The wisdom of Saint John Paul II: Gratissimam Sane, a focus on the family

20 Oct 2019

By The Record

Saint John Paul II as a young boy, Karol Wojyla, with his father. Photo: Supplied.
Saint John Paul II as a young boy, Karol Wojyla, with his father. Photo: Supplied.


“As the family goes, so goes the nation and so goes the whole world in which we live: the family is indeed, more than any other human reality, the place where an individual can exist ‘for himself’ through the sincere gift of self – this is why it remains a social institution which neither can nor should be replaced: it is the ‘sanctuary of life’.”

Written in 1994 for the Year of the Family, Gratissimam Sane was a heartfelt appeal by the then Holy Father, now Saint John Paul II, to demonstrate that among the many possible paths of people’s daily pilgrimage, the family is the first and most important.

“It is a path common to all, yet one which is particular, unique and unrepeatable, just as every individual is unrepeatable; it is a path from which man cannot withdraw: indeed, a person normally comes into the world within a family, and can be said to owe to the family the very fact of his existing as an individual,” Saint John Paul II wrote.

“Even if someone chooses to remain single, the family continues to be, as it were, his existential horizon, that fundamental community in which the whole network of social relations is grounded, from the closest and most immediate to the most distant.”

After all, pointed out St John Paul II, do we not often speak of the ‘human family’ when referring to all the people living in the world?

“The family, as a community of persons, is the first human ‘society’, which opens the spouses to a lasting communion of love and of life, and is brought to completion in a full and specific way with the procreation of children: the ‘communion’ of the spouses gives rise to the ‘community’ of the family,” he writes to the Church.

This fulfilment represents both a task and a challenge according to St John Paul II.

“The task involves the spouses in living out their original covenant: the children born to them (and here is the challenge) should consolidate that covenant, enriching and deepening the conjugal communion (the sincere and heartfelt communication) of the father and mother.”

Not surprisingly, the wisdom of St John Paul II resonates with a particular branch of family communications theory, called Joint Family Story Telling (JFST), where the process of conjugal communion and family engagement is explored in detail.

Saint John Paul II stressed the importance of family prayer and conjugal communion. Photo: Supplied.

In her 2013 thesis on Joint Family Storytelling as a mediator of family communicating, US academic Patty Ann Thompson explains that in the context of family relationships, storytelling often occurs in the form of joint family storytelling or “collaborative constructions through which people [together] recount events by assigning plot, character, and setting in a way that helps them make sense of and give meaning to the events and to their relationship” (Koenig, 2002).

Pope Francis has also recently highlighted the important role of memory and storytelling across generations as a way to bring people together in a world marked by discord and division, choosing the theme for the 2020 World Communication Day “So that you can tell your children and grandchildren. Life creates history.”

Pope Francis believes that memory – far from being static, inflexible recollections of the past – has dynamic and transformative power that can influence and foster unity.

The passage, based on the Book of Exodus, highlights the importance of sharing meaningful memories, stories and experiences, so that they may live on and transform the present, the Vatican statement said.

The theme “reminds us that every story is born out of life, from interacting with others,” it said.

Stories are valuable resources which offer “great riches” to their listeners, it said. The insight, knowledge and human connection fostered through effective storytelling is an invaluable asset to the audience.

“Communications is, therefore, called to connect memory with life through stories,” it said, explaining how Jesus used parables to convey “the vital power of the Kingdom of God, leaving his audience free to welcome these narratives and apply them to themselves.”

“These stories are not only alive in the past but continue to guide the lives and beliefs of Catholics today,” it said, adding, “The ability to generate change expresses how powerful a story is.”

Saint John Paul II was Time Magazines Man of the year in 1994, the year he wrote Gratissimam Sane. Photo: Supplied.

The Vatican announcement said the message will call for ongoing dialogue with each other and with the past and will ask everyone to make communications be “an instrument to build bridges, to unite and to share the beauty of being brothers and sisters in a moment of history marked by discord and division.”

Thompson (2013) goes on to explain that family storytelling is not just one behaviour in which families engage, but an interactive phenomenon through which family is created and maintained. Using narrative performance theory, “storytelling constitutes or performs family identity” Within this framework, then, family storytelling behaviours hold special importance because they contribute to creating and maintaining family identity. (Langellier and Peterson, 200a, 2006b).

“ … family storytelling is not just one behaviour in which families engage, but an interactive phenomenon through which family is created and maintained.”

The roles and patterns of a healthy family prayer life, as espoused by St John Paul II meet the same criteria in detail, as each individual enters into a heartfelt conversation with God about the issues (both positive and negative) that are central to the lives of the other family members.

“Together with the words of Sacred Scripture, our prayerful reflections as a family should always include the personal memories of the spouses-parents, the children and grandchildren,” St John Paul II wrote.

This forms a healthy family communication environment, strengthens family identity and brings both the individual and the family back to their foundational identity in God and his eternal love for us.

“It must become a union in prayer: prayer needs to become a regular habit in the daily life of each family – prayer is thanksgiving, praise of God, asking for forgiveness, supplication and invocation,” the St John Paul II wrote.

“In all of these forms the prayer of the family has much to say to God and it also has much to say to others – beginning with the mutual communion of persons joined together by family ties.”

“Families should pray for all of their members, in view of the good which the family is for each individual and which each individual is for the whole family: prayer strengthens this good, precisely as the common good of the family.

“Family prayer, life creates this common good ever anew: in prayer, the family discovers itself as the first “us”, in which each member is “I” and “thou”; each member is for the others either husband or wife, father or mother, son or daughter, brother or sister, grandparent or grandchild.


From pages 18 to 19 of Issue 21: ‘The most Effective Communications is transformative’ of  The Record Magazine