I pulled a cardboard package out of my mailbox, carried it into the house, and tore it open. Out of it, I lifted what I had waited for, for days: A copy of the book Love and Responsibility, written by St. John Paul II before he was pope.
I had heard of the book before I ordered it. “A must-read for Catholics, married or not,” friends of mine called it. So I—single and mingling—curled up with it that night in 2009, expecting to pore over page after page, and pumped to be edified.
But what I read was over my head before I finished page one. I wanted to whisk through it like I would any other book, but this book would require commitment, and it would require time, because it would require thought. So, I shelved it. But then, I tried again.
And oh how happy I am that I did.
I owned the book for three years before I could comprehend what our former pope wrote. What I learned from him can sustain a relationship for a lifetime. Today, I’ll share a few of my favorite lessons:
Lesson 1: “Man’s capacity for love depends on his willingness consciously to seek a good together with others, and to subordinate himself to that good for the sake of others, or to others for the sake of that good,” wrote St. John Paul II. In other words: How ready I am to love depends on how ready I am to not be the most important person in my life. Love—real love, that is—requires us to reject selfishness. It requires us to be ok with making sacrifices when having made sacrifices is of benefit to the person we love.
Lesson 2: “It is not enough to long for a person as a good for oneself; one must also, and above all, long for that person’s good,” wrote St. John Paul II. In other words: ‘I want you because you are good’ isn’t a sturdy enough foundation for a marriage. In dating, I have often been preoccupied by one goal: meet a good guy with whom I could discern marriage. But meeting a person who’s good for me is only part of what ought to precede a marriage. It’s ok to “want” a person because he or she is good; but for a foundation that can sustain a marriage, we must primarily want what is best for him or her.
Lesson 3: “Love … does not diminish and impoverish, but quite the contrary, enlarges and enriches the existence of the person,” wrote St. John Paul II. “The ‘lover’ goes outside the self to find a fuller existence in the other.” In other words: If it’s real love, we as a couple are objectively better together. Whether we’re objectively better together depends on whether we, as a couple, contribute something to the world—whether in doing life together, we get holier and healthier. If we become worse people as a result of a partnership, what the partnership is rooted in isn’t love.
Lesson 4: “One … has a responsibility for one’s own love,” St. John Paul II wrote. “Is it mature and complete enough to justify the enormous trust of another person?” In other words: It’s my responsibility to be honest, both with myself and with a significant other, about the caliber of my love. While we date (and even while we’re engaged), it is important to assess ourselves against all the aforementioned lessons. Am I always willing in this relationship to make sacrifices for the good of my significant other? Do I want what’s best for him or her, or do I really just want him or her? Has my spiritual journey been enriched by this relationship, or has this relationship depleted my life of a spiritual journey? It’s in answers to these questions that we discover, as John Paul II wrote, whether what we have is “mature and complete enough to justify the trust of another person”—and if it isn’t, we must find the courage to make changes or move on.