photo of Larry Snyder, President of Catholic Charities USA

Love is in the Air

Today, the legendary St. Valentine is popularly celebrated, so it seems like a good time to talk about “love.”

In ancient Greece, philosophers struggled to define the different dimensions of love: are we talking about eros (desire, passion, ecstatic love), philia (friendship), or agape (concern and care for the other)?  Christianity inherited Greek thought about love and re-invented it to create a new paradigm, a distinct understanding of love.  This understanding has evolved through the ages and modern writers like C.S. Lewis continued to wrestle with love’s dimensions.

More recently and importantly, Pope Benedict XVI chose the topic of love for the first encyclical of his papacy, Deus Caritas Est: God is Love. It is a work of great depth, including discourse on the path of two people “in love” towards divine love, where body and soul are intimately united. I hope to shed light on one of the other dimensions of love he discussed: love of the “other.”

From the Book of Deuteronomy, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God is one Lord, and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your might,” to Jesus’s twofold great commandment of love of God and of neighbor at the Last Supper, The Holy Father explains what “loving our neighbor” means and why it is so important.

“If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his  brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen” (1 Jn 4:20)… The unbreakable bond between love of God and love of neighbour is emphasized. One is so closely connected to the other that to say that we love God becomes a lie if we are closed to our neighbour or hate him altogether. Saint John’s words should rather be interpreted to mean that love of neighbour is a path that leads to the encounter with God, and that closing our eyes to our neighbour also blinds us to God.

“In God and with God, I love even the person whom I do not like or even know.”

This love of God and other is first the responsibility of each individual, but also a responsibility of the community at every level. As people of God, we must both love and serve our neighbor. This is caritas.  It shapes not only Catholic Charities but each of us, as bearers of light in the world, of faith, hope, and love.

Love is in the air today. Amidst the chocolates and the roses, can we find ways not only to express love for that one special person but also God’s love for those outside our immediate family or circle of friends, or church community, especially those who are poor? They are in need of material goods–food, housing, clothing to be sure. But many need much more than outward necessities.  Seeing each of them as brother or sister in Christ, we see a friend who, like us, has an interior desire for a sign of love, of concern. Can we open our hearts to give them that gesture of love which they crave?  Even if we don’t like or even know them.