Communion in Quarentine

Masks.  Social distancing.  Cancelling events.  Virtual meetings.  Dispensations from Mass.  Quarantining.  These are some of the isolating, unprecedented hallmarks of 2020.  Those in authority justify these measures as short-term strategies to slow the spread of COVID-19.  Whatever their short-term benefit, many people are understandably concerned about the long-term impact of these drastic actions on individuals, families, and society as a whole.  Man — as we know from Theology of the Body — is not made for isolation but for communion.  How then, are we to navigate a time when something so fundamental to our very being is challenged on every side?

Back to Basics

One of the key concepts that Pope St. John Paul II returned to again and again in his various writings, especially Theology of the Body, was communio personarum – communion of persons.  While

 this term can analogously be applied to marriage and family, the Church, communities and societies, the prototype of communio is the Blessed Trinity.  In God, we see that the Source of our very being and the End to which we are called is nothing less than an eternal Communion of Persons.  God is not a static, isolated being but for all eternity is a Personal Exchange of Love.  In the Trinity, revealed to us by Christ, we see maximum distinction (each divine Person is fully distinct from the Others) and maximum unity (the Divine Being is in no way fractured or divided such that we can fully affirm One God).  In the One Divine Being, Father, Son and Holy Spirit give and receive one another in an eternal exchange of love, which John Paul II termed communio.

In reflecting on the nature of man who is made in God’s image and likeness, John Paul II further saw communio as essential to understanding our identity and our calling.  In the Second Vatican Council’s document Gaudium et spes, which JP2 helped to write, we read:

Indeed, the Lord Jesus, when He prayed to the Father, “that all may be one. . . as we are one” (Jn 17:21-22) opened up vistas closed to human reason, for He implied a certain likeness between the union of the divine Persons, and the unity of God’s sons in truth and charity. This likeness reveals that man, who is the only creature on earth which God willed for itself, cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself (no. 24).

John Paul frequently referred to this passage, citing it in all his major documents as pope and in his Theology of the Body.  The bottom line is this:  man is made for communio.  We cannot understand what it means to be human — nor what is healthy for humans – apart from this.

The Hell of Isolation

As we have seen, God is a Communion of Persons, and man, being made in His image, is called to reflect that Communio on Earth and participate intimately in it in Eternity.  It follows, then, that Hell is utter isolation, being definitively cut off from the Divine Communio.  Indeed, if we were made to participate in the Divine Exchange of Love, what could be more painful than to be utterly isolated, cut off from God and others forever?

Indeed, we see glimpses of this even in this life.  Psychologists have known for decades that isolation is inherently threatening and damaging to human beings.  It goes against our fundamentally social nature.  This is especially true for children who come into the world with an innate drive to form lasting emotional bonds with their parents and others.  Their healthy development hinges on growing up in an environment rich with socioemotional cues that they are known, loved, valued, and cared for.  Much has been written in theology and psychology about the essential role of the parents’ smile in communicating a sense of delight that forms the basis of a child’s self-worth.

This drive to form and maintain emotional bonds remains with us throughout our life and is a basic hallmark of human nature:  we are made for connection!  When we are cut off from others at any stage of life, our bodies and our minds are more prone to illness and early death.  Indeed, social rejection has been found to stimulate the same pain pathways in the brain as physical injury as well as increase the risk for a host of mental and physical illnesses.  Experimental studies have even shown that such rejection negatively impacts our cardiac and immune functioning.

Cultivating Communio

In order for us to survive these difficult times, we need to work together to build a culture of communio.  How can we do this?  First, we have to recognize that relationships are always risky.  During this time of pandemic, people have a heightened awareness of the physical risks of being together.  However, we have to realize that any time we reveal ourselves to another and make space for another in our hearts, we accept the possibility of hurt, rejection, betrayal, as well as the inevitability of loss.  We can either allow fear of these experiences to drive us toward isolation, or we can draw strength from our Lord and follow the example of Him who made himself vulnerable out of love in order to give new life to us.

We must seize any opportunities we have for true connection.  When in-person togetherness is blocked, we do well to avail ourselves of the various virtual tools at our disposal to communicate with others, especially those who are most isolated right now.  However, virtual connection can never replace the value of incarnate presence.  Just as Jesus gave us His True Body and Blood as His Real Presence among us, we too need to eagerly look for opportunities for incarnate presence with others.

When we are able to be with others but suffer the obstruction of facial coverings, we can concentrate on the other person’s eyes.  The eyes have long been regarded as the window to the soul, and psychologists have shown how it is possible to decode the emotional state of another person with remarkable accuracy simply by observing the expression of the eyes.   Look at the eyes of the people around you and try to guess what they are feeling.  Allow yourself to feel with them, resonating with their emotional state.  Take a risk and draw this aspect of the encounter into the open:  for example, “As we talk about this and I look in your eyes, I sense how sad you are.” Or, “It feels good to see each other again, doesn’t it?”

Original Solitude —  Divine Communio

Lastly, we must all seek to deepen our communio with God, the source of all love and connection.  Solitude — not isolation — is an important and healthy component of a fully human life.  We must intentionally choose regular periods of solitude to turn our hearts to God in prayer, worship, and sacrament.  It is also a good practice to spend time interacting with the natural world, enjoying the gifts of Creation that are signs of God’s love for us.  These moments of solitude serve to orient us toward God, the ultimate fulfillment our deepest longings for intimacy, and empower us to enter into communio with others, despite the risks.  In the end, we must accept the call to divine and human communio anew every day and place our trust in Him who did not spare His only Son to draw us into communion with Himself.

By Andrew Sodergren, M.T.S., Psy.D.

Director of Ruah Woods Psychological Services

Our Thoughts about Feelings

Happy Birthday, Papa

By Andrew Sodergren, M.T.S., Psy.D.

Director of Ruah Woods Psychological Services

This May 18th is the 100th anniversary of the birth of our beloved Pope St. John Paul II.  Typically, only people who have had a truly historic impact have their birthdays celebrated long after they are deceased.  John Paul II was one such historic person.  I would like to reflect briefly on some of the long-lasting impact he has had and will continue to have on the Church as well as some of the impact he has had on me personally.

For many younger people today, it is difficult to truly appreciate the immensity of John Paul II’s impact on the Church.  To put his pontificate in context, we have to recall the significance of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965).  Ecumenical councils are rare and only called when the Church needs to face major challenges in its mission.  Vatican II, as it is often named, was in many ways an attempt to bring the First Vatican Council to completion as it was cut short by the Franco-Prussian war.  The scope of Vatican II was immense:  nothing less than reexamining the relationship of the Church with the modern world.  As a newly ordained auxiliary bishop and later Archbishop of Kraków, Karol Wojtyła participated in all four sessions of the Council.  His stature and reputation as an outspoken, courageous young bishop of immense intellect grew to the point where he was appointed to the committee that drafted what became perhaps the Council’s defining document, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et spes).  

Inspired by this experience, Archbishop Wojtyła became the only participating bishop to write an entire book summarizing the teaching of the Council and giving guidelines for its implementation (Sources of Renewal).  Not long after, Pope Paul VI named him a Cardinal of the Church, perhaps as a way of thanking him for his contributions at the Council and for serving as a key theological advisor in preparing the encyclical letter Humanae vitae (1968), which dealt with thorny questions concerning marriage, sexuality, and birth control and reaffirmed the traditional Catholic teaching that sexuality is meant to unite a man and woman in marriage and must always be open to life. 

It is difficult today to imagine the shock that the Church and even the world experienced when Cardinal Wojtyła was elected to the papacy in October 1978 and took the name John Paul II.  He was the first non-Italian Pope in 455 years, and he hailed from – at that time – a communist country (Poland).   This alone would make his an historic pontificate, but it was only the beginning.  Whereas his predecessor, John Paul I, reigned for merely a month, John Paul II reigned for over 26 years, making his the third longest pontificate in the history of the Church.  He accepted his mission from Christ to serve as the Church’s principal interpreter and implementer of the Second Vatican Council as well as to lead the Church into the Third Millennium.  He did so with courage and faithfulness.

There is hardly an aspect of the Church’s life that was not impacted in significant ways by the teaching and leadership of this saintly Pope.  Under his guidance, the Church produced a new Code of Canon Law governing all major aspects of ecclesial life.  Later came the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the first universal catechism since the Council of Trent.  It will remain for generations “a sure norm for teaching the faith.”[1]  Among his many gifts to the Church include is 14 encyclical letters, 14 apostolic exhortations, and thousands of speeches, audiences, and other documents.  His writings covered everything from the Persons of the Trinity; evangelization; the dignity of the human person; social issues such as the dignity of work, distribution of resources, and human rights; priests, bishops, consecrated religious, and the laity; marriage and family; the Eucharist; Mary; the rosary; sin, mercy, and reconciliation; fundamental principles for morality; and much more.  Incredibly, he canonized 482 new saints and beatified 1338 new blesseds.  He gave us the Luminous Mysteries of the rosary and instituted Divine Mercy Sunday.   Liturgically, he oversaw the reform of the reform, so to speak, which culminated in the publication of the third edition of the Roman Missal, which we use today.  Then, there is his pivotal role in the fall of Communism in Poland and across Eastern Europe.  The list goes on.

Of course, we at Ruah Woods are especially indebted to him for his Theology of the Body, which he gave to the Church at his Wednesday general audiences in the early years of the pontificate as well as the founding of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family and the Pontifical Council for the Family.[2]  These gifts were meant to help the Church proclaim the nature and dignity of the human person, love, marriage, and sexuality in these confusing, uncertain times. 

For me, personally, I regard myself as a “JP2 Catholic.”  I was actually born during the interregnum, i.e., the time between the death of John Paul I and the election of John Paul II.  I had little awareness or appreciation of John Paul II until, as a college student, I began to learn more about him and his teachings.  My wife and I were blessed to be taught by a priest who earned his doctorate at the John Paul II Institute as we were preparing for marriage.  We read John Paul II’s documents on marriage and family at that time and were taught aspects of Theology of the Body in class with other young people.  We fell in love with the Church’s vision for marriage and family as expressed through the Pope’s writings.  For me, it became my principal inspiration for becoming a Catholic psychologist.

In graduate school, I immersed myself in studying John Paul II’s teaching.  As an aspiring Catholic psychologist, I wanted to understand the human person as he did.  I studied all of his encyclicals and many of his other papal documents, books, and pre-papal writings.  I took graduate seminars on his thought, including Theology of the Body.  The more I read of his teaching, the more I wanted to know, and the more I fell in love with this man.  He became for me a spiritual and theological mentor.  Even more, as I read his thought, I felt a closeness to him.  He became a father-figure for me who was teaching me how to see the world, how to live, and how to be a Catholic man in the Third Millennium. 

Even today, I regularly read and re-read his writings for my own personal and professional enrichment.[3]  I pray to him daily, seeking his intercession to be the man, son, husband, father, and psychologist I am called to be.  He is my teacher, my guide, my father, and my friend.  For the last 10 years or so, I have been blessed to serve as an adjunct professor at the Washington, DC branch of the John Paul II Institute.  When I go to Washington to teach, I always make a visit to the St. John Paul II National Shrine to visit the museum of his life and venerate his relic.  Those visits move me to tears of gratitude.  Truly, I would not be who I am today – perhaps not even Catholic – without the life, witness, and teaching of Pope St. John Paul II.  With deep affection, happy birthday, Papa!


[1] John Paul II, apostolic constitution Fidei depositum.

[2] The Pope officially founded these two new entities on May 13, 1981, the same day he was shot by his would-be assassin, Mehmet Ali Agca.  May 13, of course, is the feast of Our Lady of Fatima who had given the three children of Fatima a vision of a pope being gunned down decades earlier.  John Paul II believed that he was saved by Mary’s hand.

[3] Currently, I am working my way through his general audiences from the years after Theology of the Body during which he gave a systematic catechesis on all the articles of the Creed. 

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