Reflections on the Holy Father's Encyclical Letter

Reflections on the Holy Father's Encyclical Letter Deus Caritas Est - 5

Archbishop Angelo Amato
Titular Archbishop of Sila, Secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith

The heart of the matter: An 'encounter with God who is Love'

Pope Benedict XVI's first Encyclical refers to the dialogue between the Risen Christ and Peter. Peter answers Jesus, who has asked him three times whether he loved him: "Lord, you know that I love you". And Jesus answered: "Feed my sheep" (Jn 21:17).

Love is evidence of the Gospel

The Encyclical is an explosion of joy in God's sublime love for humanity, for his beloved creature and for the Church. It is a modern Song of Songs; although it bursts from the poetry of a vivid experience of God's love it becomes thoughtful prose, a motivated and articulate teaching.

The Holy Father has desired to put his Petrine ministry under the banner of love. This is the most appropriate key to understand the person, work and teaching of Pope Benedict.

In an age dominated by the trivialization of love and increasingly pervaded by the cold shadow of separation, hatred, discord and thousands of fratricidal wars, the Pope once again proclaims love as the ever new, ever timely programme of Jesus' Gospel.

If, in a certain sense, the first Encyclicals of recent Popes have marked the whole of their Pontificate — Redemptor Hominis (1979) by John Paul II, for example, who not only announced, in, advance the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000 but also the "Christocentric" horizons of his Magisterium — it can be affirmed that the Holy Father will carry out his ministry under the banner of charity, inside and outside the Catholic Church, as can be seen from his fatherly smile and hand raised in blessing.

Benedict XVI, a great theoretician of Christian theology, and, as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, a firm defender of right faith, today surprisingly reveals that the source of his theological activity is not cold reason but the enthusiasm of Christ's charity: "Caritas Christiurget nos" ["the love of Christ urges us on"]  (II Cor 5:14). This love, although expressed in prayer and adoration, also becomes service and the care of our neighbour in need. Just as in the early centuries of Christianity it was charity that fascinated the non-Christians, so today it is still charity that astounds the world, spreading its beneficial effects in history and in contemporary society.

Rémi Brague has compared the Encyclical to a Roman fountain where the water overflows from one basin to the next, straight from the first spout at the top.

Thus, in the Encyclical, God's love is poured out into the hearts of men and women, who are incapable on their own of self-giving love unless they receive it from on high, from its divine source.

God is not the One who commands and oppresses, but the One who loves and gives.

This is the evidence of Christians; it is the true Good News. It is also Christianity's most attractive aspect: "So we know and believe the love God has for us. God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him" (I Jn 4:16).

This is the "summary of the Christian life" (n. 1). Essentially, being a Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or idea, but the encounter with God who is Love. Christians live by love: without love, St. Paul says realistically: "I am nothing" ("nihil sum": I Cor 13:2).

An examination of the 'agapic' theses

The number of Pope Benedict's 'agapic' theses can be reduced to six.

• The first one harmoniously composes eros as worldly love and agape as an expression of love founded on faith and moulded by it.

These two concepts are often set against each other as possessive love and oblative love. Only oblative love would be typically Christian.

"Yet eros and agape", the Pope writes, "can never be completely separated. The more the two, in their different aspects, find a proper unity in the one reality of love, the more the true nature of love in general is realized" (n. 7).

An inseparable tie binds together eros, which desires to receive, and agape, which passes on the gift received.

• The second thesis highlights the "new image of God" that comes from biblical faith.

God, Creator of the universe and of humanity, "loves man" (n. 9). The biblical God is a God who loves passionately. His relationship with the Chosen People is a Covenant that is described with the metaphors of betrothal and marriage, which is why infidelity and idolatry mean adultery and prostitution.

God's passion for man is a forgiving love: "God's eros for man is also totally agape. This is not only because it is bestowed in a completely gratuitous manner, without any previous merit, but also because it is love which forgives" (n. 10).

God's passionate love is so great that in forgiveness it seems that he turns against himself, that his love is turning against his justice. Forgiveness is the apex of divine justice and love.

• The third thesis of biblical faith on love reveals a "new image" of man, who is a being born from love, who lives from love and is a pilgrim bound for eternal love.

The biblical narrative of the creation of man shows how man remains somewhat incomplete if he does not find in another the part that can make him whole: "Therefore, a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh" (Gn 2:24).

Eros, rooted in human nature, refers man to marriage, to a bond marked by uniqueness and definitiveness: "Corresponding to the image of a monotheistic God is monogamous marriage" (n. 11). The way of loving God becomes the measure of human love. This finds no parallels outside of the Bible.

• The fourth thesis emphasizes that the originality of the New Testament lies not so much in new ideas but in the very figure of Christ, who with his humanity gives love an insuperable realism.

Christ and Christ crucified is the love of God who gives himself to save man: "By contemplating the pierced side of Christ [of which John speaks] (cf. 19:37), we can understand the starting-point of this Encyclical Letter. 'God is love' (I Jn 4:8). It is there that this truth can be contemplated. It is from there that our definition of love must begin. In this contemplation the Christian discovers the path along which his life and love must move" (n. 12).

The offering of love for the Crucified One finds a lasting presence in the Eucharist, which becomes divine food for the hunger for love of the faithful and draws them into Jesus' oblative act.

So it is that the Christian lives in a communion of love with God and with his brethren, who are nourished by the Eucharistic food.

• From this flows the fifth thesis on agape: "Love of God and love of neighbour are now truly united A Eucharist which does not pass over into the concrete practice of love is intrinsically fragmented" (n. 14).

It is on the basis of this principle that we must understand the two parables of the rich man who ignored the poor man in need, and of the Good Samaritan who, instead, took the trouble to care for the wayfarer who had been robbed and left half-dead by the road.

Love of neighbour can become a criterion of the validity of Christian life and a path that leads to the encounter with God himself.

Thus, it is even possible to love a neighbour whom one does not like, perhaps even an enemy, for in him can be seen the friend for whom Jesus poured out his Blood: "Only my readiness to encounter my neighbour and to show him love makes me sensitive to God as well" (n. 18).

• The sixth and last thesis includes Part II of the Encyclical and can be expressed as the Church's charitable activity for needy people of every kind and of every epoch as a manifestation of Trinitarian love in history. Indeed, St. Augustine wrote: "If you see charity, you see the Trinity" (De Trinitate, 18, 8, 12).

From the outset, the Church has exercised her service of charity lived in practice by means of service to the poor, children, widows, the sick, the disadvantaged and the ignorant.

This is an extraordinary epic to which world historiography has paid insufficient attention, but which constitutes the soul of Christian civilization.

Christian charity has always preceded human justice, and still today, even in countries where social justice is better affirmed, Christian charity is needed as a consolation for the afflicted, comfort for the abandoned and support for the despairing.

In this context, the Pope rightly cites the charitable services of Dioceses and parishes, but also of the saints who exercised charity. — obviously only some of them, the best known, those who made a mark in the world —, and who with their lives, their work and their congregations, re-created a providential "network of protection" for needy humanity.

The cloak the young catechumen Martin of Tours tore in two, with his excellent charity, continues to cover the shivering shoulders of the poor of the entire world.

In the Encyclical, the lyricism of love for God takes nothing away from the practical service to man, which it nourishes and makes effective. It is a lesson that the world and the Church learn with joy, for love is evidence of the Gospel.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
23 August 2006, page 5

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