Reflections on the Holy Father's Encyclical letter

Reflections on the Holy Father's Encyclical letter Deus Caritas Est - 4

Archbishop Paul Josef Cordes
President of the Pontifical Council 'Cor Unum'

Charity, evangelization and the 'signs' of the Saviour

When the Holy Father greeted the 250 participants at the Plenary Meeting organized by the Pontifical Council "Cor Unum" last 23 January, in outlining the essential features of his Encyclical about to be published, he declared: "I wanted to try to express for our time and our existence some of what Dante boldly summed up in his vision.

"He tells of a 'sight' that 'was altering' as he 'gazed on' it and was being interiorly changed (cf. Par. XXXIII, vv. 112-114). It is precisely this: faith becomes a vision-understanding that transforms us" (L'Osservatore Romano English edition, 1 February 2006. p. 4).

Contemplating God as love

The first Encyclical of Pope Benedict XVI is not primarily a Document whose purpose is to point out to the Church new lines of action. It rather wants to lead us back to contemplating the heart of what we believe, that is, that "God is love".

In this regard, the Papal Letter eloquently refrains from mentioning the reference texts which in our day inspire the Church's evangelizing mission: for example, Pope Paul VI's Evangelii Nuntiandi (1975) or John Paul II's Redemptoris Missio.

Rather, a light shines out from the heart of the faith, illuminating the profound essence of God and revealing his truth and beauty which need no further explanation: they are self-explanatory.

So it is that anyone who contemplates revelation with humility and sensitivity is impelled to feel fascination for what God is in himself: he communicates his wonder to others and cannot but speak of God. The Gospel itself tell us so: "Out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks" (Lk 6:45).

I think the Pope can expect the Encyclical to communicate fascination for God in his being and in the gift of himself to men and women so intensely and movingly that the person listening to the word becomes an evangelizer eo ipso. The message's content makes the messenger an apostle.

Moreover, although evangelization is not considered separately or given any special systematic treatment. Pope Benedict does not fail to mention several useful indications for the transmission of faith. They are part of the same act with which we turn lovingly to our brother and sister in their integrity.

Yes, only by communicating eternal salvation does our turning to the other achieve its decisive aim. Thus, the Text refers to the entire Church, whose action in its totality expresses love to remind us that she seeks the integral good of man, "his evangelization through Word and Sacrament... and... seeks to promote man in the various arenas of life and human activity" (n. 19).

Mission of the saints of charity

Evangelization and social service are connected to each other, but not, of course, in the sense that they are interchangeable or that the one substitutes for the other. All Christians are duty-bound to work for the gospel and for man, a single imperative that is expressed in two dimensions.

Consequently, they cannot neglect one for the benefit of the other, even if individuals and groups have different emphases according to their vocation and mission.

Yet an integral concern for human beings is indicated. The true models of social dynamism are offered to the Church by saints, by the founders of religious institutes, by prophets of society.

Pope Benedict XVI mentions a considerable number (cf. n. 40) of these people who never separated the twofold commandment of love of God and love of neighbour: Francis of Assisi, Ignatius of Loyola, Camillus of Lellis, Vincent de Paul, Louise de MariIlac, Giuseppe B. Cottolengo, John Bosco, Luigi Orione, Teresa of Calcutta. They fought their battles against human misery in the horizon of faith and in their work against poverty, illness and suffering of every kind; they did not forget that at their root is the absence of God.

And no one can accuse them of being bigoted since they did not spare their own life, but spent it in loving their neighbour.

One example in Germany is Agnes Neuhaus (d. 1944). She came from a bourgeois family who founded the Sozialdienst katholischer Frauen to care for young women at risk, a group which today has 5,000 professional collaborators as well as many volunteers. In the period prior to the Second World War, she made a mark on the history of Caritas in her Country.

It was not only for this reason that she lived the heart of what we are reflecting on here; rather, it was because she interpreted human wretchedness in the light of God.

Helene Weber, an important woman in politics who fought for trade-union rights, made an eloquent statement about her. Helene Weber's words testify that in every earthly need Agnes Neuhaus kept open that gaze of faith which, as Pope Benedict suggests to us, must second human commitment:

"Today, we cannot water things down or attribute modern interpretations to Agnes Neuhaus. Her starting point was not the law, humanitarian philanthropy or the need for the community of peoples but the thought of salvation for every soul, for every single person. These are great words that make a strong impact on our time if we can say of her, Agnes Neuhaus, that she was frightened by sin, by fallen man. Today, who can say this of himself? She was able to do so and heard God's call to spread his Kingdom in the souls of young people who had been battered and had fallen either because of the sins of others or because of their own".

Only those who have been given the eyes of faith can perceive the true root of human misery. They do not despise any earthly means to fight it but nor do they limit their commitment to the means of this world.

It is Christ himself who points this way out to us and it is against him that we must measure ourselves.

Jesus' saving action

In the course of his earthly life, Jesus of Nazareth was known for the good he did. According to the Acts of the Apostles, he "went about doing good and healing..." (cf. 10:38). It was this way of overcoming wretchedness that opened men's hearts to him and won him new disciples.

However, he categorically refused to be seen as a "healer". He intended his helping action to demonstrate the Father's love, but also as an appeal so that his mission would be accepted. His actions were meant to reinforce his message.

They were valuable in themselves. but at the same time referred beyond themselves to others. The Gospel leaves no doubts about this.

In chapter two of Mark's Gospel, Jesus' miraculous cure of a paralytic is described. Before Jesus' eyes, this man, with the help of some acquaintances, was let down on his pallet through the opening in the roof of Peter's house (cf. Mk 2:1-12).

What induced Jesus to act was above all the faith of the people who had taken care of that man. Moved, Jesus spoke the healing words: "your sins are forgiven".

By saying this, he shed light on the fact that the greatest human need, greater and more pressing than material needs, is for spiritual healing.

Indeed, the deepest root of the misery and suffering of the sick is the same as every human person's indisposition: distance from God and the need to be forgiven and loved.

The consequent dispute with the scribes lays bare Jesus' logic: for him. the gift of healing is always a sign and an instrument of a far greater good, which has to do with the integral salvation of the human being in all his dimensions. The gift is nothing other than his presence itself.

This also applies to Christians today who desire to conform to Christ's way of behaving. Material help and the proclamation of the Gospel thus interact and are ordered to each other.

It is not by chance that other miracles worked by Jesus and described by the Evangelist are accompanied by words that express his claim to save man in the unity of his spirit and his body.

In healing the leper (cf. 1:42) and the man with the withered hand (cf. 3:5), by demonstrating his power and authority, Jesus affirms that he is bringing the Mosaic Law to completion, showing that healing and spiritual salvation are the true content of the law itself (cf. 3:6).

The main purpose of the miracles he worked in the presence of the disciples alone — the calming of the storm, the healing of the Gerasene demoniac, the raising of Jairus' daughter (cf. Mk 4:35-5:43) — was to enable them to perceive the mystery of God's presence in Jesus and to increase their faith in him.

In the other Synoptic Gospels, the profound meaning of the miracles described is also the same: Jesus' intention to awaken and to reinforce faith in his person and in his teaching in those he meets.

In the episode of the healing of the crippled woman (cf. Lk 13:10-17), the head of the synagogue who protested: "There are six days on which work ought to be done: come on those days and be healed and not on the sabbath day" (Lk 13:14), unconsciously grasped the spiritual dimension of the event, permitting Jesus to reveal the deepest meaning of his miracle in his answer: the sabbath, for the Jews, is the day on which the blessings God promised his people are commemorated.

Now, since the sick woman is a daughter of Abraham. she has the right, through the healing worked by Jesus, to experience the fulfilment of the divine promises. He therefore is the One whom the Lord sent to fulfil and surpass the law entrusted to the Chosen People by Moses.

The 'signs' of Jesus

In the fourth Gospel, the saving action of Jesus is immediately set in relation to the faith.

For this reason there is no longer any mention of "miracles" but of "signs" (semeia). Their role is to support and reinforce the message of salvation proclaimed by Jesus and they explain his Messianic mission: Jesus does not want to attract people's attention by recourse to ostentatious gestures.

In the end, the purpose of his mission is not even to eliminate the suffering or physical defects of the people he meets. His acts are signs that proclaim salvation, which is given through faith in him: those who witness them are called to believe, to entrust themselves to him and to follow him.

Consequently, all his acts are always ordered to the proclamation of the Kingdom of God. This is why he never heals the sick unless they themselves ask him to: it is faith alone that heals and saves.

John's Gospel also makes known to us the meaning of another term that is crucial to an understanding of Christ's action: that of "works" (erga).

According to the Evangelist, the aim of Jesus' works is to make him known as the One sent by God. He always does them "in [the] Father's name" (cf. Jn 10:25 and 5:43), and what moves him is the desire to make visible the will of the One who sent him.

His works are like a benchmark of the faith: they reveal the true "purposes of the heart" (cf. I Cor 4:5), in other words, the open or closed mindset of those who witness them and hear his words: "The works that I do in my Father's name, they bear witness to me; but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep" (Jn 10:25ff.).

Those who believe in Jesus, on the other hand, receive the promise of doing the works that he does, indeed, of doing "greater works" than he (14:12).

Jesus' works are always necessary to the outcome of the mission because they show the disciples the truth of his preaching:

"If I am not doing the works of my Father, then do not believe me; but if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father" (10:37ff.).

The power and greatness of the "signs" and works of Jesus cannot but kindle within us, called to witness to his presence today, an enormous challenge for the faith. And this is particularly true for those in our time whose daily work involves dedicated assistance to their neighbour.

Our commitment remains the witness of Jesus' charity for each one, and of his love that never ceases to bring comfort to the people of every epoch.

In this sense, in every act of love for neighbour, charity and the proclamation of the truth are bound together from the first, for there can be no faith that is not expressed in works and there can be no charitable works that are not rooted in faith and in the witness and proclamation of faith, their ultimate aim and meaning (cf. Deus Caritas Est, n. 39).

Pope John Paul II wrote in his Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Ecclesia in Europa: "In the context of today's society, often closed to transcendence, oppressed by consumeristic behaviour, easily falling prey to old and new forms of idolatry yet at the same time thirsting for something which goes beyond the immediate, the task that awaits the Church in Europe is both demanding and exciting. It consists in rediscovering the sense of 'mystery'; in renewing liturgical celebrations so that they can be more eloquent signs of the presence of Christ the Lord; in ensuring greater silence in prayer and in contemplation; in returning to the sacraments, especially the Eucharist and Penance, as wellsprings of freedom and new hope.

"For this reason, I urgently invite you, the Church living in Europe: be a Church that prays, praises God, recognising his absolute primacy, magnifying him with joyful faith. Rediscover the sense of mystery: live it with humble gratitude; testify to it with conviction and contagious joy. Celebrate the salvation which comes from Christ: welcome it as a gift which makes of you its sacrament; make your life a true spiritual worship pleasing to God (cf. Rom 12:1)" (Ecclesia de Europa, n. 69).

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
2 August 2006, page 9

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