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As reported by Archbishop Georg Gänswein, the last words of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI were “Lord, I love you.” These final words uttered by Benedict were an authentic testimony to the Christian theology of love that was a constant theme in his Magisterium. In his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, for example, he offered a theological explanation of the insistence of Jesus in the first and second greatest commandments that loving God and loving neighbor are inseparable. Then he raised and answered the practical question of how it is even possible for us to obey the commandments to love God and to love our neighbor.

Many people do find the commandments to love God and neighbor rather puzzling and frustrating. From human experience, it seems that we love something only when we experience it through our senses, and it seems that love is a feeling in the heart that is not produced by the will and is not subject to the will. How then can we obey the command to love God, when we do not experience God through our senses, and how can we obey the command to love our neighbor, when our experience of our neighbor often makes us uncomfortable and leaves us with unpleasant feelings? (Deus Caritas Est, 1, 16)

Benedict XVI explains that loving God is possible because God reveals himself to us and has ultimately made himself visible in Jesus Christ. In relation to the ancient covenant that God established with the Hebrews, the new covenant in Christ does not so much introduce new concepts as “give flesh and blood” to old concepts already revealed and taught. In Jesus, God assumes a human body and soul and sends his people out on an apostolic mission in search of lost humanity. God’s love is fully revealed and understood in the death of Jesus on the Cross and in the martyrdom of his disciples. By contemplating the visible sacrificial love of Jesus and his disciples, we can come to understand the generosity of God who is actively working for our everlasting happiness, and we can also discover “the path along which our own life and love must move” in imitation of God’s goodness. (Deus Caritas Est, 12)

God has come into the world visibly in Jesus Christ, seeking to win our minds and hearts, and he continues to manifest his presence visibly in the Church, the Mystical Body of Christ. The love of God is thus experienced in the liturgy and the sacraments of the Church, especially in the Eucharist and in the transmission of the Gospel, and it is also experienced in “the living community of believers.” In the Eucharist, love of God and love of neighbor are “truly united,” and God’s own love “comes to us bodily in order to continue his work in and through us.” This sacramental reality is the basis from which to “understand Jesus’ teaching on love” and the transition “from the Law and the Prophets to the twofold commandment of love of God and of neighbor.” Since the Eucharist “includes the reality both of being loved and of loving others in turn,” a Eucharistic communion “which does not pass over into the concrete practice of love is intrinsically fragmented.” (Deus Caritas Est, 14)

Furthermore, the divine teaching of Jesus on love extends the concept of neighbor to anyone who needs our help and whom we are able to help (Luke 10: 25-37), and it offers the concrete practice of love as the definitive criterion by which we shall be judged (Matthew 25:31-46). Meeting the basic human needs of others both materially and spiritually is revealed as absolutely essential to loving God. Those who love God sacrificially make the love of God visible through the concrete practice of sacrificial love toward their neighbors, so that the love of God can then blossom within the hearts of their neighbors as the proper response to the experience of being loved by God. Benedict XVI explains further that love is not merely a feeling, although it does certainly engage our feelings, especially in the initial human response to sacrificial love. The love of God, visibly manifested “in the men and women who reflect his presence,” produces “a feeling of joy born of the experience of being loved.”

Materially and spiritually meeting the needs of our neighbors is a visible act of true love which God will bless and use to attract them to communion with himself through Christ and his Church. Love begets love. Those who experience the sacrificial love of God made visible in us are thereby empowered to love God in return and then to communicate the love of God to others. Being welcomed and loved cultivates the heart and makes people more loving and more inclined to enter into community with us. In the context of community, love then undergoes a developmental process of purification and has the potential to become fully mature, engaging the will and the intellect as well as the sensitive and sentimental aspects of the human person. (Deus Caritas Est, 12, 14-17)

Love initially engages the heart and the mind and then gradually engages the intellect and the will. Mature love is a community of mind and heart in which persons want the same things and reject the same things and are therefore similar to each other in thought and will. As God manifests his love for us visibly and sacrificially through Christ and the Church and thereby wins our hearts and minds, we enter into sacramental communion with him and become increasingly like him in will, thought, and sentiment. In Christ and the Church there is a perfect communion of the human and the divine, and in trusting and obeying Christ in faith we are freed from our attachments to sin and thus increasingly want what he wants, think what he thinks, and feel what he feels. We also gradually acquire the capacity to love our neighbor even when we do not happen to like our neighbor, even when we find that our neighbor is strange or disagreeable. If we have had such an encounter with the love of God made visible, an encounter that has matured into a loving communion of will, thought, and feeling, then we have the capacity to see and love our neighbors as Christ sees and loves them.

In the concrete practice of sacrificial love, we will be concerned about the material and spiritual welfare of persons who need our help and whom we are able to help, and we will take positive action to do what we can to help them. Every person has an interior desire to be loved, and if we are seeing others as Christ sees them, wanting for them what Christ wants for them, and feeling toward them what Christ feels toward them, then we will give them the sacrificial love and personal attention that they need and desire, and we will thereby nurture our own communion with God in love. (Deus Caritas Est, 17-18)

In this first encyclical, Benedict XVI also warns us that if we fail to attend personally to the concrete needs of our neighbors, then we will thereby impede and damage our personal communion with God in love:

If in my life I fail completely to heed others, solely out of a desire to be “devout” and to perform my “religious duties,” then my relationship with God will also grow arid. It becomes merely “proper,” but loveless. Only my readiness to encounter my neighbor and to show him love makes me sensitive to God as well. Only if I serve my neighbor can my eyes be opened to what God does for me and how much he loves me. (Deus Caritas Est, 18)

Thus the love of God and the love of neighbor are inseparable, and together “they form a single commandment” which we are able to obey through Jesus Christ. By communion with our Eucharistic Lord, we constantly renew our capacity for loving our neighbors, and by actively serving our neighbors we deepen and intensify our love for our Eucharistic Lord. God does not command us to do the impossible. God has loved us first and has infused his love into our souls through Christ, thereby giving us the capacity to love him and our neighbors as Christ does. We experience the merciful love of God within us, “a love which by its very nature must then be shared with others.” Love is a common good: the more love that we give, the more love that we possess. Communion with God in love transcends our divisiveness and unites us to each other. This is the perennial basis for true community in the world, and in the end God will be “all in all” (1 Corinthians 15:28). (Deus Caritas Est, 18)

As Aristotle told us long ago, delivering a believable message of any kind requires integration of logos, ethos, and pathos. Logos appeals to the intelligibility and veracity of the message. Ethos appeals to the credibility and authenticity of the message. Pathos appeals to the applicability and suitability of the message. If we do not engage people’s minds, hearts, appetites, emotions, and imaginations through logos, ethos, and pathos for what is true, good, beautiful, and relevant to their deepest aspirations for virtue and dignity, then they will not take us seriously or pay any attention to us.

Through the concrete practice of sacrificial love in personal interaction, we must reveal to others the intrinsic goodness and practical relevance of our Christian and sacramental way of life. We offer ourselves to others as personal motives of credibility for the transforming power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We must sacrificially allow others into our lives in order for them to verify our integrity and genuine concern for their natural and supernatural well-being. God comes to our assistance and supports us in this apostolic mission. Grace elevates the human faculties to a supernatural object, enlightening the intellect and inspiring the will so that the word of God in our hearts and on our lips can be recognized and believed by those to whom we proclaim it.

The power of God is also manifested in the supernatural and providential signs of credibility which are always present in families and communities who are faithfully keeping the covenant that we have received through Christ and his Church. Whenever the Gospel seems absurd and irrelevant to others, it only means that they are working from false assumptions and thus are ignorant of its power to satisfy the deepest longings of their hearts. The work of evangelization is difficult and scary because it entails some sacrifice and rejection, but it is also easy and joyful because God makes it effective, and we discover that bringing others to Christ makes them happy and makes us happy.

As an experienced professor of Fundamental Theology, Benedict XVI knew how to combine these elements effectively for Christian apologetics and evangelization. He regarded all of them as essential to the persuasive preaching of the Gospel, and he never set up a false opposition between any of them. Apologetics as a Christian discipline is the intellectual endeavor to defend the Christian faith against those who oppose it, and to attract to it those who do not yet believe it. It is the practical science of the credibility of the word of God. It explains the believability of the deposit of faith and morals (the fides quae), which can be judged either by reason alone or by reason informed by faith (the fides qua). Classical apologetics provides reasons or motives based on human reason alone (e.g. from natural science and philosophy), either to believe the word of God or to reject what is contrary to it (e.g. the Five Ways of St Thomas Aquinas). Immanent apologetics provides reasons or motives based on faith and revelation (Scripture and Tradition, with theology providing greater understanding), where God himself provides reasons why his word is credible and believable, and it typically relates the deposit of faith to human felt-needs for perfective goods (e.g. intellectual, moral, and social virtues). Examples of immanent apologetics include St Augustine’s Confessions, Maurice Blondel’s L’Action, and the encyclical Lumen Fidei (written by Benedict XVI and Pope Francis together). Augustine summed it up nicely when he pointed out that the human heart is restless until it rests in God.

Effective apologetics always addresses the whole human person in a concrete situation of need and requires an attractive integration of the classical-philosophical-objective approach with the immanent-existential-subjective approach. To omit or suppress either dimension of the conversion process is a serious error. There are three characteristic stages in the intellectual movement toward divine faith: (1) the praeambula fidei, which include naturally knowable truths about God and human nature by reason through philosophy, (2) the divine signs of credibility, which include God’s providential activity making his word credible and helping the human intellect, and (3) the supernatural power of faith itself, which includes the actual graces of illumination and inspiration which are essential to the personal assent of faith. John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and now Pope Francis have all understood this process of conversion in its totality and have asked us to contribute to it actively and personally in Christian discipleship and the concrete witness of our lives.

The imitation of Christ in the practice of love for our neighbor is the key to effective evangelization in every age and culture. Effective evangelization typically begins with a visible heart-to-heart radiation of compassion and holiness and then gradually proceeds to the mind. It is the graceful effect of the true, the good, and the beautiful visibly radiating from the heart of a person who is supernaturally filled with faith, hope, and charity. We have these virtues, but we must let our light shine before others. Our neighbors cannot see our light unless we are personally involved in their lives and loving them as Christ does.

When we recognize what Christian evangelization requires of us and our parishes, the next question becomes the urgent and existential one that Pope Francis keeps asking us, “Are we willing to do it?”


Image: Catholic Church England and Wales, POPE BENEDICT XVI in Portugal, Pope Benedict XVI is pictured at an open-air mass in the Terreiro do Paso in Lisbon on May 11, 2010. Credit M.Mazur/www.thepapalvisit.org.uk. Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).


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For Pope Benedict, Love is the Key to Evangelization
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