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What I learned from "GOD IS LOVE"

by Michele Szekely

I am a late bloomer for many things and papal encyclicals are one of them. But I have cherished every one of the recent encyclicals as true gifts to help me grow in the faith and I was just amazed, last week, when it happened again and when I read "Deus Caritas Est" and realized that it was written specifically for me!

Earlier this month, I had dinner with a friend of mine who is very active in the Church, who is full of zeal and bubbling with faith constantly. She bought a new house recently and she was telling me of having made friends right away with the young couple next door and how helpful and kind the husband was to her (a single middle-age woman) and how he was always offering to help fix things around the house or in the yard because he is quite a handy-man himself and he loves doing this. He is not a believer, he calls himself an "atheist" but he definitively regularly displays the best "neighborly" qualities. And she told me how one day recently he had asked her, with a sly smile, if there was really any difference between her (and her Catholic activism) and his own un-believer's "benevolence".. And she said she did not know what to answer and she basically told him that "No, there was no difference".

I told my friend that I had got that kind of comment a few times myself and that it really irritated me because, as she did, I did not know what to say but I felt instinctively that I ought to be able to articulate my faith better.

Lucky for me, Pope Benedict XVI just did this for me.

He wrote a few pages explicitly on the love that we ought to put forward in action for our neighbor. And he explains how the concept of "neighbor" has got to be extended beyond the one who is next to us, in our own country, in our own corner of the world . It has to include the ones who are farther away, even the ones that I do not know. And going past the geographical dimension, he outlined (very clearly) that the love of neighbor has to be offered even to the ones that I do not like. This challenge is exactly what is at the heart of the whole Christian faith. Everything is hinging upon it, upon this ability to stretch ourselves beyond what we would normally do. And the reason why we can do it is because of the love of God, because God loved us first. Once we know the love of God ourselves, once we understand and accept this amazing promise, then the very next step is to respond to God's love with the love of our neighbor, to share it with him. And Pope Benedict XVI says that we are able to respond to God in helping whoever needs us because we see, in them, the image of God.

As soon as I read it, I recognized it for what it was: it was the answer to my own earlier question, the one which had come up at the dinner with my friend. My faith in God allows me to see the spark of the divine in anyone I encounter, whether they believe in God themselves or not. This interaction between the love of God and the love of neighbor is what gives this additional dimension to my relationship to the other and allows me to see in him more than himself, to see in him the image of God.

The pages that Pope Benedict has just written on this process of love, how it grows and transcends our divisions, how the program of Jesus is "a heart that sees where love is needed" recharged me completely. I always love a good love story and I actually have a part in this one!

I read attentively what Pope Benedict outlined in his encyclical on the whole movement of love, starting with God, going through each one of us and ending up by allowing "goodness to enter the world". He says that it is all about giving and receiving, in a constant motion (as the angels in Jacob's ladder). He wrote wonderfully about the Eucharist and how "this sacramental mysticism is social in character, how the union of all who partakes, now and forever, draws me out of myself toward my neighbor until we truly become the One Body". He differentiated patiently between the various kinds of love, between Eros and Agape, and between the various works of charity, the ones that feed our egos (or the welfare programs performed bureaucratically) and the true works of mercy. His aim in this encyclical it to encourage us toward the more perfect love, the one we should aspire to, the one which is best found in the Saints, these "bearers of light in history".

One more part of the encyclical really hit home with me and it had to do with the Church and its place in the world. What he wrote of the Church's commitment to justice and charity turned out to be another gift for myself. I must admit that I have sometimes struggled with this notion of separation of Church and State. It has achieved quite a glorified status in some circles here in the US (or in my native France) and I found it often annoying. I usually hear in it an effort to shut me out of the public square, to give the State the upper hand and to allow religion (maybe, and only if we are good and quiet) a little space at the bottom. I have often resented this arrangement although I could not deny it had a solid and rational base.

But in "Deus Caritas Est", Pope Benedict XVI presented the separation of State and Church in a very interesting angle, he used the eschatological angle which is one I can understand more easily. He also said that the separation of State and Church is needed, that Catholic Social Doctrines are not to give the Church power over the State and are not to impose the faith but that the Church "wishes to help form consciences in political life and to stimulate insight of justice and action. The Church is duty-bound to offer her contribution toward justice and how to achieve it politically. The Church should not replace the State but must play her part to reawaken the spiritual energy without which justice cannot prevail. Each generation must build a just social and civil order".

I found the comment on "each generation" to be fascinating. It opened new windows for me. It carries in itself this intriguing paradox of each generation taking a turn in trying to achieve a better society but recognizing at the very same time the inner limits of that attempt. Here again, it is only in the light of the Christian revelation that the big picture can take shape. Because "in the end, the claim that just social structures would solve everything masks a materialistic conception of man which demeans and disregards all that is human". Because we live "not by bread alone", we are called to work toward justice, to work for the common good, but we are also called to admit that "in addition to justice, man needs love". What a program is laid out before us!

And very appropriately, Pope Benedict XVI reminds us all in the last paragraphs that it is only through a living relationship with Jesus Christ and through a faith nourished by prayers that we will be able to do all this. It is also the only way to save man from "falling prey to the teaching of fanaticism and terrorism".

This encyclical on "God Is Love" has condensed in a few pages an amazingly rich agenda. It gave me much food for thoughts and it greatly helped clarified some key aspects of the faith in its many dimensions.

Since I felt so grateful for the direct and personal help I found in Pope Benedict XVI first encyclical, I started thinking of what subject I would like him to address in his second one or third one, and as far as I am concerned, I could use some help with sorting out the following issues re: Social Justice:
- Is a capitalist system really "Christian"?
- Isn't this notion of unbridled profit and interest in contradiction with our faith?

I also often wonder, in terms of the Respect Life & Family issues:
- How can you raise Christian children in such secularized and hedonistic times; how can we support and strengthen the "domestic church" against the rising tides of social sin?
- How do we explain and teach respect for every life from its very beginning to its very natural end?

And finally, here is one more thing that troubles me much:
- How is it that we are (us Catholics and for that matter all Christians) so unable and incapable of embracing all the social justice issues and the respect life issues in one swooping call? What is it that is holding us back and letting us wallow in our differences?
Help! Please publish another one soon.
In the meantime, I will re-read the part in "Deus Caritas Est" on the need to "abandon myself to God's will" and to trust in God's love.

Copyright ©2006-2022 Michele Szekely

Link to the encyclical DEUS CARITAS EST: here

This article was originally posted on in February 2006

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