Holy Friendship in a Hypersexual World


A wonderful article appeared in the Federalist this past December by D.C. McAllister titled “How To Stop Sexualizing Everything.” It tapped into the schizophrenic character of our modern age, particularly in American culture, that surrounds our expressions of intimacy. Essentially, she posited, we either fearfully avoid touch and intimacy as it might be misread as a sin or a sexual advance, or we completely give in, and all that we touch is tinged with sexual undertones and innuendos. McAllister notes “The effect of these two warring attitudes – Puritanism and sexualization – has had a distorting effect on friendship. On the one hand, people don’t feel free to show emotions. On the other, when they do, those feelings are sexualized.”

A recent BBC documentary called “The Secret Letters of Pope John Paul II” perfectly illustrates this distorted dichotomy. For decades, St. John Paul II held a well known relationship with Dr. Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka, a Polish philosopher who was an expert in the work of German philosopher Edmund Husserl. The pope’s shared interest in Husserl’s phenomenology allowed the two to form a friendship over the years (albeit, not without its difficult moments – see George Weigel’s excellent article on that backstory here: http://www.nationalreview.com/article/431359/pope-john-paul-ii-letters-women-celibacy). She was a married woman with three children, living in America. He, at the time they met, was a Cardinal in the Church. Their correspondence lasted well into old age.

Journalist Ed Stourton, who crafted the documentary, proposes that the decades long relationship was somehow, for at least one of the parties involved, romantic. His claims are “substantiated” by Emeritus Professor Eamon Duffy of the University of Cambridge, who states in the interview, “Clearly there’s an element of playing with fire when you’ve got a strongly heterosexual man and an attractive woman in a very intense relationship that is cultivated and which engages mind at a high level of intensity. There’s danger everywhere.”

This thought that a male and female friendship simply by its very nature is “dangerous” is given further credence in the remarks of someone Stourton refers to as a “trainee priest” (My research revealed that a “trainee priest” is also known as a seminarian). John Cornwell apparently attended seminary from 1953 to 1958. He states that back then “The perception was that even if you had a close association of friendship with the woman, this could be what was known as an occasion of sin and an occasion of sin was as bad as if you’d actually done it.” This sad (and completely incorrect) articulation of what sin consists of is followed by another interviewee who states that their “training meant most priests would have been wary of such a close relationship. The most natural reaction would have been for him to terminate contact.”

Ironically, the language in this interview reveals to viewers and readers of this breaking story the deepest scandal of all, which has nothing to do with St. John Paul II. It is the scandal that all too many men and women today are incapable of imagining an intimate relationship that does not somehow involve some sort of sexually romantic overtone.

In truth, the Church has a long history of examples of men and women who have formed intimate and affectionate relationships that did not involve sexual relations. They were known as friendships (this is a wonderful word we should restore to the modern lexicon). In fact, St. John Paul II had numerous friendships with women that lasted decades and included letters, phone calls, shared meals, and walks together. The BBC footage seems to imply that this particular relationship with Dr. Tymieniecka was isolated and the meetings exclusive. But the fact is, they were not. St. John Paul II was a magnanimous figure who loved people deeply, and was rather transparent about his friendships. He was also prudent, meeting men and women together for those private meals and taking vacations with friends or families together. In the image of St. John Paul II and Dr. Tymieniecka standing beside a car, one should realize a third person took the photo. I imagine it was her husband.

Letter from JPII

Now regarding the correspondence, here is an excerpt from a letter:

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“I know you have complete confidence in my affection; I have no doubt about this and delight in the thought. I want you to know and to believe that I have an intense and very special desire to serve you with all of my strength. It would be impossible for me to explain either the quality or the greatness of this desire that I have to be at your service, but I can tell you that I believe it is from God, and for that reason, I cherish it and every day see it growing and increasing remarkably… God has given me to you; so consider me as yours in Him, call me whenever you like…”

I’m sorry, I tricked you just there. This was actually an exchange between St. Francis de Sales to St. Jane de Chantal, dated June 24, 1604. After the death of her husband, St. Francis served as her spiritual director for years, giving her counsel in forming a new religious community. (I don’t have access to an extended quote from St. John Paul II’s letters to Dr. Tymieniecka, and would prefer not to cherry pick one out at this point as the BBC interview did.)

Regardless, here is an intimate note, man to woman, celibate man to widowed mother. How did you feel in reading that exchange? Did it make you uncomfortable? Were you shocked? Did you feel it was inappropriate? I know it really struck me personally when I first read it. I found it to be astoundingly beautiful, and I felt duped and double-crossed by this hyper-sexualized culture we live in because I too felt a little manipulated as it were to see romance when I read those words holding such fervent love. But who has the larger issue here? Who needs a little restoration of that original vision we’ve been called to?

The examples of chaste and simultaneously fervent love go on, nonetheless, and in each we are challenged to see others first as “occasions of grace” rather than “occasions of sin.” By this grace, in the words of St. John Paul II “we come to an ever greater awareness of the gratuitous beauty of the human body, of masculinity and femininity. This gratuitous beauty becomes a light for our actions….”

Over a two year period that lead up to her own early death, Saint Thérèse of Lisieux and a seminarian named Maurice would exchange 21 letters in total. He wrote 11 and the Little Flower wrote 10. For both of these holy souls, the letters reveal a love that was fully human and completely chaste. St. Thérèse wrote in one note: “In your letter of the 14th you made my heart tremble with joy. I understand better than ever how much your soul is the sister of my own, since it is called to lift itself up to God by the ELEVATOR of love and not to climb the hard stairway of fear….” Later, as he was about to be sent on mission, she wrote “When my dear little brother leaves for Africa, I shall follow him not only in thought and in prayer; my soul will be with him forever. …”

Let’s look at another intimate exchange, now between men, from over 1600 years ago: “…To talk and jest together, to do kind offices by turns; to read together honied books; to play the fool or be earnest together… (to) long for the absent with impatience; and welcome the coming with joy. These and the like expressions, proceeding out of the hearts of those that loved and were loved again, by the countenance, the tongue, the eyes, and a thousand pleasing gestures, were so much fuel to melt our souls together, and out of many make but one. This is it that is loved in friends…”

That was St. Augustine, taken from his own intimate and perennially modern autobiography “Confessions” (Chapter 8, section 13), written between 397 and 400 AD. For modern ears, this level of intimacy between men can only be seen as some kind of closet homosexuality. The same minds, tinged again by a culture inundated by sexual allusion and innuendo in all things, even place a gay frame around the relationship between David and Jonathan in 1 Samuel 18:1,3. “As soon as he had finished speaking to Saul, the soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul.”

We have become, in the words of St. John Paul II himself, “masters of suspicion,” incapable of seeing how human interactions could ever rise above mere sexual gratification and appropriation.

This is nothing new. During the beatification process for Padre Pio, in 1990, the case was blocked after a stash of letters were revealed that the holy Franciscan had written to his spiritual daughter, as he called her, Cleonice Morcaldi. He had met her around 1930. when she was a child, orphaned from both parents. St. Padre Pio had promised her dying mother he would take care of her like a daughter. Some investigators however felt the letters to be too affectionate.

Man and woman. This is holy ground. This is sacred ground, and in this place we are called to a deep self-mastery, and a healthy recognition of our own hearts and where we stand in the ability to truly see one another. I have placed several links to resources below and encourage readers to go further, to pray more deeply about this lost art of friendship, of holy friendship. It must be rekindled. It will take work and prayer and much patience, especially in this present darkness. But with grace we can reclaim a beautiful gift, and our vision of one another can indeed be restored. It is a hope within reach. It is our inheritance and a promise too. “Jesus came to restore creation to the purity of its origins.” (CCC, 2336) I’ll close with a wonderful and deeply personal word from St. John Paul II, originally signed on February 8, 1994 but was not printed until 2006:

“God has given me many people, both young and old, boys and girls, fathers and mothers, widows, the healthy and the sick. Always, when he gave them to me, he also tasked me with them, and now I see that I could easily write a separate book about each of them—and each biography would ultimately be on the disinterested gift man always is for the other. Among them were the uneducated, for instance factory workers; there were also students, university professors, doctors and lawyers, and finally priests and the consecrated religious. Of course, they included both men and women. A long road led me to discover the genius of woman, and Providence itself saw to it that the time eventually came when I really recognized it and was even, as it were, dazzled by it.”

Saint John Paul the Great, Poet of the Divine Mysteries and Apostle of the Beauty of the Human Person, pray for us!



A Meditation on Givenness by St. John Paul II 


But I Have Called You Friends; Reflections on the Art of Christian Friendship by Mother Mary Francis


Francis de Sales, Jane de Chantal: Letters of Spiritual Direction (Classics of Western Spirituality (Paperback))


Love and Responsibility by Karol Wojtyla


How to Stop Sexualizing Everything by D.C. McAllister


Bill DonaghyBill Donaghy has spoken internationally on faith and the New Evangelization since 1999. Through his work with the Pontifical Mission Societies, Bill gave hundreds of talks on the spirituality of mission to young people throughout the greater Philadelphia area and beyond, creating a teaching and speaking ministry known as MissionMoment.org. He holds an Associates Degree in Visual Arts, a Bachelors in Philosophy and a Masters in Systematic Theology. In addition to his full-time work for the Theology of the Body Institute, Bill teaches at Immaculata University. He and his wife, Rebecca, live outside of Philadelphia, PA with their four children.

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  1. Dear Bill – I was tempted to begin by addressing you as Mr. Donaghy because I don’t know you. And yet I cannot do that because your article has made us friends of a sort. I feel like I do know you. You have reminded me of the need to be focused on the other in every relationship. This is who Jesus is for each of us – focused on the other, not on Himself, because He is constantly aware that The Other is always focused on Him. You are writing about the need – yes, need – we all have to fearlessly leave self behind because each of us is always secure in Jesus. It may be the one need in which we “think” we will find the least fulfillment because we don’t appreciate Jesus’ words: “It is better to give than receive.” And yet when we do give in this way we are doubly blessed. We are all too self-centered and/or afraid to give in the ways you describe, which is why we need a Savior – one in whom we can find the power to do so. I don’t yet fully appreciate how beautiful it is to give of self – to deny self for the sake of the other – because I’m still learning to hear Jesus, who said 17 times, in one form or another, “Do not be afraid.” (A priest-friend once told me this line appears 366 times in the Bible – one for every day of the year, including Leap Year Day.) It’s a lifelong process to deny the fearful self, become comfortable giving of self in friendship, and realizing the blessings of such an act. Marital intimacy allows us to do so intensely with one person. But giving of self in loving friendship is arguably even more essential to us because we are surrounded by others – i.e., potential friends. Loving friendship is thus available to all of us, regardless of marital status. In fact we must actively choose to avoid such opportunities! Intimacy derives from the Latin meaning “innermost.” I believe that taking the risk of heeding Christ’s call to give our innermost selves to the other (whomever that may be) is, even more than marital intimacy, “The Way” through which we lose our fear of death and come to the point where we, like Paul, are eager to reach Heaven – that place where we give ourselves totally to God (and to one another) for eternity and receive all that God (and all his other children) give in return.

  2. “Saint John Paul the Great, Poet of the Divine Mysteries and Apostle of the Beauty of the Human Person, pray for us!”

    This is so true. I had the privilege of seeing St. John Paul the Great when he visited Manila during the World Youth Day in 1995. God planned it that while my younger sister and I were finding our way among the crowds, we would get stuck in an elevated place which unknown to us will be passed by by the Pope. When we saw his popemobile coming we waved and cheered like the rest. But I will never forget how he looked at me and smiled. It was as if he saw someone so beautiful. It was as if he saw someone who would be his friend and comrade. It was as if he saw someone who is so lovable. And I strongly felt that if I were able to see how God the Father looks at me, it would somehow be the way how Pope John Paul II just looked and smiled at me that fateful day at Luneta Park, Manila. Like I was so precious and treasured. And one of a kind. Of course I tried not to cry. That is why I believe that Pope John Paul II really has the gift of being able to love people regardless of gender or state or occupation or age because he is able to see the beauty of each soul and show to each soul a peek of the Father’s love.

    St. John Paul the Great, help me to love as passionately and as chastely as you so that by loving each person God has given me, I may glorify and serve Him faithfully. St. John Paul the Great, please pray for us. Amen.

  3. Very thorough article and a great comment by Mark !
    Where would we all be without real friendship ?
    I may have misunderstood but in the 4th para of this article talking about ‘trainee priest’ Wasn’t Ed Sturton talking about the term ‘ failed priest’ as used in seminaries in the 60s ?

  4. This is an unbelievably brilliant perspective and reminder. Thank you so so much for explaining a subject I’ve been trying to understand and work through (especially as a young adult). Thank you for explaining that it’s ok to be friends, and to be brothers and sisters in the Lord. Again, thank you!

    1. Steve, As a woman whose husband cheated, I understand your comment, but there is a difference between a natural relationship that excludes the spouse and a supernatural relationship that is open and transparent. It is possible, with grace to have an intellectually or spiritually intimate relationship with a married person as long as their spouse is part of that intimacy, Christ is the center and prudence is obeyed.

  5. I can’t begin to explain how thankful I am for this article. The ability to have deep friendships that are not sexualized is a missing treasure in our world today. God bless you in all of your endeavors and thank you again for defending holy friendship.

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