St. John Paul II inspires new guidebook on God, dating, friendship and purpose

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St. John Paul II guidebook
Pope St. John Paul II greets young people at Denver's Mile High Stadium during World Youth Day in 1993. (CNS photo/Joe Rimkus Jr.)

A new book aimed at helping young Catholics find meaning and purpose takes its inspiration from Pope St. John Paull II, according to the authors.

“He loved young people and met them where they were at; but he wasn’t afraid to share the hard truths with them — he even knew that deep down, they wanted to be challenged,” one of the authors, Andrew Swafford, told Our Sunday Visitor.

The late pontiff, he added, “was convinced (as we are) that when we water down the Gospel for young people to make it more ‘palatable’ for them, we actually rob them of their chance to be morally heroic.”

This thinking permeates the book that Andrew wrote with his wife, Sarah, called “Gift and Grit: How Heroic Virtue Can Change Your Life and Relationship.” Readers can purchase the book published by Ascension Press just in time for St. John Paul II’s birthday, May 18.

“‘Gift and Grit’ is basically the fruit of our ministering for over 15 years together, witnessing firsthand (especially with college students) how they’re struggling and seeing what has really helped them in going all in with the Lord,” Andrew explained.

The husband-and-wife team greet readers with a frank, conversational tone that an older sibling might use as they share insight and advice. The two accompany their audience on a voyage exploring the meaning of life and the importance of relationships — with God, with friends, and with dates or significant others.

Along the way, the guidebook of sorts tackles questions from “Where Do We Find Meaning?” and “Can Men and Women Be Friends?” to “What Does Sex Have to Do with the Spiritual Life?

“‘Gift and Grit,’ in many ways, is about finding the truth of what our lives are really all about, and then tapping into authentic resources to live this out with freedom, purpose, and passion,” Andrew described.

gift and grit

Gift and grit defined

Andrew touched on the terms in the book’s title: Gift and grit.

“As Cardinal Ratzinger once noted, real meaning is received — as gift; meaning that is merely ‘self-made’ is always hollow and unstable in the end,” he quoted the future Pope Benedict XVI. “The real meaning of our lives is received as a gift from the Lord and our ultimate purpose is to become a gift in return, to God and others.”

Grit, he said, empowers gift.

“To do this well takes grit — but not merely in a secular, stoic fashion,” he said. “Supernatural grit enables us to offer our lives in love, even when it becomes inconvenient and less glamorous than we had initially thought it would be.”

Living with gift and grit changes not only that person’s life but also every relationship that he or she has, he said.

“The book is about living with deep meaning and theological purpose, and allowing that to thoroughly inform every single facet of our lives,” he added. “It’s a book about going all in with the Lord.”

Andrew and Sarah Swafford
Andrew and Sarah Swafford. Courtesy of Ascension Press

Meet the authors

Andrew and Sarah live with their six children (five born, and one unborn) in Atchison, Kansas, where Andrew teaches as a professor of theology at Benedictine College. The authors and international speakers in their early 40s specialize in dating, marriage, the moral and spiritual life, Sacred Scripture, and St. John Paul II.

For many years, Andrew has taught a class on St. John Paul II, including in 2018, when he taught during a spring study abroad program in Florence, Italy. The couple reference this study abroad group in their book, which they dedicated to their Florence students.

“Living with these 48 students for three months (along with Sarah and our family, at the time, four children) reinforced many of the themes, struggles, and critical antidotes we had seen over the years in our ministry — including and especially how pivotal encountering St. John Paul II has been for these students,” Andrew said.

The book draws from the former pontiff and his ministry to young people, particularly when he served as a young priest in the heart of communist Poland, Andrew said.

A shared Środowisko

Their prayer, the Swaffords write inside, is that the book serves as a “shared Środowisko.” The Polish word for “environment” or “milieu” comes from St. John Paul II, when he was better known as Father Karol Wojtyła. The Swaffords explain that the young college students he ministered to at that time called themselves “Środowisko.”

The term “refers to a community gathered for a purpose; it refers to friendship that is anchored by a common pursuit of a transcendent good,” the couple write. “It means friendship enhanced and illumined by the light of faith, walking together with mission and purpose, and supporting one another along the way. And it means having a great time together — full of fun, laughter, and a contagious joy.”

This is their hope for the book.

Creating Środowisko

Andrew recommended that young Catholics find or create their own Środowisko.

“In some ways, it’s the only way,” he said. “The culture around us is very powerful and seemingly ubiquitous. No one wants to feel like they’re all alone.”

“We are galvanized and strengthened in groups together, with friendships built on the foundation of Christ and groups who sincerely want to go all in with the Lord together,” he explained.

He shared his advice for young Catholics hoping to start their own Środowisko.

“Start small,” he recommended. “Find one or two others who really want this. Be intentional about it. Small groups, brimming conviction, purpose, and joy, soon grow and take a life of their own.”

“If you’re struggling here, don’t forget to pray for such friendships,” he continued. “Sincerely asking this from the Lord and putting ourselves in the environments where such friendships are likely to form is key.”

A book for everyone

While the book targets young Catholic readers, Andrew said that the book can speak to readers of other ages, Catholics and non-Catholics alike.

“While written with an eye toward a younger audience, ‘Gift and Grit’ touches directly on the human condition and the human question,” he said. “For this reason, anybody at any age can read it with great profit.”

He hoped readers would come away after reading the book remembering to be open to God surprising you.

“You are here for a reason and a purpose,” he said. “It may not be exactly as you envisioned, but it is rich in meaning and purpose.”

This thinking, he emphasized, should inform the relationships of each person.

“Engage your relationships, friendships and dating, in light of this deeper meaning and purpose and your life will never be the same,” he concluded. “Enter, with honesty and integrity, into the depth of encountering the living God — and your life will definitely never be the same. Deep healing, purpose, authentic freedom, peace, and joy await those who fully enter into this divine drama.”

Katie Yoder

Katie Yoder is a contributing editor for Our Sunday Visitor.