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Pope Benedict's first encyclical

January 26, 2006
From the The Globe and Mail

Helps us recover the meaning of love and authentic charity

Yesterday, Pope Benedict XVI presented his first encyclical letter, Deus caritas est (God is love), to the Roman Catholic Church and the world. The main theme of the document, the highest form of papal writing, is love and charity. The first part of the encyclical deals with the original meaning of love, the distortions of it, and the fullness of human and divine love. If anything, Pope Benedict's rich text helps us to recover the meaning of love and authentic charity.
The entire second part of the encyclical is dedicated to ecclesial charity, to charitable institutions in the church. In focusing on love for God as the motivation behind all of the church's relief and development work, the Pope emphasizes that charity flows from one individual putting himself at the service of another out of love. Addressing the whole topic of ecclesial charity at a Vatican symposium on his encyclical earlier this week, Benedict said:
"This activity, in addition to its first very concrete meaning of help to the neighbour, also communicates to others the love of God, which we ourselves have received. In a certain sense, it must make the living God visible."
"God and Christ must not be strange words," the Holy Father added, "in fact, they indicate the original source of ecclesial charity. The strength of 'Caritas' depends on the strength of faith of all its members and collaborators."
Benedict insists that the structures and rules of the church are not ends in themselves, but must be animated by a spirit of self-giving love. The Pope said: "The ecclesial organization of charity is not a form of social assistance, a casual addition to the reality of the church. ... Rather, it is part of the nature of the church ... [and] must in some way make the living God visible. ... The spectacle of suffering man touches our hearts. But charitable commitment has a meaning that goes well beyond simple philanthropy. It is God Himself who encourages us from within our most intimate selves to alleviate misery. ... It is He Himself whom we carry into a suffering world. The greater the awareness and clarity with which we bear Him as a gift, the more effectively will our love change the world."
There is a very striking section of Benedict's encyclical that is worth pondering: "The church cannot and must not take upon herself the political battle to bring about the most just society possible. She cannot and must not replace the state. Yet at the same time, she cannot and must not remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice. She has to play her part through rational argument and she has to reawaken the spiritual energy without which justice, which always demands sacrifice, cannot prevail and prosper. A just society must be the achievement of politics, not of the church. Yet the promotion of justice through efforts to bring about openness of mind and will to the demands of the common good is something which concerns the church deeply."
Philanthropy "can be a trap" for Catholics, if we lose sight of the biblical and theological roots of our charitable activity. We all know that some large Catholic aid agencies have drifted away from the church and the bishops, identifying themselves simply as NGOs - non-governmental organizations - and not as part of the church's mission to bring the love of Christ to the world.
Speaking of his encyclical on the eve of its publication, Benedict said: "In an age in which ... we are witnessing the abuse of religion even unto the apotheosis of hatred ... we have need of the living God who loved us even unto death. Thus, in this encyclical, the themes of God, Christ and love are fused together as a central guide to the Christian faith."
From the beginning of his pontificate, Benedict has pledged to be a pope of peace. In one of his first comments as Pope, in fact, Benedict told the cardinals who had elected him that he had chosen the name Benedict in part because the last pope Benedict lived at the time of the First World War and had tried to end it.
Benedict XVI is on a very different battle line today than that of his predecessor Benedict XV. Many people might have expected a famous theologian like Pope Benedict to use his first encyclical to take up arms and discuss a deeply theological question related to Christ or a burning issue in moral theology.
Instead, the Pope turned to the topic of love and charity, showing himself to be a real shepherd who is aware of human feelings, desires, and matters of the heart. If there are wars in the world today, it is because of a lack of love in human hearts. Love can, indeed, change the world when it seeks the good of others because then it reflects God's love for all humanity.