In Gaudium et Spes: The Pastoral Constitution in the Modern World, Pope Paul VI asks a fundamental question: “…what is man?” As Paul VI notes, it is the confusion surrounding man’s identity which leads to an existential anxiety where the most fundamental aspect of man, his identity, is in question. Thus, it is crucial that man comes to conceive of who he is if life is to be lived most fully. Jesus said that he came that man might have life, and have it abundantly. Jesus represents the key to the mystery of man’s identity and it is by entering into the mysteries of Jesus’ life that man’s identity is thus revealed. The question posed by Paul VI, being found in Christ, is answered in the revelation of man’s identity as being intimately and inseparably found in communion with God.
The fundamental identity of man is inextricably bound up in the very flesh of Jesus. As the Gospel of John asserts, the Logos of God was made flesh and dwelt among us. God, who has spoken his Word from all eternity, reveals who man is: Man is made in the image and likeness of God. Jesus, as the Word made flesh, reveals the dignity of man by virtue of the fact that God became like man in order that man might become like God. As Pope John Paul II writes in Redemptor Hominis:
“In Christ and through Christ God has revealed himself fully to mankind and has definitively drawn close to it; at the same time, in Christ and through Christ man has acquired full awareness of his dignity, of the heights to which he is raised, of the surpassing worth of his own humanity, and of the meaning of his existence.”
Any existential anxiety on the part of man, stems from not knowing what man was made for, love.
The Holy Trinity is an eternal exchange of love, and man, as revealed in Christ, is meant for this love. This love is found in man’s identity as being made in the image and likeness of God. Man is most fundamentally comprised of a body and a soul. Although in a fallen state, man is nonetheless created as a union, and this harmony is what makes it possible for man to know and love. Pope Benedict XVI, commenting on this unity writes,
“Yet it is neither the spirit alone nor the body alone that loves: it is man, the person, a unified creature composed of body and soul, who loves. Only when both dimensions are truly united, does man attain his full stature.”
Man’s destiny as meant for love is written in his very being.
Man is able to live out his true self in communion because man is not made to exist in a solitary fashion, rather he is meant to be a gift. It is only by making a gift of himself that man thus experiences the peace and harmony for which he was created.
The very act of making oneself a gift becomes an experiential discovery of ones most inner-being, and thus the existential crisis which arises in man is found to have its foundation in a refusal to love; selfishness equates misery for the human person and its purification represents discovery of one’s self in God. Man’s dignity and very identity is founded in that man was created for communion with God , and this fact represents the answer to the question, “what is man?.”
Athanasius of Alexandria, “On the Incarnation of the Word,” in St. Athanasius: Select Works and Letters, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, trans. Archibald T. Robertson, vol. 4, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series. New York: Christian Literature Company, 1892.
Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est: “Encyclical Letter of the Supreme Pontiff to the Bishops, Priests, Deacons, Men and Women Religious and All the Lay Faithful on Christian Love”. Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2005.
John Paul II, Redemptor Hominis: “Encyclical Letter of the Supreme Pontiff to his venerable Brothers in the Episcopate the Priests, the religious families, the sons and daughters of the Church and to all men and women of good will at the beginning of his papal ministry”. Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1979.
Paul VI, Gaudium et Spes: “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World”. Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2011.