Pope’s First Encyclical - A God who is Only Love

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Pope Benedict XVI

A pope’s first encyclical is said to be programmatic, a kind of manifesto of the style that Peter’s successor desires giving to the Church during his pontificate. And how could one not see in the title of Pope Benedict’s document the will to begin from the foundation of Christianity: God is love (1Jn 4:16), so that this humanity ever more divided amid the sea of options proposed by society might be shown the tracks that lead to God.

It is only from this statement that one can begin to comprehend the mystery of a God who took on flesh and died on a cross to save his own children. It is only in this light that one can accept the precepts of a faith that invites us to continually welcome, comprehend and have mercy on one and all, including enemies. Only in the perspective of the love of God - who is love - can any order be made of the bazaar of “loves” that man procures to satisfy the deep yearning he experiences in his heart.

A problem of language

“Today, the term “love” has become one of the most frequently used and misused of words, a word to which we attach quite different meanings,” begins the Pope, who then asks a question: “Are all these forms of love basically one, so that love, in its many and varied manifestations, is ultimately a single reality, or are we merely using the same maturity are called for; and these wordto designate totally different also pass through the path of realities?” The Pope’s response is renunciation. Far from rejecting supported by the definition of or “poisoning” eros, they heal it God as love: “The name of God and restore its true grandeur,” he is sometimes associated with points out. “Nowadays vengeance or even a duty of Christianity of the past is often hatred and violence… For this criticized as having been opposed reason, I wish in my first to the body; and it is quite true Encyclical to speak of the love that tendencies of this sort have which God lavishes upon us and which we in turn must share with others.”

Which love are we talking about?

Love as charitas, charity, love in its fullest form, made up of worldly love, eros (ascending, possessive or covetous love) together with love grounded in and shaped by faith: agape (descending, oblative love). Two elements, typically thought to be contrasting, yet they can never be completely separated: “Were this antithesis to be taken to extremes, the essence of Christianity would be detached from the vital relations fundamental to human existence, and would become a world apart. Yet eros and agape can never be completely separated. The more the two, in their different aspects, find a proper unity in the one reality of love, the more the true nature of love in general is realized,” says the Holy Father.

Purification leads to true love

Benedict doesn’t avoid warning us of the dangers of degraded love to which theworld today has become accustomed, that wemight attain the love which promises infinityand eternity. “Purification and growth in always existed. Yet the contemporary way of exalting the body is deceptive. Eros, reduced to pure “sex”, has become a commodity, a mere “thing” to be bought and sold, or rather, man himself becomes a commodity.” He then adds: “True, eros tends to rise “in ecstasy” towards the Divine, to lead us beyond ourselves; yet for this very reason it calls for a path of ascent, renunciation, purification and healing.”

Harmony of love

The challenge of eros is overcome when both body and soul live in harmony. “Love is indeed ecstasy, not in the sense of a moment of intoxication, but rather as a journey, an ongoing exodus out of the closed inward-looking self towards its liberation through self-giving, and thus towards authentic self-discovery and indeed the discovery of God.”

It is part of love’s growth towards higher levels and inward purification that it seeks to become definitive, and fully realize its human and divine promise. “Man is truly himself when his body and soul are intimately united; the challenge of eros can be said to be truly overcome when this unification is achieved,” says Papa Ratzinger.

Giving of self out of love

The first part of the Encyclical is concerned with redefining the meaning of love so that its true essence may be evident. A Christian, though, is also challenged to love his neighbour as himself. Thus, Christians have always given utter importance to “works of charity.” Awareness of this responsibility has had a constitutive relevance in the Church from the beginning, and numerous are the religious institutions founded on assisting the needy in body and spirit. “It is only through serving the poor that my eyes are able to see what God does for me and how He loves me,” continues Peter’s Successor. However, he also makes it clear that when charity isn’t rooted in a personal relationship with God it is a form of social assistance. Charity work, he explains, must be more than mere philanthropy.

Pope Benedict Xvi GreetingPope Benedict Xvi Greeting

Mother Teresa and other saints

The saints are a living testimony to this. “In the example of Bl. Teresa of Calcutta we have a clear illustration of the fact that time devoted to God in prayer not only does not detract from effective and loving service to our neighbour but is in fact the inexhaustible source of that service,” emphasizes the Pope while he specifies that love of God and love of neighbour cannot be separated, but are a sole commandment. “Love of neighbour will no longer be for (us) a commandment imposed from without, but a consequence deriving from (our) faith, a faith which becomes active through love.” Love grows thanks to love.

Charity always more than only activity

“If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but do not have love, I gain nothing” (1 Co 13) says St. Paul in his ode to charity, which according to the Pope has to be, “the Magna Carta of all ecclesial service; it sums up all the reflections on love which I have offered throughout this Encyclical Letter. Practical activity will always be insufficient, unless it visibly expresses a love for man, a love nourished by an encounter with Christ. My deep personal sharing in the needs and sufferings of others becomes a sharing of my very self with them: if my gift is not to prove a source of humiliation, I must give to others not only something that is my own, but my very self; I must be personally present in my gift.”

Serving others correctly leads to humility

The one who serves does not consider himself superior to the one served, however miserable his situation at the moment may be. “Christ took the lowest place in the world -the Cross - and by this radical humility he redeemed us and constantly comes to our aid. Those who are in a position to help others will realize that in doing so they themselves receive help; being able to help others is no merit or achievement of their own. This duty is a grace. The more we do for others, the more we understand and can appropriate the words of Christ: ‘We are useless servants’ (Lk 17:10). The more we are aware of bringing God to others as a gift, the more effective will our love be in changing the world.”


For God to live in your hearts, you must love.