|The writing of the Apostle St. John show the
depth of Christ's love for all persons, characterized by the challenge to
love 'as I have love you'
On Wednesday, 9 August, the
Holy Father arrived by helicopter from the Papal Summer Residence at
Castel Gandolfo for the General Audience in the Paul VI Audience Hall in
Rome. The Pope continued his Catecheses on the Church's apostolic
ministry, speaking this week on the Apostle John, the theologian, and
highlighting the distinctive Christian doctrine in his writings: "God is
love". At the end of the Audience, the Holy Father renewed his earnest
appeal for peace in the Middle East. The following is a translation of the
Holy Father's Catechesis, which was given in Italian.
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Before the holidays I had begun sketching small portraits of the Twelve
Apostles. The Apostles were Jesus' travelling companions, Jesus' friends.
Their journey with Jesus was not only a physical journey from Galilee to
Jerusalem, but an interior journey during which they learned faith in
Jesus Christ, not without difficulty, for they were people like us.
But for this very reason, because they were Jesus' travelling
companions, Jesus' friends, who learned faith on a journey that was far
from easy, they are also guides for us, who help us to know Jesus Christ,
to love him and to have faith in him.
I have already commented on four of the Twelve Apostles: Simon Peter;
Andrew, his brother; James, the brother of St. John; and the other James,
known as "The Lesser", who wrote a Letter that we find in the New
Testament. And I had started to speak about John the Evangelist, gathering
together in the last Catechesis before the holidays the essential facts
for this Apostle's profile.
I would now like to focus attention on the content of his teaching. The
writings that we want to examine today, therefore, are the Gospel and the
Letters that go under his name.
If there is one characteristic topic that emerges from John's writings,
it is love. It is not by chance that I wanted to begin my first Encyclical
Letter with this Apostle's words, "God is love (Deus caritas est);
he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him" (I Jn 4:16).
It is very difficult to find texts of this kind in other religions. Thus,
words such as these bring us face to face with an element that is truly
peculiar to Christianity.
John, of course, is not the only author of Christian origin to speak of
love. Since this is an essential constituent of Christianity, all the New
Testament writers speak of it, although with different emphases.
Three phases of Christian love
If we are now pausing to reflect on this subject in John, it is because
he has outlined its principal features insistently and incisively. We
therefore trust his words. One thing is certain: he does not provide an
abstract, philosophical or even theological treatment of what love is.
No, he is not a theoretician. True love, in fact, by its nature is
never purely speculative but makes a direct, concrete and even verifiable
reference to real persons. Well, John, as an Apostle and a friend of
Jesus, makes us see what its components are, or rather, the phases of
Christian love, a movement marked by three moments.
The first concerns the very Source of love which the Apostle identifies
as God, arriving at the affirmation that "God is love" (I Jn 4:8, 16).
John is the only New Testament author who gives us definitions of God. He
says, for example, that "God is spirit" (Jn 4:24) or that "God is light"
(I Jn 1:5). Here he proclaims with radiant insight that "God is love".
Take note: it is not merely asserted that "God loves", or even less
that "love is God"! In other words: John does not limit himself to
describing the divine action but goes to its roots.
Moreover, he does not intend to attribute a divine quality to a generic
and even impersonal love; he does not rise from love to God, but turns
directly to God to define his nature with the infinite dimension of love.
By so doing, John wants to say that the essential constituent of God is
love and hence, that all God's activity is born from love and impressed
with love: all that God does, he does out of love and with love, even if
we are not always immediately able to understand that this is love, true
At this point, however, it is indispensable to take another step and
explain that God has concretely demonstrated his love by entering human
history through the Person of Jesus Christ, incarnate, dead and risen for
This is the second constitutive moment of God's love. He did not limit
himself to verbal declarations but, we can say, truly committed himself
and "paid" in the first person.
Exactly as John writes, "God so loved the world", that is, all of us,
"that he gave his only Son" (Jn 3:16). Henceforth, God's love for humanity
is concretized and manifested in the love of Jesus himself.
Again, John writes: "Having loved his own who were in the world, he
loved them to the end" (Jn 13:1). By virtue of this oblative and total
love we are radically ransomed from sin, as St. John writes further: "My
little children... if any one does sin, we have an advocate with the
Father, Jesus Christ, the righteous; and he is the expiation for our sins,
and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world" (I Jn
2:1-2; cf. I Jn 1:7).
This is how Jesus' love for us reaches us: by the pouring out of his
own Blood for our salvation? The Christian, pausing in contemplation
before this "excess" of love, cannot but wonder what the proper response
is. And I think each one of us, always and over and over again, must ask
himself or herself this.
This question introduces us into the third moment of the dynamic of
love: from being the recipients of a love that precedes and surpasses us,
we are called to the commitment of an active response which, to be
adequate, can only be a response of love.
John speaks of a "commandment". He is, in fact, referring to these
words of Jesus: "A new commandment I give to you, that you love one
another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another" (Jn
Where is the newness to which Jesus refers? It lies in the fact that he
is not content with repeating what had already been requested in the Old
Testament and which we also read in the other Gospels: "You shall love
your neighbour as yourself" (Lv 19:18; cf. Mt 22:37-39; Mk 12:29-31; Lk
In the ancient precept the standard criterion was based on man ("as
yourself"), whereas in the precept to which John refers, Jesus presents
his own Person as the reason for and norm of our love: "as I have loved
It is in this way that love becomes truly Christian: both in the sense
that it must be directed to all without distinction, and above all since
it must be carried through to its extreme consequences, having no other
bounds than being boundless.
Those words of Jesus, "as I have loved you", simultaneously invite and
disturb us; they are a Christological goal that can appear unattainable,
but at the same time they are an incentive that does not allow us to
ensconce ourselves in what we have been able to achieve. It does not
permit us to be content with what we are but spurs us to keep advancing
towards this goal.
In The Imitation of Christ, that golden text of spirituality which is
the small book dating back to the late Middle Ages, on this subject is
written: "The love of Jesus is noble and generous: it spurs us on to do
great things, and excites us to desire always that which is most perfect.
Love will tend upwards and is not to be detained by things beneath. Love
will be at liberty and free from all worldly affections... for love
proceeds from God and cannot rest but in God above all things created. The
lover flies, runs and rejoices, he is free and not held. He gives all for
all and has all in all, because he rests in one sovereign good above all,
from whom all good flows and proceeds" (Thomas a Kempis, The Imitation
of Christ, Book III, Chapter V, 3-4).
What better comment could there be on the "new commandment" spelled out
by John? Let us pray to the Father to be able, even if always imperfectly,
to live it so intensely that we share it with those we meet on way.