01/25/2006, 00.00
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"Deus caritas est": God's eros and agape, medicine for the world

by Bernardo Cervellera

Benedict XVI's first encyclical is not only the program of his pontificate. It is also the Church's program for the third millennium.  Facing a globalization of the economy that creates enormous masses of impoverished people, states that seem like "bunches of thieves" for their disregard for justice, the "vanished illusion" of Marxism and a prevailing materialism that has turned man into a "thing", the Pope invites Christians to be "fountains of living water in the midst of a thirsting world" (n. 41).

In reading these pages teeming with culture, social analysis, faith and prayer, one has the sense of being at the start of a new era, of a new and determined way of looking at the problems of the world and at possible solutions.  Here and there, the Pope refers various times to the question of a "new humanism", of a "true humanism", of a new "image of man."

The encyclical is really addressed to man, men and women, seen in their lively reaching out, their eros, their search for happiness and justice.  The Pope calls upon this man not to disparage him or to judge him from above with the eye of a puritanical Pharisee, but to appreciate him with tenderness.  In eros itself, it his richness and poverty, in his leaps and falls, beyond consumeristic manipulations, the Pope finds all the elements to show that God's eros and agape – united – fulfill the very expectation of human eros toward fullness and eternity.  From now on, thanks to this Pope, it will be possible to once again say "I love you forever," "I love you fully" with no need for a smile of irony or conceit.  And it will be possible to think of marriage and even of indissolubility not as an "order" or an external law, but as the fulfillment of a need found in eros itself.

The Pope quotes Nietzsche who accuses the Church of having "poisoned" eros.  Instead it is the sickly and worn-out eros of today, tempted by contempt for oneself and others, that is poisoned.  And the encyclical, speaking of the person God, impassioned like a lover and merciful to the point of dying for the other, the Pope says that He is in fact the needed medicine.

This medicine is, first of all, the patient work of putting together, unifying, reconciling elements that, in society and in the Church, risk opposing and dividing from each other: eros and agape, sentiment and will, justice and charity, love of God and love of one's neighbour, evangelization and human promotion, prayer and efficiency.

The medicine of God's love, witnessed by the Church, is the world's most urgent need.  The Pope writes off Marxism as a "vanished illusion" and, what's more, as "inhumane ideology" and asks states to leave the Church free to work in charity to create more justice in society and to let themselves be influenced by a vision of man that leaves room for religion, to its relation with the divine, or otherwise risk becoming a "bunch of thieves," suffocated by interest and power, by being ethically blinded.

The universality of charity, this precious gift of Christianity to the world, is necessary more than ever given the current state of globalization, which is able to unite continents and economies, but also to forget entire populations in poverty and injustice.  With Jesus' realism ("you will always have the poor with you") the Pope states that no society can ever do without the gratuitous and personal gesture of love for one's neighbour.

The universality of charity and its concreteness in history are also important for extracting the face of God and man from the temptation of "the teaching of fanaticism and terrorism" (as in fundamentalist Islam) and from the cancellation of oneself as preached in oriental doctrines (man's divinization is not "a sinking in the nameless ocean of the Divine", no. 10).  But it is above all the route by which charity can grow beyond the confines of the Church itself.

Already today, from our vantage point on Asia, we see Japanese Buddhist movements that take their inspiration from Christians in their help to the poor and the elderly: Hindus that, moved by the example of the Church, open hospitals and schools.  All this is the foreshadowing of a new era of a "true humanism", of the strength of Christianity beyond confessional borders.

John Paul II, in "Novo Millennio Ineunte", had indicated to Christians of the third millennium the task of expressing "creativity in charity," the inventiveness of tackling problems and expressing solidarity.  This Pope confirms that task and asks the Church to embrace the service of charity as an essential element of faith.  He asks it of bishops, often tempted to be administrators of their diocese, so that they put charity and pronouncement on the same level, and he asks it of the laity, tempted by efficiency-based activism, that risks becoming solidarity without identity.

The reference to Mother Teresa (named 3 times in the Encyclical!) drives these elements home.  John Paul II beatified the mother of the poor as a "missionary for the third millennium"; with her example, this wisp of woman succeeded in stirring governments and worldwide organizations; with her charity, she met and worked with Muslims, Hindus, atheists.  All this, basing herself on Jesus' love, asked for in prayer, contemplated in the Eucharist, visited in the poor.

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“L’Asia: ecco il nostro comune compito per il terzo millennio!” - Giovanni Paolo II, da “Alzatevi, andiamo”