Reflections on the Holy Father's Encyclical Letter

Reflections on the Holy Father's Encyclical Letter Deus Caritas Est - 2

Bruno Forte
Archbishop of Chieti-Vasto, Italy

Jesus Christ makes 'impossible love possible'

The Central message of Benedict XVI's Encyclical Deus Caritas Est, is at the same time simple and dramatic: simple because it goes straight to the heart of the revelation of God who is love and never tires of starting to love; dramatic, because we all have a need to love and be loved that clashes with resistance, fears, and falsifications of love that occupy the world's stage, in addition to the spectacle of hatred and violence that seem to prevail in the present, as in the past.

The living place in which God's love meets our fear and inability to love and redeems it is Jesus Christ, "the incarnate love of God", who becomes present in the Church and with his grace "touches" hearts wounded by evil, making possible in them the otherwise impossible gratuitousness of giving.

The strength of Christianity and specifically of this Encyclical lies in the announcement of this impossible, possible love: an impossible love according to our own capacities, all too sorely tried by suffering and evil; yet, a possible love because it is bestowed upon us from on high and made such by a God, who, out of love, made himself close to every person's heart.

Presented with this "good news" that counters loneliness and evil, we ask ourselves: why is there this return to the heart of the Gospel to the essential faith in Jesus Christ? And how does it express the spirit and programme of this Pope's Pontificate?

In reality, behind the Encyclical God is love are strong, deep reasons which it is possible to grasp and which can be ascribed to at least three contexts with the simplicity to which only a long spiritual journey leads" that of the heart, that of the times and that of the Church today.

The context of the heart

The scenario of the heart is quickly described: we are made to love and only by loving are we fulfilled. Yet this indelible need for love is continuously frustrated by the falsification and deception that fill life and history. Every person asks the audible or suppressed question: who will make possible this impossible love? It is the love lavished upon us from on high in Jesus, the Incarnate Son, the Pope responds, that makes us capable of loving above and beyond any degree of weariness or any of the pitfalls of life.

In New Testament language this love is called "agape", the love that is the object of the Good News. In presenting it anew to the hearts of all, Benedict XVI has not been afraid to confront the great objections made to it, especially in modern times: for example, that of Nietzsche who maintained that Christianity "had poisoned eros, which for its part, while not completely succumbing, gradually degenerated into vice" (n. 3).

By saying this, the Pope notes, "the German philosopher was expressing a widely-held perception: doesn't the Church, with all her commandments and prohibitions, turn to bitterness the most precious thing in life?" (n. 3). To "the prophet of the advent of nihilism" as Nietzsche defined himself, the theologian Pope replies that Christian love, "far from rejecting or 'poisoning' eros,... heal[s] it and restore[s] its true grandeur" (n. 5).

What is evil and what does evil, therefore, is not the "eros" but its self absolutization, the restriction of its use to egoistic caprices: even the relationship with God has a salutary element of the "eros", that passion which pervades the experience of mystics and which every believer experiences through the full involvement of his being in the encounter with the divine Other.

Thus, a full and happy humanity that conforms to the Father's plan for his creature, is what enriches "agape" with the strength of "eros" and purifies and raises "eros" with the radiant generosity of the love that comes from on high and tends to the heights of God.

Consequently, the Pope has not made his own the opposition between "eros" and "agape", that came into fashion with the 19th century debate sparked by the research of Anders Nygren (author of a classical work entitled Agape and Eros), but rather, the fruitful relationship between passionate love and oblative love, in the unity of the human person whom each one of us is.

It is a "yes" then, to the human being, to the human heart in need of love and to the relationship with God that heals and fortifies love without canceling the true and good that is within us.

It is an application of the "principle of love", of that relationship between the human and the divine that was revealed to us in Christ and expressed by the Council of Chalcedon in 451 in four wonderful expressions: "without 'confusion' or 'change', without 'division' or 'separation'", which enable us to recognize in him — in his true and full humanity, endowed, like our own, with senses and pathos — "the incarnate love of God".

The context of our time

The second context that the Encyclical deals with is the time in which we live: Pope Benedict is convinced that love alone can establish true peace agreements and thereby avoid the dreaded "clash of civilizations".

For many people, the expression — coined by Samuel Huntington as the title of his successful essay which became for many an inspired key to the interpretation of international relations following the 11 September 2001 attacks — leads the complexity of history back to a dramatic face-to-face encounter: of the nations in the 19th century, of ideologies in the 20th century and of civilization and the religious worlds that they imply today.

The 21st century is generally held to represent the epoch in which Christianity and Islam are contending the destinies of the world. The voice of John Paul II, contrary to the military reaction to the deplored terrorist hatred, would prove to be very out of step with the times. Pope Benedict reproposes the profound inspiration of his Predecessor's thought: the future will not be built by walls of separation but by bridges of dialogue and just decisions for all, and for the weak and history's losers in particular.

Love is at the root of these decisions. Humanity stands in greater need of love than of the air it breathes, if we want the house of the world to be welcoming and generous to all.

In short, love is the only power that can divest violence and weave liberal and liberating bonds. It is an impulse quite the opposite of evasion or consolation; indeed, it can look life and history in the face and intervene in them decisively: love is mankind's only hope.

Therefore, "In a world where the name of God is sometimes associated with the vengeance or even a duty of hatred and violence, this message [of love] is both timely and significant" (n. 1) and very concrete.

It is the timeliness of an offer of meaning which helps people emerge from the void produced by the end of the ideologies: "Marxism had seen world revolution and its preliminaries as the panacea for the social problem.... This illusion has vanished" (n. 27).

This is the challenge to propose, recognizing charity as the basis of economic and social relations, in synergy with all who have the common good at heart.

"In today's complex situation, not least because of the growth of a globalized economy, the Church's social doctrine has become a set of fundamental guidelines offering approaches that are valid even beyond the confines of the Church... these guidelines need to be addressed in the context of dialogue with all those seriously concerned for humanity and for the world in which we live" (n. 27).

It calls for a political charity that alone can provide the measure of true government: "a State which is not governed according to justice would be just a bunch of thieves" (n. 28).

This love that humanity so urgently needs is the very same love that was revealed and given to us in the One who is the personification of love, the only One who with his Grace can make us capable of loving: Jesus.

"Anyone who wishes to give love must also receive love as a gift. Certainly, as the Lord tells us, one can become a source from which rivers of living water flow (cf. Jn 7:37-38). Yet to become such a source, one must constantly drink anew from the original source, which is Jesus Christ, from whose pierced heart flows the love of God (cf. Jn 19:34)" (n. 7).

The context of the Church

The last context that the Pope intends to speak of is that of the Church. In the past, as theologian and Cardinal, Joseph Ratzinger never hid his suffering in the face of the counter-witness of so many Christians, which he himself did not hesitate to describe as "dirt" in the Church.

We cannot get rid of this wound with a banal wipe of a sponge or worse, by closing our eyes to it. The renewal of ecclesial life, wrote the young Professor who is Pope today, "does not consist in a quantity of exercises and external institutions, but in belonging only and entirely to Jesus Christ.... Renewal means simplification, not in the sense of a curtailment or reduction but in the sense of becoming simple, of turning to that true simplicity... an echo of the simplicity of the one God" (cf. J. Ratzinger, God's New People. Concepts for Ecclesiology, Dusseldorf, 1972).

Authentic reform passes through the channel of love: inspired by the primacy of charity and real pastoral needs, those who intend to work for the renewal of ecclesial life must turn to love, with the patience to respect slower progress, in docility and obedience to the Spirit and be ready to live the exodus from self without return, in which the commitment to love consists.

"We have come to believe in God's love: in these words the Christian can express the fundamental decision of his life. Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction" (Deus Caritas Est, n. 1).

This Person is, precisely, Jesus Christ, "the incarnate love of God" (n. 12): it is always necessary to return to him to be born anew in the gift of the sequela of his love for humanity. The Pope sums it up unhesitatingly: "The Christian's programme, the programme of Jesus — is 'a heart which sees'. This heart sees where love is needed and acts accordingly" (n. 21b).

Therefore, it is in following Jesus that one learns to love: "Love is indeed 'ecstasy', not in the sense of a moment of intoxication but rather as a journey, an ongoing exodus out of the closed inward-looking self towards its liberation through self-giving, and this towards authentic self-discovery and indeed the discovery of God" (n. 6).

It is the love whose proof Jesus has given to us, and which he alone enkindles in us so that we may act as he did: "My deep personal sharing in the needs and sufferings of others becomes a sharing of my very self with them: if my gift is not to prove a source of humiliation, I must give to others not only something that is my own, but my very self; I must be personally present in my gift" (n. 34).

The Encyclical calls one and all to this love, made visible and absolutely personal in Jesus: "Love is possible, and we are able to practise it because we are created in the image of God. To experience love and in this way to cause the light of God to enter into the world — this is the invitation I would like to extend with the present Encyclical" (n. 39).

Whoever welcomes the Lord Jesus into his heart and into his whole life will experience the impossible possibility of God, the encounter with love which transforms you so deeply that it enables you to love beyond any measure of weariness or of any otherwise incurable wound of the soul.

And in this very way, Christ's love sets constantly in motion the Church's youthfulness, her active and creative impulse of love among men and women: "To do all we can with what strength we have, however, it is the task which keeps the good servant of Jesus Christ always at work: 'The love of Christ urges us on' (II Cor 5:14)" (n. 35).

Anyone who truly loves the Church, cannot but find here the programme of her true renewal, the light and strength of reform that she truly needs. It is what Pope Benedict, precisely with his Encyclical, proposes as a royal way to rediscovering the impetus that makes the Church of today and of the world more like the future promised by God and in this very way, more capable of anticipating the promised Eternal grace.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
28 June 2006, page 4

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