“A Christian knows when it is time to speak of God and when it is better to say nothing and to let love alone speak.” We were reminded of these words of Pope Benedict XVI (Deus Caritas Est, 31c) by Lesley-Anne Knight, Secretary General of Caritas Internationalis, in her moving witness presentation offered at our Nothing More Beautiful event last Thursday evening. The Holy Father is teaching that the practice of caritas, of love, speaks eloquently and effectively of God, whose very nature is caritas (cf. 1John 4:16). At a time when the Church is very aware of the need to find a new language to speak to our current world the unchanging truths of the Gospel, a recovery of the meaning and demands of caritas is necessary.
As regards the meaning of caritas, I invite the reader to reflect upon the teaching of the Holy Father in that first of his encyclicals. There Pope Benedict unfolds how Jesus Christ, precisely as the Son of God incarnate and crucified, unveils the full truth of love as complete self-gift. The self-gift of the Lord, he reminds us, abides in the sacrament of Eucharist, where participants are drawn into its very own dynamic. This sharing in Christ’s own act of perfect love enables us to love. St. John teaches that, because God has loved us first, we must love one another (cf. 1John 4). Not only must we do so; we can do so by the love of God that has been given to us and which transforms our hearts.
God’s loving initiative enables us to fulfill the demands of caritas. Such requirements are often beyond our ability to meet unaided. Just consider, for example, the teaching of Jesus in Sunday’s Gospel. “Love your enemies…. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?” (cf. Matthew 5: 38-48) Many would find this an impossible teaching to accept. Just think of the many horrible atrocities perpetrated against people in the violent conflicts of today, giving rise to deep levels of hurt and rage. Violence breeds more violence, and the only antidote to this fast-spreading virus is mercy. Love of the enemy is expressed in forgiveness. Yet only when the heart knows the transformative power of the love of God is such forgiveness possible.
Another demand of caritas is solidarity. Western society emphasizes individual self-pursuit, which closes us in upon ourselves. The love of God lifts us out of ourselves and opens our eyes and hearts to the needs of those around us. Although this experience of divine love is a personal event, nevertheless it is not a private possession. God loves all equally and his love draws us, therefore, to one another. God’s caritas awakens us to stand in solidarity with one another, especially with the weak and vulnerable, with those unable to speak for or help themselves.
This is the motivation underlying all that the Church does to help the suffering. The many who gathered at St. Joseph’s Basilica Thursday evening to listen to Cardinal Oscar Rogriguez of Tegucigalpa and Lesley-Anne Knight, respectively President and Secretary General of Caritas Internationalis, heard firsthand of the extraordinary work that this organization does in 165 nations to bring the love of Christ to the suffering. Their presentations raised important questions for us. Am I conscious of living as a member of a world-wide communion, in which many of my brothers and sisters are suffering? How do my lifestyle choices impact them? How does the call to solidarity and charity challenge me to make changes to the way I live? To what acts of caritas am I called by the suffering of my neighbours here at home?
Important questions were also raised by a conference for Bishops I attended in Dallas last week. Every two years the National Catholic Bioethics Center, with the support of the Knights of Columbus, hosts a workshop for Bishops on bioethical issues. The focus this year was the need for a new language in order to communicate the Gospel of Life. As I listened to the presentations it occurred to me that, once again, the language we speak is that of caritas. Our teaching on respect for all human life, on artificial contraception or reproduction, on stem cell research and so on is often presented negatively, as if the only word the Church uses is “no”. The exact opposite is the truth. God’s loving initiative awakens within us a powerful “yes” to life; indeed, it makes us voices of God’s own “yes” to life. The love of God reveals the truth of the beauty and dignity of every human life. This love moves us to speak out in defense of human dignity whenever and wherever it is under threat.
Let love speak. It may be in words, it may be in actions, but our call is to let the love of God speak clearly in order to share the truth of his presence and mercy to our world and be the reason for our hope.