Reflection on

Reflection on Deus Caritas Est

Fr. Antonio Maria Sicari, O.C.D. 

Drawing near to God — and others

"Love of God and love of neighbour are thus inseparable, they form a single commandment" (Deus Caritas Est, n. 18).

Even if this affirmation may appear so simple as to be taken for granted, it is one of the most demanding teachings that the Encyclical Letter Deus Caritas Est contains. We realize this precisely when Benedict XVI illustrates it with the example of the saints, rapidly noting "individual testimonies" which go back ideally from Blessed Teresa of Calcutta — the first to be mentioned (cf. n. 18), and three times (cf. nn. 36, 40) — to the Blessed Virgin, the One who drank "from the fountain of God's love", becoming a wellspring herself (cf. n. 42).

The middle course is then marked by a few who "stand out as lasting models of social charity", who were "true bearers of light within history" (n. 40).

Indeed, the Pontiff has compiled a short list, revisiting that "history of charity": from the "vivid expression" the deacon Lawrence gave it in the past (cf. n. 23), to Martin of Tours, a true and popular "icon of charity", from St. Anthony Abbot, who founded the monastic movement and whose "immense service of charity" extended down the centuries, to St. Francis of Assisi, who inaugurated the Mendicant movement, and to St. Ignatius of Loyola, precursors of all modern religious institutes.

The Pope then moves on to the holy inventors of modern hospitals (St. John of God and St. Camillus of Lellis), to St. Vincent de Paul and St. Louise de Marillac (true geniuses of charity, convinced that charity was "infinitely creative"), to the great Piedmontese social Saints (St. Joseph Benedict Cottolengo, St. John Bosco, St. Luigi Orione), to the outstanding charity personified by Teresa of Calcutta (cf. n. 40). And obviously, thousands of other names could be added.

However, it is precisely the concluding reference to the Blessed Virgin that gives us the key to their secret: "In the saints one thing becomes clear: those who draw near to God do not withdraw from men, but rather become truly close to them. In no one do we see this more clearly than in Mary" (n. 42).

One love, for God and neighbour

In the saints, in fact, the impulse of love of God and love of neighbour can seem to us to be a "dual incentive", even if it is profoundly one; in Mary, instead, its perfect and inseparable unity is revealed.

Indeed, what is the miracle of the Incarnation other than the ineffable coming of God who made himself "close to Mary", dwelling in her womb, her heart and her mind, her sentiments and her emotions, her house and her history?

No one is as "close" to the mother as the child she bears in her womb; no one is as close to the child as the mother who feeds him herself. And this closeness makes itself felt throughout life. In Jesus, therefore, God became "neighbour" to Mary and Mary was able to love God as "her first neighbour".

The Blessed Virgin could no longer distinguish between the two commandments of the Old Law. And the New Covenant was founded and built precisely on this.

Furthermore, what is the Incarnation in itself other than divine nature's indissoluble spousal embrace of human nature? The dogma of Chalcedon is no more than the attempt to express — and with conceptual passion and tenderness — that ineffable "closeness" between the two natures so that, in the very Person of Jesus, this closeness may be absolute and not blotted out by undue confusion.

No discourse on the unity of the two great commandments of love will be conclusively convincing if we do not pause at length to contemplate their unification in the events of Mary's life, from the moment she gave her consent.

"She speaks and thinks with the Word of God; the Word of God becomes her word, and her word issues from the Word of God. Here we see how her thoughts are attuned to the thoughts of God, how her will is one with the will of God. Since Mary is completely imbued with the Word of God, she is able to become the Mother of the Word Incarnate" (n. 41).

On the other hand, the nucleus of the entire evangelical episode — the whole account of the days in which Jesus personally formed his first saints — is deeply buried in the same truth: through their Teacher, in fact, the disciples gradually learned that God had made himself their neighbour and lived the ineffable adventure of knowing that they were "neighbours" of the Son of God.

An event of closeness

What they should then have proclaimed (that is, having seen the Word of life with their own eyes, touched him with their own hands and heard him with their own ears) was precisely the miracle of a God who came down incarnate, to love and to be loved as a friend loves his friend, as a bridegroom loves and is loved by his bride: it was an event of "closeness", both human and divine.

John the Evangelist made this truth visible and powerful when he ended his Gospel (the proclamation that had to be preached to the world!) with Jesus' threefold question to Peter: "Do you love me more than these?", the exact question which acts as a prelude to the closest embrace in this world.

Remembering this "Christological" root of the unity of the two commandments is absolutely necessary if we want to understand the testimony of the saints.

When, for example, people mention "saints of charity" (but basically, aren't they all?), how can we forget that they did not draw charity for their neighbour from a previous, separate love of God, but experienced it as an embodiment of the one Love?

The saints would have bristled at the thought that Christ could be considered a "motive", a "cause", an "ideal" in whose name they were acting. And even more, they would have wept at the mere thought that their charity might be used in order to forget Christ or to "betray him" in the truth of his person.

It is often forgotten that for them, the "law of reversibility" totally applied: if on the one hand, they knew that "all that is done for the poor is done for Christ", on the other, they were even more convinced that "all that is done for Christ is done for the poor".

Only think, for example, of what the Church has had to suffer in recent times because certain Christians, fascinated by projects of social liberation, went so far as to seriously damage the truth about God, about Christ and about his Church — in the name of their cause.

The saints would immediately have objected that by letting the fire of truth and love for Christ die down, the flame of social charity would sooner or later have been extinguished or transformed into indiscriminate violence, even against the poor themselves. The saints would never have imagined that they could enrich the poor or permitted the image of the Lord to be distorted or to fade.

This also explains a certain "spiritual interweaving" that they perceived to be necessary, even when it was not immediately obvious to those who are anxious for action.

Eucharistic Adoration

For instance, it is really impossible to understand the close connection between the pressing needs of charity and the long periods spent in Eucharistic Adoration on which Mother Teresa of Calcutta founded her Institute (cf. nn. 18, 36) unless one grasps the incandescent nucleus — also from the pedagogical viewpoint — on which she based her experience.

"Lingering" in contemplation of the Eucharistic Species (the point of the maximum incarnation, hence, of the "greatest proximity" of God's love for each human being, the point at which God makes himself "so close" as to let himself be assimilated by us and to let us be assimilated to him) was for Mother Teresa and her daughters the one source of their subsequent capacity for gazing at length also upon the "sacred species" of sick and agonizing bodies approaching death, perceiving in them the same mystery of proximity in the same form of extreme annihilation.

In reviewing the events of the saints' lives, we always witness the same miracle of "incarnation": God makes himself close to man and man makes himself close to God, to the extent that even those saints whom God called to the unum necessarium of uninterrupted contemplation found that their hearts were then flooded by an indescribable love for every neighbour.

Thus, St Thérèse of Lisieux asked her Jesus to embrace her ever more intensely, certain that she would bring with her "all those whom God entrusted to her" (cf. Autobiography, Manual C, 34r-35r).

The Servant of God Mons. Vladimir Ghika, a Saint of our time and the most famous martyr of the Communist persecution in Romania, has bequeathed to us a particularly beautiful text in French with the meaningful title: La liturgie du Prochain (The Liturgy of our Neighbour), to explain that benefiting the poor means "celebrating the encounter of Jesus with Jesus".

He wrote: "A twofold and mysterious liturgy: the poor person sees Christ come to him under the species of the one who helps him and the benefactor sees the suffering Christ appearing in the poor over whom he stoops.

"However, for this very reason it is a single liturgy. In fact, if the gesture is properly made, on both sides there is only Christ: Christ the Saviour moves towards the Suffering Christ, and they are integrated in the Risen and glorious Christ in the act of blessing".

Basically, he added, "it is a matter of extending Mass throughout the day and throughout the world, like a concentric wave that ripples outwards from Eucharistic Communion in the morning...".

The saints all agree on this: Love that is poured out upon the world and pervades it is one.

The Encyclical then ends with a final allusion that gladdens the heart. The love the saints received from God and which they themselves reciprocated and offered their neighbour — urged by that Jesus who embraced all of them to the innermost depths of their soul — did not end with the episodes of their lives in this world: "The lives of the saints are not limited to their earthly biographies but also include their being and working in God after death" (n. 42).

Today, our hope of being able to love God and our neighbour with a single heartbeat and deeply-rooted fervour is also sustained by the certainty that we belong to a lively family of saints.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
5 September 2007, page 10

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