Q&A: Christopher West reflects on the Passion ‘like you’ve never heard before’

Christopher West has never been one to play it safe.

His talks on Pope St. John Paul II’s revered Theology of the Body go against basically every modern-day notion of human sexuality, and it speaks to the work’s relevance that West is always able to tie it into some element of pop culture. He recently released a free eBook titled Theology of the Body at the Movies that points out examples of JPII’s teachings on sexuality in modern films.

On Wednesday, April 12, West is paying a visit to St. Mary Catholic Church in Aspen for a free talk and Q&A session titled “A Reflection on the Passion, Death & Resurrection of Jesus Like You Have Never Heard Before.” Denver Catholic caught up with West ahead of his visit.

Denver Catholic: Without giving too much away, why will your talk on the passion, death and resurrection of Christ be “like you’ve never heard it before”?

Christopher West: Few of us have heard the passion of the Lord presented as so many of the saints and mystics describe it – as the consummation of a marriage. Saint Augustine, for instance, describes the Cross as Christ’s marriage bed. And the Byzantine Church, in fact, calls Holy Week the “Week of the Bridegroom.” Saint John Paul II lamented how this spousal vision of the most important event in human history has been largely lost in the modern view of Christianity, and he sought to reclaim it for the whole Church. In this presentation, we’re going to reverently pull back the veil and enter into what Pope Benedict XVI described as the “mad Eros” of Christ the Bridegroom loving his Bride, the Church, from the Cross.

DC: What can the culture today learn from JPII’s “Theology of the Body,” especially when it comes to hot-button topics such as gender ideology and same-sex relations?

CW: We live in a world that is telling us our gendered bodies are meaningless. Christ not only reveals that our bodies have a meaning, but that the human body is a message from God that reveals Ultimate Meaning … This is what Christmas means. If you believe in the Incarnation, if you believe that God took on flesh to reveal himself to the world, you believe that the human body reveals Ultimate Meaning. You believe the human body is not only biological; it is, as Saint John Paul II proclaimed to the whole world, theological.

We’ve been blinded to the meaning of gender in the modern world, and this can be traced back in large part to the 20th Century embrace of contraception. Contraception is a direct attack on the meaning of gender. Gender shares the same root as words like generous, genesis, generate, genitals, progeny, genealogy. The word “gender” means the manner in which one generates. When we fail to respect the fact that our genitals are meant to generate, we eventually degenerate. This is what we are now living through. For such a time as this have we been given Saint JP II’s Theology of the Body.

DC: You recently published a free eBook called Theology of the Body at the Movies. Where did the idea come from, and what’s the aim of the book?

CW: I’ve always been a bit of a movie buff. It’s one of the most powerful modern art forms, and I’ve been drawing from my favorite movies for years in my courses, lectures, books and blogs. I’ve finally collected all that I’ve written about movies over the years into this one new resource. Hollywood produces a lot of awful films. It also produces some real gems with incredibly powerful lessons. You can get Theology of the Body at the Movies for free at my ministry’s website corproject.com.

DC: Anything else you’d like to add?

CW: For readers not familiar with the beautifully liberating vision of John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, there are lots of ways you can learn more. You can begin just by Googling the term and doing some reading. We offer ongoing formation at The Cor Project (cormembership.com) and an annual TOB-themed pilgrimage. This July we’re going to Ireland (corproject.com/Ireland), and a few spots are still open.

COMING UP: Moral courage and the many cultures of death

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CRACOW. Thanks to the pandemic, it’s been two years since I was last in Cracow, where for three decades I’ve done extensive research and taught great students while forming friendships with many remarkable people. It was wonderful to be back in one of the world’s greatest cities, and soon after I arrived in late June, I took a long walk to see what had changed. The first major difference I noticed was that the plaza in front of the central railway station (named for my late friend Jan Nowak-Jeziorański, a World War II courier for the Polish Home Army and the man from whom the future John Paul II got real news via Radio Free Europe’s Polish service) has a new, strikingly modern memorial, dedicated to the memory of Colonel Ryszard Kukliński.

That name is not well-known throughout a western world that has largely forgotten the meaning and lessons of the Cold War. But if Jan Nowak-Jeziorański was right when he spoke about the Polish colonel in the mid-1990s, Ryszard Kuklinski was a genuine hero of the long, twilight struggle against communist totalitarianism — the man who helped prevent a bloody Soviet invasion of Poland to crush the nascent Solidarity movement.

An accomplished officer in the communist-era Polish Army, Ryszard Kukliński began to doubt the truth of what he had been told about the West when, as a member of an international commission, he met American military men in Vietnam in the mid-1960s. His doubts about communism and its purposes intensified by orders of magnitude in 1968, when the brutal Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia ground the Prague Spring to dust under the treads of Soviet tanks, and in 1970, when the Polish army shot Polish workers during labor strife. Privy to some of the Warsaw Pact’s most confidential strategic plans, he became convinced that, if the Cold War turned hot and the east bloc attacked the West, the Soviets would sacrifice Poland as retaliatory western tactical nuclear strikes hit the second wave of Warsaw Pact troops pushing west. So, in 1972, Kukliński, risking his life and his family’s safety, offered his services to the United States and for the next nine years was the West’s most important intelligence asset behind the iron curtain.

His greatest service to Poland and the cause of freedom came in the later months of 1980. Thanks to his efforts, the United States knew the entire order-of-battle the Soviet Union had organized to stamp out Solidarity, which had held its first formal congress in September 1980. With that information, and working in concert with the incoming Reagan administration, outgoing national security adviser Zbigniew Brzeziński, with the help of the AFL-CIO’s Lane Kirkland, was able to organize a comprehensive western response to a potential Soviet invasion of Poland: an international economic blockade that would have severely damaged the already-staggering Soviet economy. Faced with economic ruin, the Soviet leadership backed down and the Warsaw Pact divisions that had surrounded Poland withdrew.

Colonel Kukliński and his family were exfiltrated to the West; two of his sons later died under dubious circumstances that may have involved Russian retribution, and Kukliński lived out his life under an assumed name in the United States, dying in 2004. There was public controversy when he returned to his native Poland for a 1998 visit, with some charging that he had violated his officer’s oath by working for American intelligence for a decade. John Paul II, through various intermediaries, quietly passed the word that Kukliński was to be regarded in Poland as a national hero. Zbigniew Brzeziński, who held the exact same view, put it brilliantly, in a comment that appears on the Kukliński Memorial in Cracow: Colonel Kukliński was “the first Polish officer in NATO.” 

Communism was a distinctive form of the culture of death, for the effort to create “Homo Sovieticus” was a lethal assault on souls. Colonel Ryszard Kukliński took a courageous stand against that particular culture of death, knowing as he did that freedom is never cost-free: freedom lived nobly always requires sacrifice. His example should be pondered by Catholic citizens and Catholic public officials throughout the West today, who are called to resist, with similar moral courage and effect, that form of the culture of death that masquerades as the ideology of “choice.” May we and our elected officials be as principled and brave as the Polish officer who took what John Paul II described at the United Nations in 1995 as the “the risk of freedom.”