach out for it; we hunger and thirst for its advancement in such a way that we show mercy to others: and from this, purity of heart emerges.

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