• Acts 10:25-26, 34-35, 44-48
• Ps 98:1, 2-3, 3-4
• 1 Jn 4:7-10
• Jn 15:9-17
“Did I read the same encyclical as The New York Times?”
That was the title of a piece I wrote for the Insight Scoop blog shortly after Pope Benedict XVI’s first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est (“God Is Love”) was released in late December 2005. America’s most famous newspaper ran a piece stating, “Pope Benedict XVI issued an erudite meditation on love and charity on Wednesday in a long-awaited first encyclical that presented Roman Catholicism’s potential for good rather than imposing firm, potentially divisive rules for orthodoxy.” It then expressed evident surprise that the encyclical “did not mention abortion, homosexuality, contraception or divorce, issues that often divide Catholics.”
It spoke volumes about the serious misconceptions that exist about the nature of love and Catholicism. For many outside the Church (and, sadly, some inside the Church), being a loving person and being a serious Catholic are not always compatible; some insist they are completely incompatible. After all, goes the wisdom of the day, Catholicism is so exclusive, has so many rules, is so eager to say, “Don’t do this!” and “Don’t do that!” Doesn’t the Church understand that love is in the eye of the beholder—or, more accurately, in the desire of the beholder?
Benedict, of course, was aware of these perspectives. He noted that the word “love” has “become one of the most frequently used and misused of words, a word to which we attach quite different meanings” (par 2). He wrote “to clarify some essential facts concerning the love which God mysteriously and gratuitously offers to man, together with the intrinsic link between that Love and the reality of human love” (par 1). In doing so, he drew deeply from 1 John 4 and from the Last Supper Discourse in the Gospel of John (chapters 13-16), from which come today’s Epistle and Gospel readings.
One of Benedict’s essential points is that human love, without a transcendent point of reference, is ultimately incomplete and frustrated. All love comes from the Source of Love, and any attempt—whether intentional or not—to separate love from that Source results in damaging, perverting, and even destroying the love between spouses, family members, friends. Without a vertical, supernatural dimension, love becomes thin and fragile; it begins to crack and crumble under the pressure of everyday life and the ultimate questions that nip at our mental tails.
“This is my commandment: love one another as I love you,” Jesus told his disciples as he prepared to demonstrate his love on the altar of the Cross. “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” This is authentic love. It is not rooted in emotion or sentiment, nor is it concerned with mere appearance and respectability. Jesus’ death on the Cross, wrote Benedict, “is love in its most radical form” (par 12). It shows the world that “God is love” (1 Jn 4:8). Any real definition of love must begin at the foot of the Cross, for to look upon and to really see the One who is an expiation for our sins is to know perfect love—not in an abstract way, but in a real and transforming way.
Jesus speaks of love, but also of commandments. This is befuddling to modern man, for he considers love to be freedom from stricture, liberation from directives. But if there is one thing man needs direction in, it is in knowing how to really love, how to die to oneself and to live for others.
God’s commandments are meant to keep us from embracing falsehoods about love; they guide us through the dangerous straits of fleshly temptations and unruly passions. If man followed God’s commandments, there would be no abortions, homosexuality, contraceptives, or divorce. Those evils exist because fallen creatures have pursued faulty notions of love.
And yet, while we each fail to love, we all desire to fall in love. It starts at the Cross and continues by remaining in the One who is Love.
(This “Opening the Word” column originally appeared in the May 17, 2009, issue of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)
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