Fr Rodney Kissinger, S.J.

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If Pope Benedict XVI’s first encyclical “Deus caritas est” is any indication of his thoughts and plans for his pontificate it could be a memorable event in the history of the Church. Here is the former watchdog of orthodoxy speaking not of faith but of love; about the unity of love in creation and salvation history and the practice of love by the Church as a “community of love.”

The gist of the encyclical is found in the opening paragraph. “God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.” (1 Jo. 4:16) These words express with remarkable clarity the heart of the Christian faith: the Christian image of God and the resulting image of mankind and its destiny. In the same verse St. John also offers a kind of summary of the Christian life: “We have come to know and to believe in the love God has for us.”

The encyclical is relevant because it strikes right at the heart of the radical terrorism that is threatening the peace of the world today. “In a world where the name of God is sometimes associated with vengeance or even a duty of hatred and violence, this message is both timely and significant. For this reason, I wish in my first Encyclical to speak of the love which God lavishes upon us and which we in turn must share with others.”

The encyclical is relevant today also because it offers a new and more promising approach to ecumenism. The fragmentation of Christianity is the scandal of Christianity. And the scandal increases when, as often happens, this division is accompanied by unblushing detestation of one Christian for another. Jesus commanded us to love one another, even our enemies. But these are not our enemies they are our brothers and sisters in Christ.

How did this happen and who is to blame? The Decree on Ecumenism says that we are all to blame. “If we say that we have not sinned we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.” This holds good for sins against unity. Thus in humble prayer, we beg pardon of God, and our separated brethren, just as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

John Paul II often repeated his hope that Christianity which underwent violent schisms and divisions during its second millennium would be reunited in its third millennium. His encyclical “Ut Unum Sint” was based on our Lord’s prayer at the Last Supper, “I pray not only for them, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, so that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they may also be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me.” Why does the world not believe in Jesus and why are they calling this the post-Christian era? Is it not because of this lack of unity?

Unfortunately, John Paul II did not live to see his hope realized. So Benedict XVI seems to have taken up the challenge in “Deus caritas est” which offers a new and more promising approach to reunion. It begins not with a quest for unity of faith but a quest for unity of love; a union of love which alone can wipe away all the suspicions, prejudices, and misconceptions which are the real obstacles to truth and a union of faith.

Love is the irrefutable, instantly verifiable sign of a Christian. How unchristian and ridiculous it is to argue about Christian faith when we don’t even love one another, and by that criteria are not even a Christian? “In necessary things let us have unity, in doubtful things let us have liberty, but in all things let us have charity.” “Deus caritas est” could well be the start of something big, very big.


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