A Novena in Honor of the Body?

Since 2012, the Catholic bishops of the United States have dedicated the two weeks before Independence Day as a “Fortnight for Freedom,” to highlight the growing threats to religious liberty and free exercise of religion in the United States. I would like to suggest a new idea for the bishops: a novena to affirm the dignity of the body (and an opportunity to teach the theology of the body) in the period August 6-15.

Why those dates? Because the entire period is bracketed by two major feasts of the body.

August 6 is the Feast of the Transfiguration. This is when the Church celebrates what she reminds Catholics of every second Sunday of Lent: the foretaste of the resurrected body. Jesus is transformed before the eyes of Peter, James, and John. They recognize him, but his body is different, changed, and transformed. Theologians have always said that the Transfiguration was intended to help the Apostles bear Jesus’s Passion and Death because this is what the Resurrection leads to. So, again, the Transfiguration is not some isolated event nor unique privilege, but bears an intrinsic relationship to the Resurrection (which we celebrate in miniature every Sunday): Jesus conquered death in his human body.

August 15 is the Solemnity of the Assumption. The Church teaches that Mary, “at the end of her earthly life,” was taken body and soul into heaven. Not just soul, but body and soul. If Jesus’s Resurrection is the “first fruits” of his victory over sin and death, the Assumption is the “second fruits.” Pope Pus XII took care in Munificentissimus Deus, his apostolic constitution proclaiming the dogma of the Assumption, not to speak of Mary’s “death” but that she, “having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory” (#44). This is why the Eastern Church calls this solemnity the “Dormition” or “Falling Asleep” of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Mary’s Assumption is indeed a privilege for her, at least in terms of time, but it is also part and parcel of salvation history: what happened to her is in continuity with the process unleashed in Jesus’s Resurrection to “restore all things in Christ” and which will culminate in the General “Resurrection of the Body” on the Last Day.

Ours is an era of profound confusion about the body, a period where les extrêmes se touchent. On the one hand, we live in an era that attaches seemingly overweening attention to the body: the hyper-sexualization of modern culture, the cult of the body, and the worship of the physical all suggest the body has a paramount value.

On the other hand, we are children of the West and of Descartes, reducing the person to consciousness and thought and treating the body as sub-personal, a tool attached to “me” that has no intrinsic or inherent meaning other than the one I give it. So “parenthood” becomes whomever you have the most affection for: the gamete donor, the womb incubator, or the college tuition payer. Sexual identity is “only” biological, while one’s “authentic” identity is a state of mind. A preborn or handicapped child is not “really” human because he cannot think at the level we want, and when we stop thinking (or at least are unable to express that thinking) because of age, illness, or condition of dependency, we transmute into a “vegetable.” And it’s very fashionable today to take the body we claim to value so much and turn it into ashes, or effluent to heat swimming pools, or scatter on beaches like so much “dust in the wind.”

We don’t understand the body today and that’s a big problem. We need a time when the Church specifically highlights this problem.

Pope John Paul II tried to focus our attention on it with his “theology of the body,” given during his Wednesday general audiences from 1981-84, which sought to show the genuine value of the body as related to the person. This was in keeping with the larger Leitmotif of his papacy: a genuine Christian humanism that knew human dignity was in fundamental danger from the contemporary world, and the only way to protect it was to recognize that becoming more truly human and developing a deeper relationship with God went together.

Unfortunately, the effort to renew a Christian humanism in the years since John Paul II’s death has diminished. There is a temptation on the part of some Catholics to avoid sailing into the deep and to seek, instead, parochial and insular harbors. And a good deal of contemporary energy is being diverted in the Church by relitigating moral and doctrinal issues that should be clear and settled. On top of that, much of the oxygen in the room is being sucked out by failing to reckon with the internal moral rot in the Church.

That said, we cannot abandon the effort to build a new Christian humanism. Many of the issues of modern culture come down to sex, which comes down to the body and the person—and this is precisely where so much confusion prevails. A novena in this period would be a useful observance of the bookended feasts as well as an opportunity, by preaching, through discussion groups, or by teaching, to deal with the theology of the body.

The novena even has a fair number of saints to help us along. August 8, the feast of St. Dominic, gives us a top-rate thinker who contends with the problem of body, soul, and the human act of the human person. August 10, the feast of St. Lawrence the Martyr, reminds clergy to be willing to bear witness to the truth in good cheer … even on a hot griddle (not entirely inappropriate for the bishops on today’s hot seats). August 11, the feast of St. Clare, is an opportunity to acknowledge the value of virginity, a virtue that, as Don Williams memorably observed in 1980, was “not as common as it used to be.” August 14 is the feast of St. Maximilian Kolbe, who presented his body as a “whole burnt offering” that went up a Nazi chimney in German-occupied Poland. And, at least during Year B (this year), the Sunday Gospels are likely to be from John 6, talking about the significance of “this is my body.”

The opportunity seems to be at hand. Do we have any ecclesiastical takers?

(Photo credit: L’Osservatore Romano / CNA)

John M. Grondelski

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John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) is former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, NJ. All views expressed herein are exclusively his own.

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