Theology of the Body and the Ministry of Mercy

March 2, 2016

“I see clearly,” said Pope Francis, “that the thing the Church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds.” Then, describing the Church as “a field hospital after battle,” he insisted again, “Heal the wounds, heal the wounds.” And this means that “ministers of the Church must be ministers of mercy above all.”

Mercy. The Latin, misericordia, means “a heart which gives itself to those in misery.” Ministers of mercy are those willing to enter into the pain and misery of the human condition and touch people’s wounds with healing love. Think of how the bishop in Les Miserables treated Jean Valjean. That’s the kind of mercy that heals wounds and changes the course of human lives.

Pope Francis’ oft-quoted description of the Church as “a field hospital after battle” couldn’t be more fitting in our post-sexual revolution world. When “idealized” and “hyper-eroticized” images of the human body have become the cultural wallpaper and hard-core pornography our main reference point for the “facts of life,” it’s no wonder that our deepest, most painful wounds often center on our sexuality. And by “sexuality” I mean not only what we do with our genitals behind closed doors, but our very sense of ourselves – our bodily selves – as male and female. We have been incessantly lied to (lied to!) about the meaning of our bodies, our sexuality, ourselves. And we are desperately in need of “ministers of mercy” who aren’t afraid to touch our most tender wounds, to accompany us on a journey of healing, and to share with us the glorious truth of who we really are as male and female.

Yet, as Pope Francis laments, many people in search of healing, rather than being met in their need by true “ministers of mercy,” are met by ministers of the Church who are either “too much of a rigorist, or too lax. Neither is merciful,” Francis explains, “because neither of them really takes responsibility for the person. The rigorist washes his hands so that he leaves it to the commandment. The loose minister washes his hands by simply saying, ‘This is not a sin’ or something like that. In pastoral ministry we must accompany people, and” – Francis insists once again – “we must heal their wounds.”

Accompanied. Mercifully accompanied. That’s how I felt when I first encountered Saint John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. I didn’t know how this Polish pope knew so much about the inner movements of my deepest, most intimate desires, but I knew his teaching – not “too rigorist” and not “too lax,” but carefully balanced and piercingly beautiful – was “touching my wounds” and setting me on a course of true healing. Perhaps you’ve heard about Saint John Paul II’s Theology of the Body but haven’t really “entered in.” May I suggest that there has never been a better time than the Jubilee Year of Mercy to do so? The world is in misery with regard to the meaning of gender, sex, and marriage. The Theology of the Body is God’s heart giving itself to those in this misery.

Christopher West

Christopher West is President of The Cor Project, a global membership and outreach organization helping others to learn, live, and share Saint John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. His work has been featured in the New York Times, on AB more...