February 3, 2006

‘God is Love’: In encyclical, pope calls for deeper understanding of love

By Sean Gallagher
First of two parts

Pope Benedict XVI issued the first encyclical letter of his papacy, Deus Caritas Est (“God is Love”), on Jan. 25. (Read it here)

Since then, Catholics across the archdiocese have been reading the pope’s words and considering their meaning for their everyday lives of faith.

In the introduction to his encyclical, the pope wrote about his reasons for choosing the topic of the nature of Christian love, noting that “in a world where the name of God is sometimes associated with vengeance or even a duty of hatred and violence, this message is both timely and significant” (#1).

Benedictine Father Denis Robinson, assistant professor of systematic theology at Saint Meinrad School of Theology in St. Meinrad, said that this points to one of the pope’s top priorities.

“Christianity [for the pope] is not primarily an idea or a set of ideas,” he said. “Rather, it is a total and consuming way of life.

“God orders human lives, totally and completely. There can be no spiritual schizophrenia, no separation of one aspect of the personality from its Christian or religious aspect,” Father Denis said.

Brittany Doucette, a member of Our Lady of the Greenwood Parish in Greenwood, earned a Masters of Theological Studies degree at Saint Meinrad as a lay student and later taught religion at Roncalli High School in Indianapolis.

Now a stay-at-home mother of one child and a foster mother of another, she sees many concrete ways that Catholics can offer an alternative to the view on the name of God that the pope suggested is held by many in society today.

“Pope Benedict challenges all Catholics in this encyclical to really reflect on how the love of God is being concretely expressed in their lives,” she said. “As Catholics, we can witness to this … by showing others that our love for God is why we do community service, seek peace and unity in our family

relationships, or make ethical and positive choices in our professional life.”

In Part I of his encyclical, the pope investigated the nature of love. He wrote that among the primary aspects of love are “eros” and “agape.”

The former is embodied in the sexual love between woman and man. The latter is characterized by self-sacrifice for the good of the one who is loved.

After noting that some philosophers during the past 250 years have argued that Christianity “poisoned” eros through its moral teachings, Pope Benedict concluded that this is not the case. Instead, for Christians, love is “a single reality but with different dimensions” (#3, #8).

Though the pope probes the depths of the meaning of love, Father Denis said that exploration has relevance in the life of faith today.

“I do think the pope is responding to certain signs of the times,” he said, “namely the idea that we have different kinds of love for different aspects of ourselves. The pope is trying to question this separation of the understanding of love in our culture. For example, I do not have one kind of love for God and another kind for my family.

“All love is the same and proceeds from the same source. The need to understand and live from this ordering is something that has to be recaptured, even in Christian culture,” Father Denis said.

Doucette said that the joining of these two dimensions is mysterious in the Christian understanding of love.

“Christian love is characterized by sacrifice, service and self-renunciation,” she said. “The paradox, of course, is that this way of loving gives more joy to the lover than if he only loved for his own satisfaction.”

Doucette said that joining eros and agape is important both for those called to marriage and those who live lives of consecrated celibacy as priests or religious.

“Both vocations can excite a certain passion and happiness, [a kind of] eros,” she said, “but will only endure if each person focuses more on, in the words of the pope, ‘the good of the beloved, ready and even willing for sacrifice,’ [a kind of] agape.”

Passion is the word that Msgr. Joseph F. Schaedel, archdiocesan vicar general, focused upon when speaking about how eros and agape were perfectly joined in Jesus, noting that it is the word commonly used to describe his suffering and death.

“The passion of the Christ is that God was so on fire with love for us that God was willing to do anything to redeem the human race,” he said. “His heart burns—it’s on fire with a passion for his people.”

Pope Benedict noted in his encyclical that eros and agape are wholly unified in Jesus and that this is most clearly demonstrated for us in his crucifixion.

He later wrote that Jesus also gave this perfect love an “enduring presence” through the Eucharist (#13).

David Siler, executive director of the Secretariat for Catholic Charities and Family Ministries, said that the pope’s connection of love to the Eucharist in his encyclical was fitting coming as it did shortly after the conclusion of the Year of the Eucharist.

“For love to really take root in us, we have to have an encounter with God,” he said. “We just came out of the Year of the Eucharist recently. It took us back to the deepest and the most intimate encounter we can have with God, which is in the Eucharist. But if it just stops there, then, for me, it’s not very real. It has to then be passed along.”

Indeed, Pope Benedict wrote that in the celebration of the Eucharist, “love of God and love of neighbor are now truly united” (#14).

From this reflection on the role of love in the Eucharist, the pope moved forward into Part II of his encyclical, where he considered the meaning of Christian love as it is embodied in the Church’s ministry of charity.

(Next week: Catholics in the archdiocese will explore the relevance of Pope Benedict’s teaching on the Church’s charitable activities in his encyclical.)


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