Reflections on the Holy Father's Encyclical Letter

Reflections on the Holy Father's Encyclical Letter Deus Caritas Est - 3

Fr Réal Tremblay, C.SS.R.
Professor of Fundamental Moral Theology at the Alphonsianum, Member of the Pontifical Theological Academy

Open Heart of the Son: Place of Trinity, Source of Church

Speaking of God's love, it is necessary to talk about the Trinity of his Persons. Various ways exist of talking about this Trinitarian God.

There is, for example, the way of St Irenaeus, who interpreted the history of salvation, including creation, seeking to rediscover in each of its crucial stages the presence of the Three, their specific role and the complementarity of their actions.1

I mention St Irenaeus because instead of examining the immanent consistence of the plurality of the Persons in their one divine nature through the faith, as, for instance, St Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas do in their works entitled De Trinitate, he scrutinizes what they consist of through the prism of the "Economy".

This is also the method Benedict XVI used in his recent Encyclical Deus Caritas Est, the difference being that his mention of the divine Persons is less obvious than in the works of the Bishop of Lyons.

"Less obvious" does not mean less present, but present in a different way, that is, based on a central point from which flows a force of attraction and outreach that embraces the entire Encyclical. This central point is the open Heart of the Crucified Christ.

Before showing from this central point how the work of the Father and the Spirit is manifested, I would like to reflect briefly on the existence of this centre and on the energies it releases.

Encounter with a person

From the very first lines of the Encyclical, the Pope points out that "being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea. but the encounter with an event, a person", a Person whom the following citation from St John's Gospel (Jn 3:16ff.) presents implicitly beneath the features of the Crucified One with the Pierced Heart (n. 1).

Confirmation of this deduction is given a little later: when the Holy Father mentions "the pierced side of Christ (cf. 19:37)", of which John speaks, "we can understand the starting-point of this Encyclical Letter: 'God is love' (I Jn 4:8)" (n. 12).2

Once his existence has been proven. one can and must say that this centre exercises a force of attraction over the whole of Benedict XVI's Reflection with regard to the relations between eros and agape, or more precisely of the leap in quality that God causes eros to make, using its categories to describe his love for Israel (betrothal and marriage).

After having pointed out, following Hosea 11:8-9, how God, out of love, "turns God against himself", "against his justice" in the face of his people's infidelities and forgives them, the Pope continues: "Here Christians can see a dim prefigurement of the mystery of the Cross: so great is God's love for man that by becoming man he follows him even into death, and so reconciles justice and love" (n. 10).

And a little later, this time in the context of the fulfilment of the Old Testament through the New, the Pope says: "His death on the Cross is the culmination of that turning of God against himself in which he gives himself in order to raise man up and save him. This is love in its most radical form" (n. 12).

Consequently, God's love manifested to Israel in the Old Covenant aspires to something more ("beginning/fulfilment"), attracted through this "something more": God the Son in person, united with humanity (Israel was already at his service) and giving himself to the point of letting his Heart be pierced open for it.

Christ's irradiating power

With these observations, we have imperceptibly passed to the irradiating force of the centre that is the pierced Christ.

He is the revelation of divine love par excellence: it is "by contemplating the pierced side of Christ" that the truth "God is love" (I Jn 4:8)... "can be contemplated. It is from there that our definition of love must begin" (n. 12).

He is also the One in whom the work of human salvation is brought about. In this regard, the Holy Father writes further: "It is from there" (the pierced side of Christ) that "the Christian discovers the path along which his life and love must move" (n. 12). This is a clear allusion to the Church, to which we shall shortly return.

First, however, we must return to our starting point: the Trinitarian God who is made present and active in this Papal Text in the pierced Christ. The Holy Father has suggested to us a path in this direction by affirming that the definition of divine love is made "from there".

Now, there is no Christian love that is not originally Trinitarian. But the question now is to know: does the Holy Father affirm this explicitly?

In n. 19 of the Papal Text, which is like the pivot on which the two panels of the diptych of the Encyclical rotate, we read: "'If you see charity, you see the Trinity', wrote St Augustine. In the foregoing reflections, we have been able to focus our attention on the Pierced One (cf. Jn 19:37; Zec 12:10), recognizing the plan of the Father who, moved by love (cf. Jn 3:16), sent his Only-begotten Son into the world to redeem man. By dying on the Cross — as St John tells us — Jesus 'gave up his Spirit' (Jn 19:30), anticipating the gift of the Holy Spirit that he would make after his Resurrection (cf. Jn 20:22). This was to fulfil the promise of 'rivers of living water' that would flow out of the hearts of believers, through the outpouring of the Spirit (cf. Jn 7:38-39)" (n. 19).

This Text confirms that what we have just presented is no longer hypothetical. In this Encyclical it is precisely from the open Heart of the Crucified Jesus that the presence of the work of Three is manifest, for it is in him that their love is condensed for the benefit of humanity: the Father giving his Only Son to the world without any reservations; and the Only Son offering himself totally to the Father, a radical and reciprocal gift from which flowed the Spirit, whose task was to reintroduce humanity into the eternal Perichoresis of the love of the Three.

Spirit transforms hearts

This is what we have been able to "recognize", the Pope says, contemplating the open Heart of the Son. In saying this, he rightly mentions having localized the presence of the Three more or less explicitly in the first part of his Reflection on divine love (transposition of the attraction already evoked in the Text overall) and supposes that it will be the same also in the second part (transposition of the outreach already mentioned throughout the Text), this time relying directly on the presence of the Spirit of the Father and of the Son among believers.

Here an allusion to the Church is made. But how should her essential features be defined? Let us now read the Text alluded to above:

"The Spirit, in fact, is that interior power which harmonizes their [believers'] hearts with Christ's Heart and moves them to love their brethren as Christ loved them, when he bent down to wash the feet of the disciples (cf. Jn 13:1-13) and above all when he gave his life for us (cf. Jn 13:1, 15:13).

"The Spirit is also the energy which transforms the heart of the Ecclesial Community, so that it becomes a witness before the world to the love of the Father, who wishes to make humanity a single family in his Son" (n. 19).

Here the Pope proceeds in consecutive stages. The Church is first the harmonious agreement of individual hearts, and then of the heart of the Community with the Heart of Christ through the "art" of the Spirit of the Risen One, as St Irenaeus was to say.3

This agreement is not harmony for its own sake but harmony at the service of the brethren, to be loved in accordance with the boundless love the Lord showed in the washing of the feet on the evening of the Last Supper, and harmony at the service of the Father, whose glory is to make humanity a single "family" in his Son. Therefore, the Church is a community essentially in mission on the basis, as the Holy Father says elsewhere, of a "love... given" (cf. n. 14) that is powerful and strong.

With the allusion to fraternal service, a constitutive part of the Last Supper according to John, we are touching another aspect of ecclesiology that is very present in the Encyclical and manifestly dear to the thought of Benedict XVI.

Christ's open Heart, with all it contained, certainly did not close after the Resurrection. It stayed open (cf. Jn 20:20, 27; Lk 24:39; Rv 5:6)4 and continues to beat in the Sacrament of the Eucharist. Without insisting on the context in which allusion is made in this passage to the Sacrament — it appears as "sharing in his body and blood", "union", "the... dynamic of his self-giving", a perfect and unforeseeable realization of agape—, it is likewise presented as a source, the place from which the Church emerges. Concerning this the Pope writes:

"Union with Christ is also union with all those to whom he gives himself. I cannot possess Christ just for myself; I can belong to him only in union with all those who have become, or who will become, his own. Communion draws me out of myself towards him,5 and thus also towards unity with all Christians. We become 'one body', completely joined in a single existence" (n. 14).

Let us conclude. In the light of these reflections on the three words considered here: "Trinity, love, Church", it is possible to become aware of the grandiose horizon that this Papal Text unfolds before us, and of its appeal for a Christian life of high quality.

"God is love". This is a sentence often repeated in our time. It happens that it is quoted to justify contorted agreements with the lofty demands of the Gospel. God loves in the form of forgiveness, it is said; so there is no need to be afraid.

As we have seen, the Holy Father also insisted on this turning of God against himself, against his own justice, and likewise, in this perspective, included the Cross.

But pay attention! He does this not to approve our weaknesses, but to show how absurd they are in the presence of a God who works pro nobis in his three-personal Love and invites us to a similar commitment to him and to our brethren, in order, in the great "Family" of the Church, to rejoice in his unfathomable and beatifying Love.

Of course, in the ultimate analysis our weaknesses are inevitable, but it is one thing to encourage them, even, alas, leaning on God, and quite another to repent and reject them as unworthy of him.

And the love that God is, is large enough to reach us even there and help us gradually to tune our poor hearts, injured by our miseries, to his Heart that is open to heal them (cf. I Pt 2:24).6


1 Cf. B. Benarts, Il ritmo trinitario della verita cristiana. Rivelazione di Dio e storia dell'uomo in Ireneo di Lione (soon to be published by Città Nuova, Rome).

2 For other similar texts, see n. 7, for example.

3 For our Doctor, the "art" of the Spirit went together with that of the Son-Word. And here he represents things in a text that is truly of great beauty: "Offer to him your heart in a soft and tractable state, and preserve the form in which the Creator has fashioned you, having moisture in yourself, lest, by becoming hardened, you lose the impressions of his fingers. But by preserving the framework you shall ascend to that which is perfect, for the moist clay which is in you is hidden [there] by the workmanship of God. His hand fashioned your substance; he will cover you over [too] within and without with pure gold and silver, and he will adorn you to such a degree that even 'the king himself shall have pleasure in your beauty'" (Irenaeus of Lyons, Adversus Haereses, Book IV, chap. 39, 2).

4 Biblical datum equally dear to the late F.X. Durrwell. Cf. R. Tremblay, Le coeur qui reste ouvert. Un trait essentiel du Christ pascal selon F.X. Durrwell, in W. Baier u.a., (Hrsg), Weisheit GottesWeisheit der Welt. Festchrift für Joseph Kardinal Ratzinger zum 60. Geburtstag, Bd. I, St Ottilien, EOS Verlag, 1987, 555-574.

5 Cf. n. 6, etc. This idea often recurs in the theologian J. Ratzinger's thought. Cf. R. Tremblay, L'"Exode", une idée maîtresse de la pensée théologique du Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, in R. Tremblay/D. Billy (eds.), Historia: Memoria Futuri, Mélanges Louis Vereecke (70th birthday) (QM., 5) Rome, EDACALF, 1991, 435-461.

6 And thus to be able, in the exercise of charity (Part II of the Encyclical), to have a "heart which sees", that is, "a heart which sees... where love is needed and acts accordingly" (n. 31b).

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
26 July 2006, page 8

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