Vatican City (AsiaNews) The first to have loved was God: the creation of man, to which He gave a companion to love, in the unity of body and soul, is love; it is for love of mankind that he gave his Son who himself became man; it is that love that reverberates in all worldly forms of "love" and due to which the Church feels obliged to offer to everyone her faith and her charity. This is the underlying theme of "Deus caritas est", Benedict XVI's first encyclical, signed on Christmas day and made public today. In a 71-page booklet, the Pope affirms that love has a single source and "different dimensions", that even in man can go beyond the moment of egoism, the research for one's own good, to transform itself, from eros into agape, in which "one no longer looks for oneself, but for the good of the other."
"To experience love and in this way to cause the light of God to enter into the world, this," the Pope states, "is the invitation I would like to extend with the present Encyclical" (39). Because, "since God loved us first," love is "the answer to the gift of love." "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).
The many meanings of one word
The theologian-Pope starts out from the linguistic definition: "love" is used in many different meanings, in speaking of work, homeland, parents, friends, God. Among the many, love between man and woman "would seem to be the very epitome of love." It is the eros of the Greeks, that which the Church is accused of having destroyed. Instead, in the Bible, and above all in the New Testament, the concept is developed, and goes beyond the reduction to the "pure sex" of love; when eros "becomes a commodity, a mere 'thing', to be bought and sold,
man himself becomes a commodity" (5). Even terminologically, Scriptures prefer agape, which expressed disinterested love, to the term eros. "Even if eros is at first mainly covetous and ascending, a fascination for the great promise of happiness, in drawing near to the other, it is less and less concerned with itself, increasingly seeks the happiness of the other, is concerned more and more with the beloved, bestows itself and wants to 'be there for' the other" (7).
"Yet eros and agapeascending love and descending lovecan never be completely separated" (7). It can be thus seen that "fundamentally, 'love' is a single reality, but with different dimensions; at different times, one or other dimension may emerge more clearly" (8). And "biblical faith does not set up a parallel universe, or one opposed to that primordial human phenomenon which is love, but rather accepts the whole man; it intervenes in his search for love in order to purify it and to reveal new dimensions of it."
A new image of God
The "newness" of biblical faith is seen also in the "new image of God": the one creator of all reality, who loves his creation, man. God's eros for man is also totally agape
not only because it is bestowed in a completely gratuitous manner, without any previous merit, but also because it is love which forgives" (10). Furthermore, the Incarnation and death on the Cross "is the culmination of that turning of God against himself in which he gives himself in order to raise man up and save him. This is love in its most radical form" (12).
"Jesus gave this act of oblation an enduring presence through his institution of the Eucharist" (13). There is in it not only the "union" with God, thanks to the sharing in Jesus' body and blood, but also a "social" character, "for in sacramental communion I become one with the Lord, like all the other communicants." (14). The "worship" of Eucharistic communion "includes the reality both of being loved and of loving others in turn" (14).
It is for this reason that from the dawn of Christianity, it has been said that there is an "unbreakable bond" between the love for God and love for one's neighbour. "One is so closely connected to the other that to say that we love God becomes a lie if we are closed to our neighbour or hate him altogether" (16). "Love of God and love of neighbour are thus inseparable, they form a single commandment. But both live from the love of God who has loved us first." This gives rise to the "service of charity" of the Church. More so, along with the proclamation of the Word and the celebration of the sacraments, it is part of the three-fold responsibility in which "the Church's deepest nature is expressed." "For the Church, charity is not a kind of welfare activity which could equally well be left to others, but is a part of her nature, an indispensable expression of her very being" (25) and by its nature goes out to whomever may be in need. The Church's charitable activity has been the subject of Marxist criticism, because the poor do not need charity, but justice which would exclude them from being needy. But, apart from the failure of Marxism, but even in the most just society, "there will always be suffering which cries out for consolation and help" (28); "the claim that just social structures would make works of charity superfluous masks a materialist conception of man: the mistaken notion that man can live 'by bread alone'" (28).
Charity and a commitment to justice
This does not exclude "the necessary commitment to justice." "The just ordering of society and the State is a central responsibility of politics." Reaffirming the "distinction between State and Church", the Encyclical observes that if "justice is both the aim and the intrinsic criterion of all politics", this concerns the State. And the question that is asks, "what is justice?", is a problem "of practical reason; but if reason is to be exercised properly, it must undergo constant purification, since it can never be completely free of the danger of a certain ethical blindness caused by the dazzling effect of power and special interests. Here politics and faith meet" (28). In short, "the Church cannot and must not take upon herself the political battle to bring about the most just society possible
Yet at the same time she cannot and must not remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice" (28).
Placing the accent, in this framework, on the service of charity, Benedict XVI defines "the essential elements of Christian and ecclesial charity." In the first place, it is "the simple response to immediate needs and specific situations." But the response of those who work in the Church's charitable organizations must not limit itself to ably performing the necessary task, but calls for "heartfelt concern". Therefore, Christian charity "must be independent of parties and ideologies"; it must not be a means of proselitism. "Love is free; it is not practised as a way of achieving other ends. But this does not mean that charitable activity must somehow leave God and Christ aside" (31).
The example of Mother Teresa
Those of us who carry out charitable activity, like Mother Teresa, mentioned more than once in this regard, will humbly "do what we can, and in all humility we will entrust the rest to the Lord. It is God who governs the world, not we." For this reason, charity workers are reminded of the importance of prayer. Which is not time wasted, as have shown the many saints who, over centuries, dedicated themselves to initiatives of human welfare and Christian formation and who "stand out as lasting models of social charity." They are "the true bearers of light within history, for they are men and women of faith, hope and love" (40). Virtues exemplified by Mary, "infallible" demonstration of the possibility of that "pure love which is not self- seeking but simply benevolent."