“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”[1]

The Catholic Church has often been criticized for promoting a religion of dos and don’ts, a religion of commandments, decrees, mandates, rubrics and directives that smother all freedom and initiative. It can sometimes seem like that, but actually, with this “new commandment,” Jesus has given to his followers the only commandment that we must follow, the one from which all the other rules and directives flow. St. Paul made this clear when he wrote, “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments … are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”[2]

We have heard this many times and it is very reassuring, but what does it have to do in an article about the priesthood of the faithful? The answer is quite simple: the commandment of love IS the priesthood of the faithful. Jesus is our great high priest. Every action of His life was a priestly act that gave perfect worship to His Father. By our baptism, as we have seen, we all share in His priesthood. That means that we are all called to love as He loves, to act as He acts, to reproduce in our own lives the love that He lived while on earth and that He continues to live in heaven. A priest is one who offers sacrifice, and again St. Paul makes it clear what sacrifice we, the faithful, are to offer: “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.”[3] And how do we present our bodies as a living sacrifice to God? Simply by living out in our everyday life the love we have received from God.” God is love,” and He can do nothing but love.[4] “Those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world.”[5]

In pondering what this means, it is helpful to consider exactly what this “new commandment” says. “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” It is unfortunate that we tend to read Scripture too quickly. We too easily read this verse and the following verse together, as if they constitute a single sentence: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” In reading the two verses together, we look forward to His death on the cross, when He proved His love for us by dying for us in expiation of our sins. This is quite true and necessary, but it tends to distract us from another point that is equally true and necessary.

In reading the two sentences together, we look forward to the future, from the present celebration of the Last Supper to the sacrifice on Calvary on the following day. But there is another way to read the “new commandment” and that is to read it looking backward to the past. The commandment itself says, “Love one another as I have loved you.” The phrase “as I have loved you” looks, not to the future, but to the past. “Look over your past life and consider how I have expressed my love for you throughout your whole existence. Recognize the touches, the acts, the effects of my love in your life. Ponder them. Let the realization of my love for you soak into your heart, into your mind, into your very bones and muscles. Let the realization of my love that has enfolded you throughout your existence transform you. Then, transformed into my love, go forth to others and touch them, enfold them, as I have touched and enfolded you.”

In pondering the verse in this way, we see clearly that He is not speaking just to the disciples present in the upper room at that Passover meal. He is speaking to you and to me, to each of us. “Love one another as I have loved you. As I have loved you into existence, as I have loved you at each moment until now when you are reading this. As I have loved you passionately, protectively, perfectly in every situation of your life.” It is only when I realize how He has loved me, that I can begin to love others in the same way.

But do I realize it? Can I look back over the five, ten, thirty, fifty or more years of my life and recognize the touches of His finger in the people and events that I have experienced? To recognize something, I must be aware of it, and I must have some idea of what it looks like. This is why we need the sacraments, why we need the Scriptures and the example of the saints and other believers.

God teaches us what love is through the sacraments. He teaches us, not just through the words, but through the actions that the priest and we perform. The words touch our minds and the actions touch our bodies, our senses, our emotions and from there penetrate our hearts that we may know how to recognize God’s love. Love is only known from the experience of being loved. It cannot be taught by concepts. We come to the sacraments to experience God’s love. That love transforms us, if we let it, and, having been transformed, we can go out to touch and transform the lives of others with the same love.

The sacraments exist to transform us. The ministerial priesthood exists to celebrate the sacraments, which are given by Christ to perfect us as His members. The priesthood of the faithful exists to share that transformation with others and with the world. This is the Whole Christ in action. This is why “creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; … in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.”[6]

But why isn’t this happening? Why don’t we see creation set free? Why don’t we see ourselves revealed as the children of God? As Frank Sheed put it, “How is it possible for a man, reborn into Christ, who has all the powers sanctifying grace gives, to act as if he hadn’t? … This is not one of the questions people ask us, because they haven’t a notion of rebirth or of what sanctifying grace means to us; it is one we ask ourselves desperately… It may puzzle us, but it is quite undeniable that, illuminated by such truths, nourished by such sacraments, we are so horribly like everybody else…If we are serious, we have to try to find out why. One way or another, the answer lies in the distinction between knowing and realizing … The acid test of belief is the willingness to die for it. The acid test of realization is ability to live by it.”[7]

Every Sunday at Mass, we stand up and proclaim “I believe in God … in Jesus Christ, … in the Holy Spirit, the Holy Catholic Church, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and life everlasting. Amen!” We proclaim it, but do we believe it? Even more importantly, do we realize it? Have we pondered how God has loved us throughout our own life? Have we let that transform us?

Realization takes time. It is not quickly done. I must allow the graces that I receive to sink into my heart. Let each of us look over our life and ponder how He has loved me. Let that pondering take root and grow. Let it lead me to immerse myself in the sacraments and in Scripture. Let these transform me into a living member of the Whole Christ. Then, when the “Ite, missa est” resounds, each of us together will go forth as His hands and feet and voice and heart into a world groaning and longing to be set free and transformed.


[1] Jn. 13, 34

[2] Rom. 13, 8-10

[3] Rom. 12, 1

[4] 1 Jn 4, 8

[5] 1 Jn 4, 16-17

[6] Rom 8, 19 & 21

[7] What difference does Jesus make? Frank Sheed, Sheed & Ward, New York, 1971, pp. 234-236

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Sr. Gabriela of the Incarnation, O.C.D. (Sr. Gabriela Hicks) was born in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, in the Gold Rush country of California, which she remembers as heaven on earth for a child! She lived a number of years in Europe, and then entered the Discalced Carmelite Monastery in Flemington, New Jersey, where she has been a member for forty years. www.flemingtoncarmel.org.

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