|The heart of the matter: An 'encounter with God
who is Love'
Pope Benedict XVI's first Encyclical refers to the dialogue between the
Risen Christ and Peter. Peter answers Jesus, who has asked him three times
whether he loved him: "Lord, you know that I love you". And Jesus
answered: "Feed my sheep" (Jn 21:17).
Love is evidence of the Gospel
The Encyclical is an explosion of joy in God's sublime love for
humanity, for his beloved creature and for the Church. It is a modern
Song of Songs; although it bursts from the poetry of a vivid
experience of God's love it becomes thoughtful prose, a motivated and
The Holy Father has desired to put his Petrine ministry under the
banner of love. This is the most appropriate key to understand the person,
work and teaching of Pope Benedict.
In an age dominated by the trivialization of love and increasingly
pervaded by the cold shadow of separation, hatred, discord and thousands
of fratricidal wars, the Pope once again proclaims love as the ever new,
ever timely programme of Jesus' Gospel.
If, in a certain sense, the first Encyclicals of recent Popes have
marked the whole of their Pontificate — Redemptor Hominis (1979) by
John Paul II, for example, who not only announced, in, advance the Great
Jubilee of the Year 2000 but also the "Christocentric" horizons of his
Magisterium — it can be affirmed that the Holy Father will carry out his
ministry under the banner of charity, inside and outside the Catholic
Church, as can be seen from his fatherly smile and hand raised in
Benedict XVI, a great theoretician of Christian theology, and, as
Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, a firm defender
of right faith, today surprisingly reveals that the source of his
theological activity is not cold reason but the enthusiasm of Christ's
charity: "Caritas Christi urget nos" ["the love of Christ
urges us on"] (II Cor 5:14). This love, although expressed in prayer and
adoration, also becomes service and the care of our neighbour in need.
Just as in the early centuries of Christianity it was charity that
fascinated the non-Christians, so today it is still charity that astounds
the world, spreading its beneficial effects in history and in contemporary
Rémi Brague has compared the Encyclical to a Roman fountain where the
water overflows from one basin to the next, straight from the first spout
at the top.
Thus, in the Encyclical, God's love is poured out into the hearts of
men and women, who are incapable on their own of self-giving love unless
they receive it from on high, from its divine source.
God is not the One who commands and oppresses, but the One who loves
This is the evidence of Christians; it is the true Good News. It is
also Christianity's most attractive aspect: "So we know and believe the
love God has for us. God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God,
and God abides in him" (I Jn 4:16).
This is the "summary of the Christian life" (n. 1). Essentially, being
a Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or idea, but the
encounter with God who is Love. Christians live by love: without love, St.
Paul says realistically: "I am nothing" ("nihil sum": I Cor 13:2).
An examination of the 'agapic' theses
The number of Pope Benedict's 'agapic' theses can be reduced to six.
• The first one harmoniously composes eros as worldly love and
agape as an expression of love founded on faith and moulded by it.
These two concepts are often set against each other as possessive love
and oblative love. Only oblative love would be typically Christian.
"Yet eros and agape", the Pope writes, "can never be
completely separated. The more the two, in their different aspects, find a
proper unity in the one reality of love, the more the true nature of love
in general is realized" (n. 7).
An inseparable tie binds together eros, which desires to
receive, and agape, which passes on the gift received.
• The second thesis highlights the "new image of God" that comes from
God, Creator of the universe and of humanity, "loves man" (n. 9). The
biblical God is a God who loves passionately. His relationship with the
Chosen People is a Covenant that is described with the metaphors of
betrothal and marriage, which is why infidelity and idolatry mean adultery
God's passion for man is a forgiving love: "God's eros for man is also
totally agape. This is not only because it is bestowed in a completely
gratuitous manner, without any previous merit, but also because it is love
which forgives" (n. 10).
God's passionate love is so great that in forgiveness it seems that he
turns against himself, that his love is turning against his justice.
Forgiveness is the apex of divine justice and love.
• The third thesis of biblical faith on love reveals a "new image" of
man, who is a being born from love, who lives from love and is a pilgrim
bound for eternal love.
The biblical narrative of the creation of man shows how man remains
somewhat incomplete if he does not find in another the part that can make
him whole: "Therefore, a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves
to his wife, and they become one flesh" (Gn 2:24).
Eros, rooted in human nature, refers man to marriage, to a bond marked
by uniqueness and definitiveness: "Corresponding to the image of a
monotheistic God is monogamous marriage" (n. 11). The way of loving God
becomes the measure of human love. This finds no parallels outside of the
• The fourth thesis emphasizes that the originality of the New
Testament lies not so much in new ideas but in the very figure of Christ,
who with his humanity gives love an insuperable realism.
Christ and Christ crucified is the love of God who gives himself to
save man: "By contemplating the pierced side of Christ [of which John
speaks] (cf. 19:37), we can understand the starting-point of this
Encyclical Letter. 'God is love' (I Jn 4:8). It is there that this truth
can be contemplated. It is from there that our definition of love must
begin. In this contemplation the Christian discovers the path along which
his life and love must move" (n. 12).
The offering of love for the Crucified One finds a lasting presence in
the Eucharist, which becomes divine food for the hunger for love of the
faithful and draws them into Jesus' oblative act.
So it is that the Christian lives in a communion of love with God and
with his brethren, who are nourished by the Eucharistic food.
• From this flows the fifth thesis on agape: "Love of God and love of
neighbour are now truly united A Eucharist which does not pass over into
the concrete practice of love is intrinsically fragmented" (n. 14).
It is on the basis of this principle that we must understand the two
parables of the rich man who ignored the poor man in need, and of the Good
Samaritan who, instead, took the trouble to care for the wayfarer who had
been robbed and left half-dead by the road.
Love of neighbour can become a criterion of the validity of Christian
life and a path that leads to the encounter with God himself.
Thus, it is even possible to love a neighbour whom one does not like,
perhaps even an enemy, for in him can be seen the friend for whom Jesus
poured out his Blood: "Only my readiness to encounter my neighbour and to
show him love makes me sensitive to God as well" (n. 18).
• The sixth and last thesis includes Part II of the Encyclical and can
be expressed as the Church's charitable activity for needy people of every
kind and of every epoch as a manifestation of Trinitarian love in history.
Indeed, St. Augustine wrote: "If you see charity, you see the Trinity" (De Trinitate, 18, 8, 12).
From the outset, the Church has exercised her service of charity lived
in practice by means of service to the poor, children, widows, the sick,
the disadvantaged and the ignorant.
This is an extraordinary epic to which world historiography has paid
insufficient attention, but which constitutes the soul of Christian
Christian charity has always preceded human justice, and still today, even in countries where social justice is better affirmed, Christian charity
is needed as a consolation for the afflicted, comfort for the abandoned
and support for the despairing.
In this context, the Pope rightly cites the charitable services of
Dioceses and parishes, but also of the saints who exercised charity. —
obviously only some of them, the best known, those who made a mark in the
world —, and who with their lives, their work and their congregations,
re-created a providential "network of protection" for needy humanity.
The cloak the young catechumen Martin of Tours tore in two, with his
excellent charity, continues to cover the shivering shoulders of the poor
of the entire world.
In the Encyclical, the lyricism of love for God takes nothing away from
the practical service to man, which it nourishes and makes effective. It
is a lesson that the world and the Church learn with joy, for love is
evidence of the Gospel.