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Reflections On Deus Caritas Est

January 26, 2019 Our Catholic Faith No Comments

By DON FIER

As we continue to examine the theological virtue of charity, it would serve us well to reflect on the wisdom contained in the first encyclical of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, who just celebrated his ninety-first birthday. The former Vicar of Christ has much to offer on how love and charity are to be properly understood.
Pope Benedict issued Deus Caritas Est (“God is Love”) on the Feast of the Nativity in 2005 and it was subsequently released to the general public on January 25, 2006. The issuance date is symbolically significant in that it coincides with the Feast of the Incarnation, that day on which God bestowed on mankind the gift of His only begotten Son in His human nature.
Also notable is that it was promulgated to the Church at large nine months after Benedict assumed the papacy, which corresponds to the length of time that a couple awaits childbirth — the fruit of their married loved — after conception.
The encyclical was addressed to all members of the Church to clarify the meaning of the word “love,” certainly one of the most used, misunderstood, and misused words in the English language. Pope Benedict exposes the many and varied meanings of “love” in our secularized society; he then proceeds to convey its true Christian meaning and explains how closely interconnected Christian love is with the practice of Christian charity.
The first words of Deus Caritas Est (DCE), “God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him” (1 John 4:16), indicate the course Pope Benedict will take in his teaching. His purpose is “to speak of the love which God lavishes upon us and which we in turn must share with others” (DCE, n. 1 § 3).
He deals profoundly with the primacy of love for the life of every Christian and for the Church as a whole, dividing his teaching in two sections: (1) the meaning of love in salvation history, particularly with the forms of love depicted by eros and agape, and (2) the practice of love by the Church and her members. He explains how personal love and the practice of charity are profoundly interconnected.
In Part I, “The Unity of Love in Creation and in Salvation History,” the Holy Father directly asserts that “God’s love for us is fundamental for our lives, and it raises important questions about who God is and who we are” (DCE, n. 2 § 1). He speaks of the types of love depicted by the three Greek words, eros, philia, and agape, where eros and agape are highlighted.
In his Modern Catholic Dictionary (MCD), Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ, explains that “in the Christian vocabulary eros is possessive love; it is the love that desires for one’s own benefit. It is acquisitive love on whatever plane of self-satisfaction something is said to be loved” (pp. 191-192). In our culture, it is most often associated with “erotic” love and does not often distinguish between pleasure and the person — what is actually “loved” is the pleasure the other person gives.
It is an immature kind of love that is withdrawn when the self-gratification sought is no longer realized. This goes a long way toward explaining why divorce is so commonplace in the world of today.
Agape, in contrast, is the most distinctively Christian form of love. It was used by Jesus to describe the love among persons of the Trinity and is the love He commanded His followers to have for one another:
“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35).
Agape helps us give up our self-centeredness and seek the good of the ones we love. Using our free will, we do what ought to be done for loved ones in given circumstances even when attraction, pleasure, and inclination are absent. Genuine love is self-sacrificial and is most perfectly exemplified by God’s only Son offering His life on Calvary to save sinful mankind (cf. MCD, p. 15).
Elsewhere, Fr. Hardon identifies the secret of true love in a series of three statements, each based on divine Revelation and each building on the preceding one: (1) give rather than receive; (2) give in deeds and not only in affection or words; and (3) give self and not only things (cf. Spiritual Life in the Modern World, pp. 50-56).
St. Peter identifies two conditions that must be fulfilled before true love is realized: We must accept divine Revelation and then be purified of our defects (cf. 1 Peter 1:22).
Pope Benedict emphasizes that “man is a being made up of body and soul. Man is truly himself when his body and soul are intimately united.” He continues, “It is neither the spirit alone nor the body alone that loves: it is man, the person, a unified creature composed of body and soul who loves. Only when both dimensions are truly united, does man attain full stature” (DCE, n. 5 § 2).
So it is when the love of eros is purified and transformed and is no longer self-seeking, but seeks the good of the beloved as characterized by the love of agape that we become who we are created to be.
Yet man “cannot always give, he must also receive. Anyone who wishes to give love must also receive love as a gift” (DCE, n. 7 § 2). We receive love as a gift from Christ, who is the source of love for the Church, poured out as living water that flows from His Sacred Heart: “One of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out water and blood” (John 19:34). As the Pope states, “God’s eros for man is also totally agape” (DCE, n. 9 § 1).
Pope Benedict points out that the love of eros is directed toward marriage. Erotic love is ordered to and ultimately culminates in the Sacrament of Matrimony. The Holy Father points to the love between a married man and woman “where body and soul are inseparably joined and human beings glimpse an apparently irresistible promise of happiness. This would seem to be the very epitome of love” (DCE, n. 2 § 2).
Each desires the other with eros and both desire to give themselves to and for the other with agape. “Marriage based on exclusive and definitive love becomes the icon of the relationship between God and his people and vice versa. God’s way of loving becomes the measure of human love” (DCE, n. 11 § 2).
An enduring presence of the union of eros and agape is realized by Jesus in the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper. As stated in Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium, it is “the [source and summit] of the whole Christian life” (n. 11 § 1) and is God’s means of being with us always in the Real Presence. “The imagery of marriage between God and Israel is now realized in a way previously inconceivable: it had meant standing in God’s presence, but now it becomes union with God through sharing in Jesus’ self-gift, sharing his body and blood” (DCE, n. 13).
The second part of the encyclical, “Caritas: The Practice of Love by the Church,” offers a discourse on how the Church is called to exercise the commandment of love of neighbor and strive for a just social order. It makes two main points: (1) as a community, the Church must practice love through works of charity and attend to people’s sufferings and needs, including material needs; and (2) the Church’s actions stem from its spiritual mission and must never be undertaken as part of a social or ideological agenda.
“This love does not simply offer people material help, but refreshment and care for their souls, something which is often even more necessary than material support” (DCE, n. 28 § 7). A materialist misconception that the Christian faithful must never fall into is that man can live “by bread alone” (Matt. 4:4).
In Western society, which is experiencing a continual and unabated attack on the family and Christian moral values, it is important to realize that the family is the basic unit of society — as the family goes so will go society in general. If we want to work for social justice, we must first do justice to the fundamental social unit: the relationship of man and woman and family that springs from their love.

Prayer Is A Cornerstone

Pope Benedict reminds us that prayer is a vital part of Christian charitable activity — it keeps the Christian in contact with God, who is Love, who alone is able to conquer the evils of the world. St. Teresa of Avila defines mental prayer as “an intimate sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with Him who we know loves us” (The Book of Her Life, 8, 5).
St. Alphonsus Liguori maintains that “it is morally impossible for him who neglects meditation to live without sin” (Peter Thomas Rohrbach, Conversation with Christ, p. 5).
Pope Benedict states that “prayer, as a means of drawing ever new strength from Christ, is concretely and urgently needed. People who pray are not wasting their time, even though the situation appears desperate and seems to call for action alone” (DCE, n. 36). Suffice it to say that prayer needs to be a cornerstone for anyone engaged in authentic and fruitful charitable activity.
Having achieved his purpose for writing the encyclical, namely clarifying the true Christian meaning of love and explaining how deeply this love is intertwined in the Christian’s daily life, the Holy Father ends by setting before us the Mother of God as a prototypical example of what it means to love and practice charity. “Mary’s greatness consists in the fact that she wants to magnify God, not herself” (DCE, n. 41). Mary is our model because “she places herself totally at the disposal of God’s initiatives” (ibid.).

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(Don Fier serves on the board of directors for The Catholic Servant, a Minneapolis-based monthly publication. He and his wife are the parents of seven children. Fier is a 2009 graduate of Ave Maria University’s Institute for Pastoral Theology. He is a Consecrated Marian Catechist.)

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