DEUS CARITAS EST

A BISHOP'S INSIGHTS ON POPE BENEDICT XVI'S ENCYCLICAL

EXCERPTS FROM BISHOP ALLEN H. VIGNERON'S CAMPUS ADDRESS

The term love, according to the pope, is one of the most used and most misunderstood terms in our world today. However, in the wide field of meanings named by the word, the love of husband and wife is, the pope says, the archetype for love.

In Greek thought, this love was called eros; in the Bible, especially in the New Testament, the concept of love was deepened. (The pope) says that a particular evidence of this fact is the preference for the word agape as the Bible's name for love. Agape identifies a specific quality in love — that love should be, as he says, oblative or self-sacrificial...

The pope asserts that eros and agape are not opposed. The eros which the Creator himself has implanted within human nature needs discipline, purification and maturation in order not to lose its original dignity. Without this transformation, eros would simply decline into being a sort of commodity of sex. The challenge of eros is met in those cases where the body and soul of a person exists in harmony. Where the body and soul, where our corporeality and our spirituality are harmonized, form a union, then eros transcends its limits.

In such a person love is, the pope says, yes, an ecstasy, but not the kind of ecstasy that's a mere passing intoxication. In a man or a woman who lives with this harmony between his or her spiritual and corporeal dimension, love is a sort of a permanent exodus out of the eye which is closed in upon itself to the discovery of God. In this sense, eros lifts the human person in ecstasy towards God.

Here's really one of the hearts of the pope's argument. Eros is this attempt always to move out of oneself to the beloved, to come to possess the beloved, and that's an experience of ecstasy. But the pope's point is that this natural impulse by itself cannot succeed in achieving the aim it has. There always has to be a transcending of the self, a self-giving, if there's going to be a possessing of the beloved...

And so the love of eros is transcended, but not destroyed. It's brought to a new level of fulfillment. The lover gives himself more, and desires to be for the beloved. And that passage, that transformation, from desire alone to desire that is self-sacrificial, is the moment of agape, the pope says. In Jesus Christ, who is the incarnate love of God, eros-agape achieves its most radical form. Jesus in his death on the cross, by giving himself in order to accomplish the salvation of the human race, expresses love in its most sublime form...

Loving Our Neighbor

The (encyclical's) second part, Caritas, the practice of love by the church as a community of love, treats the practical living out of the commandment to love our neighbor...

The love of neighbor, which is rooted in the love of God, is not just the responsibility of each individual Christian, but belongs to the whole ecclesial community, and the church in her acts of love for neighbor must keep her eyes fixed on Trinitarian love...

In our own day, one of the positive effects of globalization is that concern for the neighbor across national boundaries tends to enlarge our horizon to include concern for the whole world... The result is that we have a wide variety of charitable and philanthropic organizations. Similarly in the church and in various ecclesial communities, we have seen the growth of new forms of charitable activities. We hope for a fruitful collaboration among these groups. Nevertheless, the pope says, it is important that the church's charitable activities never lose their proper identity...

Christian charitable activity is not a function of proselytism. Love is gratuitous. Love does not act for some ulterior end. However, this does not mean that charitable activity leaves God or his son Jesus' side. The Christian knows when it would be the right time to speak of God and when to be silent about God, rather letting one's love do the talking...

One of the first sorts of hermeneutics that was applied to the encyclical is that this was the attempt of the German cardinal to shake off the image of the Panzer Cardinal... I think that's pretty superficial... What we have here is the mind of an Augustinian. You'll recall that in St. Augustine, he says that a person's life is ordered by the order of his loves. And it seems to me that for a theologian who spent his life reading Augustine, one ought not to be surprised that this is the encyclical he would offer.

A key that I find very fascinating, and I mentioned it earlier, is to see the encyclical as a commentary on Dante... Here's what he says: the cosmic excursion in which Dante, in his Divine Comedy, wishes to involve the reader ends in front of the perennial light that is God himself, before that light which is at the same time “the love that moves the sun and other stars.” … Light and love are one and the same, the pope says... As a matter of fact, even more overwhelming than this revelation of God as a Trinitarian circle of knowledge and love, is the perception of a human face, the face of Jesus Christ, which to Dante appears in the central circle of the light...

What the pope is doing is offering a pastor's service because, as he says, the word love is so spoiled, so worn out and abused, that one almost fears to pronounce it. So what he wants to offer is a faith which becomes a vision-understanding that transforms us. It was, the pope says, my aim to shed light on the certainty of faith in God, that God who took on a human face and heart, because love is not a theory that can be depersonalized or set aside...

Lessons For Saint Mary's

I'd like to make some remarks about reading this text here at Saint Mary's College... It seems to me that this encyclical has for Campus Ministry and therefore for the whole life of this College a very important point to raise, which is to say that there has to be spiritual formation both before and after the acts of volunteerism. And particularly that formation, as I read the encyclical, always must involve learning to pray.

In addition to talking about prayer, I would particularly emphasize that in the spiritual formation for such good works, it's very important to cultivate the virtue whereby those who do those works see, yes, that they give themselves, and in giving themselves they're also open to and are receiving the gift from the other. So really the person who builds the home or gets involved in any sort of project, the student has to realize that she or he is receiving as much as they are giving. In fact, what most importantly they give is themselves, and what most importantly they receive is the self-gift of the one whom they serve. As the pope says in the encyclical, it's only that kind of dynamic that prevents works of charity from becoming expressions of a kind of a patronizing approach.

I know it is the case that here at Saint Mary's, lots of time goes into talking about how to integrate the elements of the College's curriculum... The kind of integration that I've spoken about aims at what we can call “a wisdom.” In the Catholic Church, there's a necessary bond between love and wisdom, a bond that exists both between natural wisdom and natural love, supernatural wisdom, the wisdom of faith, the gift of the Holy Spirit and supernatural love, divine charity.

So my hypothesis is if it is ultimately wisdom that you are seeking, which is another name, I am saying, for integration, then love is an essential component, an essential resource in order to achieve that wisdom and that integration....

Saint Mary's College has the mission, or shares in the mission, of advancing the church's mission by fostering the dialogue between faith and culture. We live, as we all know, in a culture that exalts the imperial or the autonomous self.... What the encyclical aims to do is to secure the impulse of the free self and rescue that from frustration by showing that unless the self passes and retains the dynamic of eros and transcends to the level of agape, the self will not in fact flourish but the self will be lost...

The last question I'd like to raise in light of the encyclical is (adding to the reading list) the Song of Songs. Throughout the encyclical, the Holy Father talks about the Canticle of Canticles as a marvelous inspired text that presents the love of God for his people, and God's people for him, and as a great inspiration for Christian spiritual life and Christian prayer. It is my own conviction that if that text were more a part of every Christian's life, or a lot more Christians' lives, we would all be the much richer in living our life as the church.

Pope John Paul II named the Most Reverend Allen H. Vigneron the coadjutor bishop of the Diocese of Oakland, which serves Alameda and Contra Costa counties, in 2003, before Bishop John S. Cummins retired. Bishop Vigneron was previously the Auxiliary Bishop of Detroit.

Bishop Vigneron studied in Rome in the early 1970s, when he earned a bachelor's of sacred theology degree at the Pontifical Gregorian University. He was ordained in 1975, and returned to Rome in 1976 to complete his study for a licentiate in sacred theology from Gregorian University. In 1991, he returned to Rome working for the Vatican Secretariat of State. In 1994 he returned to Detroit as the second rector and president of the Sacred Heart Major Seminary.

Bishop Vigneron spoke at Saint Mary's College on May 3, 2006, about the pope's encyclical, Deus Caritas Est (God is Love). The event was sponsored by the John F. Henning Institute for Catholic Social Thought, the Bishop John S. Cummins Institute, the Catholic Institute for Lasallian Social Action, the Department of Philosophy, the Department of Religious Studies and Saint Mary's Campus Ministry.

The talk and question-and-answer session was followed by an organ interlude by Brother Martin Yribarren and a Mass.

To read the Encyclical, go to:
www.stmarys-ca.edu/encyclical

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