Gospel Joy: Loving one another
A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another (John 13:34-5)
These simple words of Jesus are the great charter of Christianity. The heart of the Gospel is love. Love of God and love of neighbour are the two hinges on which hang ‘all the Law and the Prophets’ (Mt 22:36-40). Moral rules are still important for human flourishing, but only insofar as they find their perfection in love. And love is ultimately defined as seeking the good of the other.
We cannot speak of the joy of the Gospel, then, without locating that joy within a loving heart. In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis keeps returning to this touchstone of love. The word ‘love’ permeates the whole document. To set the tone, the Holy Father connects love and joy right at the beginning, when he speaks of ‘the quiet joy of [God’s] love’ (§2).
We are often tempted to think of joy and love as fleeting emotions, but we are being invited here to consider them as more permanent dispositions. Both joy and love must be understood as human activities that endure through time. Indeed, the permanence of joy and love in our hearts is only achievable when we draw on the eternal joy and love found in God. ‘God never tires of forgiving us; we are the ones who tire of seeking his mercy’ (§3). The Pope reiterates that joy endures; it is no fleeting feeling of a hollow happiness. Rather, real joy comes from ‘our personal certainty that, when everything is said and done, we are infinitely loved’ (§6).
As a result, joy leads to an ‘enriching friendship’ with God (§8). This, in fact, brings us back to love. For St Thomas Aquinas, friendship with God is just another description for self-giving love (caritas in Latin, agape in Greek). This caritas is a superhuman love. Indeed, one of the striking points made by Pope Francis is this: ‘We become fully human when we become more than human’ (§8). That is, we realise our full humanity when we allow ourselves to be drawn up into the divine love, that love which seeks not selfish gain but constantly gives itself freely for the benefit of others. The self-emptying love of God is most fully revealed on the Cross, for here is ‘love in its most radical form’ (§12).
|Pope Francis embraces Vinicio Riva|
Is there not, however, a problem of priorities: does love within our community not conflict sometimes with showing love to those outside? Our Lord is obviously speaking to his disciples, and refers to the love they must show within the Christian community. Doesn’t this run contrary to the strong themes in Pope Francis’s preaching about the Christian priority to go and preach outside our community? The Pope says that we must firstly evangelise those who do not know Christ. Certainly, a superficial reader might imagine that he is opting for evangelisation over and above building up the Church. He quotes the now-famous Aparecida document of the Latin American bishops in 2007, saying we ‘cannot passively and calmly wait in our church buildings’ (§15). Elsewhere he has said: ‘I prefer a thousand times more a Church that is damaged [by external encounters] than a Church that is sick from closing in on itself. Go out, go out!’
On the other hand, we can’t forget about our own community. The cliché that ‘charity begins at home’ echoes St Paul’s insistence that Christians mustn’t abandon the needs of their families (cf. 1 Tim 5:8). Tertullian noted in AD 197 that the pagans were disgusted at the evident love shown between Christians, specifically their charitable concern for the most needy (Apologeticum, 39, 7; cf. Matt. 25). But should we be surprised at this? We Christians must love our brothers and sisters in need; ‘for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen’ (1 Jn 4:20).
Happily, that false dichotomy between proclamation and service is easily resolved. Pope Francis on joy should be read in the light of his predecessor on love. Benedict XVI dedicated his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, to Christian love. In it, he argued that there is no dichotomy between kerygma (proclamation, one of Francis’ favourite terms), leitourgia (the sacraments), and diakonia (the service of charity), and that universal love goes hand-in-hand with our special solicitude for the neediest among our own ecclesial community (DCE, §25; cf Gal 6:10). After all, we proclaim the Gospel in and through our love. As St Paul says, we need ‘faith working through love’ (Gal. 5:6).
Now, in Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis has enthusiastically taken up this great theme of love. Love is the fulness of the Law (§161). Our loving is a response to God, who first loved us (cf. 1 Jn 4:10). From God’s love, we receive ‘a call to grow in faith’ (§160), and we should respond by seeking baptism or (if we are already Christians) to renew our baptismal commitment to Christ. We cannot do this on our own steam, but receive the free gift of God’s healing waters, if only we ask him.
And this love is not a special preserve of the ‘holy’ or the ‘saints’. Since we are all called to be ‘missionary disciples’ (§120), we are all called to share in, and share out, this divine love. As St John puts it so succinctly:
‘He who does not love, does not know God; for God is love’ (1 Jn 4:8).
And again, in case you missed it:
‘God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him’ (1 Jn 4:16).