February 16, 2006
In modern times, the first encyclical of a new pope has become the road map for his ministry as supreme pastor of the Universal Church. When Pope John XXIII died in June 1963, the Second Vatican Council had just begun. The 80 cardinals who gathered to elect his successor chose a man who was committed to the
aggiornamento begun by his predecessor. Pope Paul VI’s first encyclical made this explicit. With "
Ecclesiam Suam," he expressed his desire to show with great clarity how vital the Church is for the world and how much the Church should meet the world. When Pope John Paul II issued his first encyclical in 1979,
Redemptor Hominis signaled what was to come in the next 27 years. The Pope was committed to have the world see and understand, experience, and witness the truth that Christianity brings the authentic liberation that man desires.
Pope Benedict XVI has issued his first encyclical “
Deus Caritas est.” In it, the Holy Father has gone to the heart of the matter. He has chosen to speak about love. In sentence after sentence, he unravels the distinctive Christian understanding of love. The Pope connects love with life. With the proper understanding of love, there is seen an underlying unity that brings together areas of life we tend to divide.
The Pope himself has said that he has chosen to speak of love because even the word itself is no longer understood. The Christian faith is founded on the centrality of love. Being a Christian is not in the first instance the result of accepting an idea. Rather it is a personal encounter with an event, with a person. And that person is Christ.
In Christ, God has shown us a human face and a human heart. The New Testament continues and brings to completion the great act of revelation that God begins in the gift of Himself in the Old Testament. “The real novelty of the New Testament lies not so much in new ideas as in the figure of Christ himself, who gives flesh and blood to those [Old Testament] concepts —an unprecedented realism” (12).
In philosophical and theological discussions, love is often spoken of in two distinct ways. There is e
ros, a fascination with the promise of happiness, a drive for satisfaction. It is possessive or covetous and ascending to the divine. And there is
agape. This is descending love. It is the self-gift of God to us, drawing us into the mystery of His divine life.
Eros is not evil. It is good and it reaches its epitome in the marriage of a man and a woman.
Eros is rooted in man’s nature and is directed toward marriage. For there in the covenant of marriage, a husband and wife, purified of selfishness, can give themselves completely and exclusively to each other to the point that their marriage becomes a living sign of
agape. The newness of biblical faith is that both eros and agape are dimensions of the same reality of love who is God.
Ancient philosophers rightly taught that man’s ultimate quest is for wisdom. What truly nourishes and sustains the human person are not the passing things of this world. It is eternal wisdom. For the Greeks, the Logos is our true food. By the mystery of the incarnation, the
Logos, the divine Son of God, emptied himself of his glory to be with us and love us. Jesus loved us completely to the point of giving his life for us on the Cross. Anticipating his death and resurrection at the Last Supper, he gave us the Eucharist as the enduring gift of his self-oblation. What was dimly anticipated in ancient times has become a reality. The Logos is now truly our food as
agape. In love, there is unity.
Union with Christ in the Eucharist draws us into communion with each other. By being united to Christ in the Eucharist, every Christian is drawn out of himself and into a deeper union not only with the Lord, but with all who are united to him. The fulfillment of the two-fold commandment of love of God and love of neighbor does not happen apart from Christ. In receiving the Lord, we are loved and thus able to love others. Our love is no longer self-seeking and a search for happiness. It now is seeking the good of the other, even to the point of sacrifice. In the encounter with divine
agape in the Eucharist, worship and
ethos are thus united. As
agape, Eucharist becomes unbroken
agape for others. In love, there is unity.
Love also unites piety and morality. The encounter with God in Christ leads to a communion of will and even affections. Loved by Christ, the Christian looks on others as Christ himself sees them. Recognizing the dignity and the needs of others, the Christian does more than simply supply for their physical necessities. The Christian gives love. Remaining in contact with God, an individual can see beyond the external. He can see the image of God in the other. In caring for others, the individual becomes open to God. Devotion without works of charity is arid. Works of charity without true piety is empty. But in love, unity is achieved.
In his first encyclical, Pope Benedict XVI has shown himself to be a true Augustinian. In religious art, St. Augustine is often portrayed as holding a heart in one hand. He is the Doctor of Love. In making love the subject of his first encyclical, the Holy Father has shown how love unites and draws together. In a world broken by hostilities and prejudices, this is a most needed lesson. The student has learned well and now is master teacher of the entire Church.