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The Icon of Communion


Carl A. Anderson

Pope John Paul II blesses Pat Wahlmeier of Pius XII Council 1123 in Hastings, Neb., father of the Order’s 1994 International Family of the Year, at the Aqueduct Raceway in Queens, N.Y., Oct. 6, 1995. Also pictured are two of Wahlmeier’s sons. (Knights of Columbus Multimedia Archives)

At the outset of his apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), Pope Francis describes a “new chapter” in the Church’s work of evangelization, founded upon “a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ” (3). He warns against secular society’s tendency to reduce Christianity merely to an ethical system with unpopular moral rules, and adds: “I never tire of repeating those words of Benedict XVI which take us to the very heart of the Gospel: ‘Being a Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon’” (7, cf. Deus Caritas Est, 1).

St. John Paul II made a similar point when he stated that the Gospel of Life is not “merely a commandment aimed at raising awareness and bringing about significant changes in society. Still less is it an illusory promise of a better future. The Gospel of Life is something concrete and personal, for it consists in the proclamation of the very person of Jesus” (Evangelium Vitae, 29).

Thus, we need to avoid the trap that secularism places in the Church’s path of evangelization — that is, the portrayal of Christians as people who seek to “impose new obligations” on those around them rather than as “people who wish to share their joy” (Evangelii Gaudium, 15).

Echoing Pope Emeritus Benedict, Pope Francis affirmed, “It is not by proselytizing that the Church grows, but ‘by attraction’” (18).

In this cultural context, the writings and personal witness of St. John Paul II are both inspirational and instructive. It should be remembered that his belief in the beauty of the family stemmed not from some blindness to the times, but rather from experience and from his profound understanding of man and the challenges of modernity. In his renowned document on the family, Familiaris Consortio (On the Christian Family in the Modern World), John Paul II recognized the fundamental divergence between secular culture and Christian family culture, noting an “anthropological and moral” difference reflected in the Church’s integral vision of the person (cf. 32).

From this vision arises a positive and life-affirming message in response to the fear and anxiety prevalent in contemporary society: “Against the pessimism and selfishness which cast a shadow over the world, the Church stands for life: in each human life she sees the splendor of that ‘Yes,’ that ‘Amen,’ who is Christ himself” (30).


Beginning more than two decades before Familiaris Consortio, Karol Wojtyła presented a series of reflections on marriage that were recently published in Italian under the title, Bellezza e Spiritualità dell’Amore Coniugale (Beauty and Spirituality of Conjugal Love). In these reflections, the future pope argued that the Church can convincingly defend the family only if it is theologically and pastorally able to demonstrate the beauty of family life and the possibility of joyfully and authentically living the vocation of marriage.

Wojtyła likewise recognized that the Church must overcome the impression that its view of the family is essentially legalistic. “It will not succeed,” he wrote, “if right from the start it supports a negative norm, that is a certain ‘one must not.’” He noted that marriage had been viewed negatively in the past, from the perspective of sin, as a “thing of the flesh” in opposition to the things of the spirit.

These ideas were further developed by Wojtyła in a series of lectures at the Catholic University of Lublin, published a year later in 1960 under the title Love and Responsibility. In Wojtyła’s introduction to the first edition, he said that spiritual advisors to Catholic married couples are faced with the “constant confrontation of doctrine and life.” In other words, Wojtyła’s pastoral approach arose from the concrete practical experiences and concerns of the numerous young married couples with whom he interacted. In order to help these married couples, he maintained that the advisor’s “task is not only to command or forbid, but also to justify, interpret and explain … to put the norms of Catholic sexual ethics on a firm basis.”

Wojtyła saw the issue as a “problem which can be described as ‘introducing love into love’” and, more specifically, as a “problem of changing the second type of love [sexual love] into the first, the love of which the New Testament speaks.” What is required is “the integration of love ‘within’ the person and ‘between’ persons.”

Obviously, what Wojtyła describes as the “education of love” is not something that happens automatically. This pastoral challenge therefore remained a central theme of his ministry as archbishop of Kraków, and it continued to inform his teachings as pope.

The positive pastoral approach to marriage, focused on the vocation to holiness, is reinforced by the recognition of the social benefits of the Christian view of the family, particularly as it relates to poverty. Indeed, Pope Francis has called for a heightened awareness of the social dimension of evangelization, reminding us that “the need to resolve the structural causes of poverty cannot be delayed” (Evangelii Gaudium, 202).

According to a 2010 study of the U.S. Census Bureau, the percentage of married families living below poverty level in the United States was 6.2 percent. For single-mother households, the poverty rate was 31.6 percent. Children raised with married parents are 82 percent less likely to be poor than those living with a single parent — a disparity that remains even among those of the same race and educational level. Single-parent households account for approximately 75 percent of welfare assistance going to families with children in the United States. In 2011, government assistance provided approximately $330 billion in cash, food, housing, medical care and social services to poor, single-parent families.

Today in the United States, 7 out of 10 poor families with children are those headed by a single parent — the vast majority of which are headed by single mothers. The economic realities faced by these families are often devastating. But the emotional, psychological and spiritual pathologies can be even more devastating. Summarizing the sociological data, the Heritage Foundation notes, “Compared to children raised in an intact family, children raised in single-parent homes are more likely to have emotional and behavioral problems; be physically abused; smoke, drink, and use drugs; be aggressive; engage in violent, delinquent, and criminal behavior; have poor school performance; and drop out of high school.”


A significant contribution to the Church’s understanding of these issues occurred during a 2008 international congress titled “Oil on the Wounds: A Contemporary Examination of the Effects of Divorce and Abortion on Children and Their Families.” Co-sponsored by the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family in Rome and the Knights of Columbus, the meeting brought together international experts to provide not only diagnostic examinations of these issues, but also the implications for the development of adequate pastoral responses. [Editor’s note: See related article on page 22.]

The spirit of our work was beautifully summarized by Pope Benedict XVI in his April 5, 2008, address to the congress: “The Church’s first duty is to approach these people with love and consideration, with caring and motherly attention, to proclaim the merciful closeness of God in Jesus Christ. Indeed, as the Fathers teach, it is he who is the true Good Samaritan, who has made himself close to us, who pours oil and wine on our wounds and takes us into the inn, the Church, where he has us treated, entrusting us to her ministers and personally paying in advance for our recovery. Yes, the Gospel of love and life is also always the Gospel of mercy.”

The world in which we live, where millions of people have yet to encounter love in any meaningful way, is in urgent need of mercy and healing. The Church’s pastoral work in this regard is inseparably related to the renewal and support of the Christian family, which is called to be an icon of the God who is communion.

Our faith teaches that God is love, that he is a unity in communion, a Trinity. This love made an irrevocable gift of himself to us when God opened his life to the world in the form of his Son, Jesus Christ. As St. John Paul II explained, because man is made in the image of God, he “is incomprehensible for himself, his life is senseless” if he does not encounter this love (cf. Redemptor Hominis, 10).

The world needs to see the God revealed by Jesus Christ, saving man in all his relationships. It also needs to see families that are true communities of life, love and forgiveness.

St. John Paul II emphasized that the family is essentially missionary, for it “has the mission to guard, reveal and communicate love” — love that reflects the Trinitarian communion and that shares in “God’s love for humanity and the love of Christ the Lord for the Church his bride” (Familiaris Consortio, 17).

In the Church’s mission of evangelization, love alone is “effective” — the love of the Lord, which Christian spouses first receive as a divine gift and a task.

Since 1981, it has been the responsibility of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family to assist scholars, teachers, pastors, bishops, religious and married couples to become ever more conscious of the pressing need to help the Christian family in its mission “to become what it is” (cf. Familiaris Consortio, 17).

Christian families need to be encouraged to become active in parishes and ecclesial groups, in charitable works, and in transmitting the faith to younger generations. Above all, families need to simply come to an awareness that they are an icon of God’s own communion and a “saved and saving community” — a sacramental reality at the heart of the Church’s mission of evangelization (cf. Familiaris Consortio, 49). This is the only way for the family to be a place of healing and of humanity for the men and women of our time. And we can hope to accomplish this only if we transmit in an undiminished way the sacramental beauty of Christian marriage.

This assistance is needed not only for the sake of the family itself. As St. John Paul II clearly understood, the great point of encounter between Christianity and culture in our time is the family. In our world, ever-increasing numbers of our brothers and sisters are deprived of God and thus deprived of a genuine experience of communion and joy. Those who do not believe or whose faith wavers need the family to be a living witness to the God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the source of all the beauty in the world.

Editor’s note: This article was adapted from a presentation Supreme Knight Carl A. Anderson delivered at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at the Lateran University in Rome in March 2014.