Recent events have brought the Pontifical John Paul II Theological Institute for Marriage and Family Sciences in Rome into focus. Likely for many, it seems a far-off place with little bearing on the everyday experience of most people in the Church.
As an alumna of the Washington, D.C., session of the John Paul II Institute for Studies of Marriage and Family at The Catholic University of America, even for me it’s been surprising how much my education informs my everyday life and not just the confines of theological academia.
Eleven years ago this month, when I walked into orientation day, I thought I was strolling into How to Change the World 101.
All of my life I’ve been a go-getter — the highly motivated, energetic sort of person that rarely feels too busy to tackle a new project. Somewhere in college I heard of the John Paul II Institute and determined that I would one day be a student there. Without visiting or doing much research, I decided it was the place for me simply because it was founded by now Pope St. John Paul II.
With a vague notion that I would be receiving an excellent theological education, I also assumed it would involve training in how to actively do things, like speak, teach, write, argue and create.
And then I sat in my first class and quickly realized I didn’t really know where I was. The theologically precise language was above my head, the philosophy gave me a headache and the intensity of reading hundreds of pages each week was crushing.
I felt guilty as I confessed to one of the Sisters of Life that I was no longer able to pray in front of the local abortion business because of the time commitment of my studies. She smiled and said, “But you are doing pro-life work right now. Your studies are your contribution to the pro-life movement, and they are important.”
It was difficult to believe at the time, but today I am convinced that my two years of study for my master’s in theological studies at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute in Washington were far more formative than I could have ever believed possible.
My classmates and I walked away with so much more than a diploma. When I first entered the institute’s doors, I hoped to change the world in the biggest way possible.
In the months after graduation, finally with time to reflect on the whirlwind of the past years of study, I realized that when I started at the institute, I had only wanted to skim the surface. Instead, the institute opened my eyes to the labyrinthine layers undergirding the foundation of the faith. As I left the institute and went out into the world I began to glimpse the incredible depth of all I had learned.
Whereas I initially focused on what I would do with my degree, I now realize I first need to be. I receive my life as a gift from God, and everything I do is a response to that generosity. For a choleric like me, being is far more of a challenge than doing.
After two years being immersed in the meaning of marriage and family as rooted in God’s unending generosity, love and fruitfulness, one can’t respond more fittingly than to live one’s state in life, simply and profoundly. I know other institute alumni feel the same.
The alumni — single, married, priests and religious — together form a sort of constellation throughout the world. Against the bleakness pervading our world today, the stars are small, but they are beautiful. Together, they form connections that shine wherever they exist. They don’t attempt to do what they know they cannot — transform the world instantaneously from dark to light. But they quietly, simply, hope-fully do what they know they can — exist as one who has received a gift, responding by living a communion of love.
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