Valentine’s Day is marked each year as a celebration of human friendship and romantic love. In some people’s minds, romantic love is quite different from love of God or God’s love for us. Pope Benedict XVI’s first encyclical [Deus Caritas Est] tries to show how every example of love feeds into every other. “God is love,” the Pope tells us again, echoing St. John the evangelist; and God’s love for us shows itself in the love of husband and wife.
Often we presuppose that there must be a separation between eros understood as human desire, sexually expressed, and agape, a selfless, spiritual love. But every genuine love is a form of self-giving. Love is not a thing to be exchanged, but a gift that brings the giver intimately into another’s life. Love transforms the lives of both lovers, because each receives his or her self back, transformed by their mutual love. Every love entails sacrifice for the beloved, but love makes even sacrifice a joy.
When being in love means a commitment only to an experience, then love disappears with the experience. When being in love means commitment to a person, then love lasts as long as the person loved. Modern culture has magnified the idea of love as spontaneous over the reality of love as a series of choices. People talk about being “swept away” and losing control of themselves. Yet if passion is the essence of love, then loving brings loss of the very freedom that people claim they want to preserve when they hesitate making a permanent commitment to one another. During a conference [in Rome to discuss Deus Caritas Est], people from the world of films and popular communication spoke about how love as an experience is easier to portray on film than love as a personal commitment.
The Pope’s letter also speaks of love’s relation to justice. Again, some would separate charity from justice, as others separate God’s love from romantic love. And, again, that would be a mistake. A perfectly just world would still need love. An economic and political system is never equal to the dignity of the human person if it is constructed apart from the dynamics of love. Officials of the World Bank and other economic institutions participated in the conference to speak to the connection between charity and economic and social development.
True love asks for nothing in return, for this kind of loving is how God loves us. The Blessed Trinity is a unity created by the total self-giving of the three divine persons, each to the others, for the others, in the others. The giving of oneself to others constitutes the nature of God. A gift of self is feared if it brings with it some kind of onerous demand, an obligation to the person giving. God’s love teaches us that there are persons who make no demands in loving, who are not in competition with those they love. Experiencing divine love prepares us to love fully and gratuitously all those God places on our path of life, our family, friends and neighbors, even our enemies.
The Church, Pope Benedict explains, is to be a network of charity, a sacrament of God’s love in the world. The Church is as committed to the service of charity in the form of Christ-like love as she is to the preaching of the word and the celebration of the sacraments. As Christ commissioned the Twelve to go, baptize, preach and make disciples (Mt. 28, 18-20), so the apostles early in the Church’s life commissioned the Seven to the work of charity (Acts 6: 1-7). Think of the more than 600 deacons ordained for the Archdiocese in the past generation and their charitable service in our parishes and institutions. Think of the organization of loving service in the form of Catholic Charities, so well-developed here in the Archdiocese. Think as well of all the volunteers in every parish and family, giving of their time and goods to help with love the needy, the sick, the stranger, the prisoner, the hungry and homeless. This charity makes credible to the world the Gospel’s proclamation that “God is love.” Of course, the Church has no corner, no monopoly on work for the poor and for the elimination of economic and political injustice. The work of charity is ecumenical and universal, both in its scope and its workers.
This Valentine’s Day, read with someone you love the Song of Solomon (Canticle of Canticles) in the Old Testament and the parable of the Good Samaritan in the New Testament (Luke 10: 29-37). Pope Benedict reflects on both these passages from Holy Scripture in this first Encyclical. May God’s holy word touch your hearts and open them to the divine love that gives us the gift of our being and the promise of eternal life. God bless you.