Revisiting the Letter to Families

Pope St. John Paul II’s Letter to Families, which was first published in 1994, is a gem highly worth revisiting. This treatise on the family is packed with inspiring theology for families, and especially fathers. Moreover, it is also very accessible because it is written like the Pope is actually speaking to us. It is readily available online.

In the beginning of the Letter to Families, John Paul II makes a decisive move. The Holy Father was always a strong proponent of the human person as the decisive force in history. However, in the Letter, John Paul II introduces the family as the “way of the Church.” Instead of individual freedom, and individual deeds of virtue or vice, it is really the family—families exercising freedom, and family love (both within itself and to the larger community) that is the driver of human history, and the “way of the Church.”

This is a lot to take in and think about. It means that families have a great responsibility; but it also means that there are great opportunities for us. Families, as families, make history!

It is from this vantage point that Pope St. John Paul II says to “Become What You Are!”

The shift from individual to family in the Letter to Families is continued by the Holy Father, further developing a concept from St Paul. In the document, the Pope quotes a passage from Ephesians 3 at least eight times. Here’s the passage: “For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named.” The striking part about this is that every family is named by God the Father. Every family is called. Families have a vocation as families. This kind of thinking is so contrary to how we think in the modern world. It’s all about individual rights, and individual potential. Even in the Church, we focus on an individual’s vocation, and in a certain sense we have to. But the amazing insight in Ephesians 3 is that families have a vocation as a family.

If one goes a little deeper, it is discovered that a more literal translation of Ephesians 3 reads this way: “For this cause, I bow my knees to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, of whom all paternity in heaven and earth is named.” (Douay Rheims) Based on this translation, there is an additional level of this scriptural teaching on fatherhood. Human fatherhood is specifically “named” by God the Father. This is monumental for fatherhood! For all fathers, our human fatherhood participates directly in the Fatherhood of God the Father, because He names, or calls us, directly. It’s a great privilege, and a knee-buckling responsibility.

Fathers are so critical for families and children. Now John Paul II’s emphasis on all fatherhood being specifically called by God the Father, we can see there is a fundamental theological foundation to the importance of human fatherhood.

John Paul II brings forth another unique concept called the genealogy of the human person. We all have an individual genealogy that includes our family history of ancestors. A genealogy includes a long line of reproduction. However, because the human person is made in the image and likeness of God, the genealogy of the human person has significant meaning. John Paul II notes that:

God himself is present in human fatherhood and motherhood quite differently than He is present in all other instances of begetting on earth. Indeed, God alone is the source of that image and likeness which is proper to the human being, as it was received at Creation.

Human fatherhood and motherhood, through procreation, is a continuation of God’s Creation. The genealogy of the human person reminds us of God’s constant presence in every conjugal act, and God’s presence in the Creation of our first parents. The genealogy of the human person is meant for us to see that eternity is inscribed into every child—into every human person.

Throughout St. John Paul II’s Letter to Families, the Holy Father critiques the prevailing culture by drawing a fundamental, and far-reaching distinction, between personalism and individualism. Most people only think of individualism as a kind of over-arching right to self-expression. Invariably the prioritizing of self-expression over other values turns into selfishness. Yet, while a worldview revolving around selfishness is tremendously destructive, the Holy Father considers it to be far worse on a deeper level. “Individualism presupposes a use of freedom in which the subject does what he wants, in which he himself is the one to ‘establish the truth’ of whatever he finds pleasing or useful.”

This is exactly why we have so many cultural evils that defy reason and common sense. Just consider what Justice Kennedy wrote in his infamous decision for the Casey v Planned Parenthood case in 1992:

At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.

Teaching our nation from the Supreme Court, Justice Kennedy’s view is exactly what St. John Paul II identifies as destructive individualism. According to Justice Kennedy, a person has every right to use which ever bathroom he, she, or it chooses.

Throughout his life, St. John Paul promoted personalism as a way of viewing the human person. From a third-person, ethical standpoint, a person should never be treated as a means to an end. Every person bears the stamp of God having been created in His image and likeness. From a first-person ethical standpoint, a person can only realize personal fulfillment or happiness through the sincere gift of self. Human persons are the only earthly creatures that have the freedom to truly LOVE. These two norms form the foundation of John Paul II’s personalism.

In conclusion, it cannot be overstated how readable the Letter to Families is. Pope St. John Paul II speaks to us like a loving father about the calling of families to become what we are. He speaks to fathers to realize that our fatherhood is named in heaven. In the genealogy of the human person, he reminds us that every person is stamped with a history of God’s creative love, and that history is meant to extend to eternity. Finally, the Holy Father tells us about the sharp difference between personalism—a concept of each person constituted in relationship; and radical individualism—a destructive force that attempts to usurp the truth of reality itself. These are John Paul II’s basic reasons why the way of the Church passes through the family.

Mo Woltering About Mo Woltering

Mo Woltering is a graduate of the John Paul II Institute in Washington, DC, and the Headmaster of Holy Family Academy in Manassas, Virginia.


  1. Thank you Mr. Woltering for this essay. The issues you highlight are so very important to our country, in these troubling times. Right theology – right understanding of the only God who is – is essential not only to personal happiness, but to national sanity. As we see this country’s flight from reality – from what really is – we see her fall from sanity as well.