May 12, 2006

Seeking the Face of the Lord

Encyclicals are important vehicles for teaching in our Church

This week, I begin a consideration of the encyclical “God is Love” recently issued by Pope Benedict XVI.

I do so because most folks do not really have the opportunity to read or study papal encyclicals. Yet they are important vehicles for teaching in our Church. My reflections will be presented as a series over the next several weeks.

In a cover letter to an Italian magazine that printed his entire encyclical, Pope Benedict said that he realized the encyclical “God is Love” could seem difficult to understand at first, but he hoped he had answered some basic questions about the Roman Catholic faith.

“At the beginning, in fact the text might appear to be a bit difficult and theoretical,” the Holy Father wrote. “But when you move ahead with the reading, it is clear that I only wanted to answer a few very concrete questions regarding Christian life.”

The National Catholic Register printed a collection of secular media headlines that tried to sum up the pope’s sophisticated theological ideas.

Deutsche Welte, Germany: “Benedict’s Ode to Love”; Sydney Morning Herald: “Persuasion Rather Than Stern Reminders in Papal Reflections on Love”; Chicago Tribune: “Poetic Explorations of Love Set Foundation for New Papacy”; Globe and Mail, Canada: “An Unexpected Letter of Love From the Pope to His Church”; Irish Examiner: “Sexual Love Needs to Be Purified”; The Australian: “Pope Gets Back to Basics”; and the Register’s personal favorite: Agenzia Giornalistica Italia: “Encyclical Will Be Sold In Supermarkets and Highway Restaurants.”

The nearly 16,000-word encyclical was issued on Jan. 25 of this year in seven languages. It is addressed to all Catholics and is divided into two sections: one on the meaning of love in the history of salvation, the other on the practice of love in our Church.

The Holy Father said he wanted to “speak of the love which God lavishes upon us and which we in return must share with others.” He said that personal love and the practice of charity are profoundly interrelated.

Much of the secular media and some religious media folks were taken by surprise at the theme of the Holy Father’s first encyclical. As George Weigel wrote in a syndicated column, “Those who bought the cartoon of ‘God’s Rottweiler’ might have imagined a first encyclical titled ‘No You Don’t.’ The real Ratzinger, the real Benedict XVI wrote something quite different: an encyclical of affirmation, an invitation to ponder more deeply and live more completely ‘the heart of the Christian faith’—the claim that God is love.”

The encyclical begins with a phrase from the First Letter of John, “God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God and God abides in him” (1 Jn 4:16). The pope said this line expresses the heart of our Christian faith, which understands the Creator as a loving God and which sees Christ’s death as the ultimate sign of God’s love for us.

At the beginning of his letter, the Holy Father wrote: “We have come to believe in God’s love: in these words the Christian can express the fundamental decision of life. Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction … . 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.”

The Holy Father must, as George Weigel asserts, have jihadist Islam in mind. He has spoken of the danger of a “clash of civilizations.” The Christian God of love is not a violent God or one who desires violent conflicts of religion.

If one follows the Holy Father’s speaking, preaching and writing in this first year of his pontificate, he is clearly seeking to find once more a place for God, a loving God in our world. He mentions frequently that our world is attempting to live as though God does not exist or, at best, that God belongs in the private pious thoughts of individuals, not in the public arena. “I wish in my first encyclical to speak of the love which God lavishes upon us and which we turn must share with others. God’s love for us is fundamental for our lives and it raises important questions about who God is and who we are.”

The pope said we “immediately find ourselves hampered by a problem of language. Today, the term ‘love’ has become one of the most frequently used and misused words, a word to which we attach different meanings.”

We will have to keep in mind the meaning of the word love in the different cultures and in present-day usage. †

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