by Gary Devery OFM Cap
Table of Contents
- The centrality of love in the mystery of God
- The centrality of love in the mystery of man as the image of God
- The Centrality of Love in the Mystery of the Church and the Eucharist
- The Centrality of Love in the Mission of the Church in the World
- Reflection question on Theological Foundation of Ministry to the Poor
The Encyclical Letter Deus Caritas Est of Pope Benedict offers a theological foundation for reflection on an essential dimension of the Capuchin charism: ministry to the poor. Pope Benedict’s Letter will supply the underlying argument to this paper. Franciscan and Capuchin elements are added to assist with reflection on the Capuchin charism. These elements are not introduced in a systematic way.
In the Encyclical Letter Deus Caritas Est Pope Benedict weaves together and gives harmonious expression in his own language and style to some of the central themes of Vatican II. It is refreshing to read back around 50 years to the young theologian Ratzinger writing some of the chapters for the commentary on Dei Verbum in the Vorgrimler edition of the Commentary on the Documents of Vatican II and hear the same resonance and vigour expressed in his first Encyclical.
I would suggest that “divine” love is offered by the encyclical as the hermeneutical key to understanding the whole mystery of the Christian faith: who is God; who is each human person; what is the meaning of each person’s life; what is the Church; what is her mission in the world; more specific to our topic, the reason “that we should remember to help the poor” (Gal 2:10).
In his commentary on article 2 of Dei Verbum Ratzinger writes that revelation is basically a dialogue. The language used by Dei Verbum is dialogical: God “speaks to friends”, God “lives among them”, he “invites and takes them into fellowship”. Pope Benedict states that in “acknowledging the centrality of love, Christian faith has retained the core of Israel’s faith, while at the same time giving it new depth and breadth.” (1) To give expression to this he places before us the daily dialogical reality of the pious Jew who in praying the Shema expresses what is at the heart of his existence: “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” (Dt 6:4-5). Pope Benedict later in the encyclical will describe the Bible as “the love-story” in which God “comes towards us, he seeks to win our hearts…”. (17)
In this “love-story” God reveals himself to be a passionate lover of man. Hosea and Ezekiel do not shy away from using boldly erotic images of marriage in describing the love of God for Israel. The erotic is united with agape in this love of God for Israel, but it goes beyond being only gift. It is also a forgiving love. Pope Benedict describes this dimension of love as being where “it turns God against himself, his love against his justice.” (10) Instead of repudiating man for his “adultery” against God he re-enters into a loving dialogue with Israel, “How can I give you up, O Ephraim! How can I hand you over, O Israel! … My heart recoils within me, my compassion grows warm and tender. I will not execute my fierce anger, I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and not man, the Holy One in your midst” (Hosea 11:8-9).
Saint Francis is caught up in this “love-story”, and desires to transmit this experience to others, as expressed in his Letter to all the Faithful:
But, O how happy and blessed are those who love the Lord, who do as the Lord Himself says in the Gospel: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart and with thy whole soul and … thy neighbor as thyself.” Let us therefore love God and adore Him with a pure heart and a pure mind because He Himself, seeking that above all, says: “The true adorers shall adore the Father in spirit and in truth.” For all who “adore Him, must adore Him in spirit and in truth.” And let us offer Him praises and prayers day and night, saying: “Our Father who art in heaven,” for “we ought always to pray, and not to faint.”
This revelation of God as the Lover of humanity, who turns against his own justice for love’s sake reaches its fullness in Jesus Christ. Pope Benedict observes that the “real novelty of the New Testament” lies not in new concepts and expressions of who God is, but “in the figure of Christ himself, who gives flesh and blood to those concepts – an unprecedented realism.” (12) In this love-story of the history of salvation God, in Jesus Christ, searches for the “stray sheep’, “a suffering and lost humanity.” (12) The depth to which God is willing to love and the definition of love is revealed in the Cross. Here God turns against himself and “gives himself in order to raise man up and save him. This is love in its most radical form. By contemplating the pierced side of Christ (cf. Jn 19:37), we can understand the starting-point of this Encyclical Letter: “God is love” (1 Jn 4:8).” (12)
This radical dialogical love, in which God takes the initiative is expressed by St Francis in his prayers. Just to give two examples:
Prayer to obtain Divine Love:
I beseech Thee, O Lord, that the fiery and sweet strength of Thy love may absorb my soul from all things that are under heaven, that I may die for love of Thy love as Thou didst deign to die for love of my love.
Testament of Saint Francis:
We adore Thee Lord Jesus Christ here and in all Thy churches which are in the whole world, and we bless Thee because by Thy holy cross Thou hast redeemed the world.
The revelation contained in biblical faith offers the novelty of perceiving man in view of the revelation of the mystery of God: God is Lover of humanity. Human philosophy cannot attain to this truth. Pope Benedict notes that Aristotle at the pinnacle of Greek philosophy arrived at the truth that God is “for every being an object of desire and love – and as the object of love this divinity moves the world – but in itself lacks nothing and does not love: it is solely the object of love.” (9)
According to biblical faith God as Lover is the image in which man is created. The solitude of Adam, the first man, is gift from God to Adam. It places in the very depth of the nature of man the desire to transcend himself and become a seeker of the other. He is called to become a lover like his Creator. Only in the two, Adam and Eve, man and woman, being one in love is humanity completed. (11) It is in this community of love that the monogamous marriage “becomes the icon of the relationship between God and his people and vice versa. God’s way of loving becomes the measure of human love.” (11)
What reveals to man his deepest nature is not arrived at by philosophy. It is in the “love-relationship between God and Israel” (9) that the gift of the Torah is given. It is this which opens “Israel’s eyes to man’s true nature” and shows “her the path leading to true humanism.” In faithfully responding to the Torah written in the depth of his heart man “comes to experience himself as loved by God, and discovers joy in truth and righteousness.” This opens man to a dialogical response to God’s loving gift: “Whom do I have in heaven but you? And there is nothing upon earth that I desire besides you… for me it is good to be near God” (Ps 73 :25, 28). (9)
Pope Benedict in his own language and style beautifully expresses the central anthropological and Christological theme found in article 22 of Guadiam et Spes which states that “Christ the new Adam, in the very revelation of the mystery of the Father and of his love, fully reveals man to himself and brings to light his most high calling.” Only in the revelation of Jesus Christ, especially in the Cross, and in contemplating his pierced side, is the full mystery of the dignity and vocation of the human person revealed: called to be a lover in the dimension of the Cross. It is from here that the human person sets out on the journey opened up by Christ, on “a path of ascent, renunciation, purification and healing.” (5) It is “an ongoing exodus out of the closed inward-looking self towards authentic self-discovery and indeed discovery of God.” (6) It is the journey “which leads through the Cross to the Resurrection: the path of the grain of wheat that falls to the ground and dies, in this way bearing much fruit.” (6) This “love-story between God and man” (17) leads to a communion of will, thought and sentiment so that God’s will is no longer an alien will imposed from outside. The human person is called to become holy. It is the saint, who has taken on the desires, the mind and the will of Christ, who becomes a lover in the dimension of the Cross towards the neighbour, even the enemy, without effort. “No longer is it a question, then of a “commandment” imposed from without and calling for the impossible, but rather of a freely-bestowed experience of love from within, a love which by its very nature must then be shared with others.” (18)
Saint Francis witnesses to the journey from darkness to light, from not knowing himself to understanding who he is in the light of Christ crucified, the journey “through the Cross to Resurrection,” in the opening lines of his Testament. The Capuchin reform held the Testament to be the hermeneutical key to the Rule of Saint Francis.
The Lord gave to me, Brother Francis, thus to begin to do penance; for when I was in sin it seemed to me very bitter to see lepers, and the Lord Himself led me amongst them and I showed mercy to them. And when I left them, that which had seemed to me bitter was changed for me into sweetness of body and soul. And afterwards I remained a little and I left the world.
Pope Benedict closes the first half of the encyclical by stating that this love which must be shared with others makes love grow, and unifies humanity. It is a process that “makes us a “we” which transcends our divisions and makes us one, until in the end God is “all in all” (1 Cor 15:28).” (18) The overcoming of divisions between people does not happen in a vacuum. This leads us into the second section, that of the mission of the Church which is called to give signs of love and unity which draws humanity towards unity with God.
For Saint Francis, the experience of falling in love with Jesus Christ crucified, is both person-uniting and procreative. The Lord gives him brothers, as he recalls in his Testament:
And when the Lord gave me some brothers, no one showed me what I ought to do, but the Most High Himself revealed to me that I should live according to the form of the holy Gospel.
At the heart of the encyclical Pope Benedict invites us to contemplate the pierced side of Christ. Here we enter into the mystery that God is love. “In this contemplation the Christian discovers the path along which his life and love must move.” (12) This love, defined in the flesh and blood of Jesus, is the source and the summit of our loving. The communion and unity, the overcoming of all barriers and divisions, which humanity is called to because God is love, is made possible through the pierced side of Christ. “Jesus gave this act of oblation an enduring presence through his institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper,” writes Pope Benedict.
The centrality of the Eucharist permeates the writings of St Francis. The “enduring presence” of the death and resurrection event, passing from death to life, in the Eucharist is expressed in the following:
On reverence for the Lord’s Body and on the cleanliness of Altars:
Let us all consider, O clerics, the great sin and ignorance of which some are guilty regarding the most holy Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ and His most holy Name and the written words of consecration. For we know that the Body cannot exist until after these words of consecration. For we have nothing and we see nothing of the Most High Himself in this world except [His] Body and Blood, names and words by which we have been created and redeemed from death to life.
The Letter to all the Faithful:
We ought indeed to confess all our sins to a priest and receive from him the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who does not eat His Flesh and does not drink His Blood cannot enter into the Kingdom of God.6 Let him, however, eat and drink worthily, because he who receives unworthily “eateth and drinketh judgment to himself, not discerning the Body of the Lord,”—that is, not discerning it from other foods…
We ought also to fast and to abstain from vices and sins and from superfluity of food and drink, and to be Catholics. We ought also to visit Churches frequently and to reverence clerics not only for themselves, if they are sinners, but on account of their office and administration of the most holy Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, which they sacrifice on the altar and receive and administer to others. And let us all know for certain that no one can be saved except by the Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ and by the holy words of the Lord which clerics say and announce and distribute and they alone administer and not others. But religious especially, who have renounced the world, are bound to do more and greater things, but “not to leave the other undone.”
Letter to all the Friars:
Wherefore, brothers, kissing your feet and with the charity of which I am capable, I conjure you all to show all reverence and all honor possible to the most holy Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, in whom the things that are in heaven and the things that are on earth are pacified and reconciled to Almighty God. I also beseech in the Lord all my brothers who are and shall be and desire to be priests of the Most High that, when they wish to celebrate Mass, being pure, they offer the true Sacrifice of the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ purely, with reverence, with a holy and clean intention, not for any earthly thing or fear or for the love of any man, as it were pleasing men. But let every will, in so far as the grace of the Almighty helps, be directed to Him, desiring thence to please the High Lord Himself alone because He alone works there [in the Holy Sacrifice] as it may please Him, for He Himself says: “Do this for a commemoration of Me;” if any one doth otherwise he becomes the traitor Judas and is made guilty of the Body and Blood of the Lord.
(13) The Eucharist becomes the source of communion (koinonia). Of its nature the Eucharist has a social character as “union with Christ is also union with all those to whom he gives himself… Communion draws me out of myself towards him, and thus also towards unity with all Christians.” (14) The centrality of love in the mystery of the Church has its full expression in the Eucharist. Pope Benedict writes, “‘Worship’ itself, Eucharistic communion, includes the reality of both of being loved and of loving the others in turn. A Eucharist which does not pass over into the concrete practice of love is intrinsically fragmented.” (14)
Saint Francis, in his Letter to all the Faithful, after the quote above, passes from the consideration of the centrality of the Eucharist to mercy towards the other:
But let him to whom obedience has been entrusted and who is considered greater become as the lesser and the servant of the other brothers, and let him show and have the mercy toward each of his brothers that he would wish to be shown to himself if he were in the like situation. And let him not be angry with a brother on account of his offence, but let him advise him kindly and encourage him with all patience and humility.
It is the love of Christ experienced in the Eucharist that urges on Christians in their service of charity in the world. It is a love “that seeks the integral good of man.” (19) This activity of Christians flows out of their prophetic, priestly and kingly baptismal identity. It gives rise to the tripod of activity that is essential to the very life of the Church and each Christian: proclamation of the word of God, celebration of the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, and of the service of charity.
Pope Benedict makes reference to this tripod of activities six times in the encyclical (numbers 17, 19, 20, 22, 25 and 32). The last three references are used to emphasise that the service of charity has equal standing with the other two as being essential to the nature of the Church. Why this emphasis?
Article 25 read: “The Church’s deepest nature is expressed in her three-fold responsibility: of proclaiming the word of God (kerygma-martyria), celebrating the sacraments (leitourgia), and exercising the ministry of charity (diakonia). These duties presuppose each other and are inseparable. For the Church, charity is not a kind of welfare activity which could equally well be left to others, but is a part of her nature, an indispensable expression of her very being.”
With broad brush strokes Pope Benedict outlines how diakonia has had organised structures within the Church from the beginning and how these have expanded into well organised works of charity over the centuries and into the present. He also mentions twice the attempt of the emperor Julian the Apostate (†363) to replicate these organised systems of charity. Emperor Julian the Apostate desired to, at the very least, neutralise the attractiveness of the Church and re-establish paganism as the religion of the Roman Empire.
The first mention of this in number 24 is to give emphasis to how even the pagans were impressed by these organised charitable works of the Church and understood that they must replicate them if they were to compete with the attractive moral force of Christianity. The second mention of emperor Julian the Apostate comes in number 31. This occurs after Pope Benedict has briefly analysed the situation of the world since the nineteen century in the area of social and political changes and the Church’s response in its social teaching and practice.
The emphasis that the service of charity having equal standing to the activity of proclaiming the Word of God and of the celebration of the sacraments and the two-fold mention of emperor Julian the Apostate would indicate that the Pope desires to, at the least, re-affirm the Church in its commitment to organised services of charity. This concern arises out of the prominence of the State as having become, on the whole, the normal expression of government found throughout the world today. The State has primarily arisen from Christian roots and so has inherited systems whereby social welfare for the citizens is, on the whole, expected to be provided for them in some form or another by the State. These can unwittingly, or knowingly, lead to new threats of the neutralisation of the attractiveness of the Church by the State. This can occur through the State replicating by its welfare systems what had its origins in the organised services of charity of the Church. It can lead to inertia among Christians.
Pope Benedict acknowledges that the just ordering of society should be left to the State and is not the domain of the Church. The Church through her social teaching does the service to the State of helping to “form consciences in political life and to stimulate greater insight into the authentic requirements of justice.” (28) He goes on to specify that “[t]he direct duty to work for a just ordering of society, on the other hand, is proper to the lay faithful.” (29)
The Church does not set itself up against the State in the area of social welfare. In fact, the State and Church working together while respecting what is distinct to each, “has led to the birth and the growth of many forms of cooperation between State and Church agencies, which have borne fruit.” (30)
In article 28 (b) he has already warned against a State that wants to eliminate this cooperation between State and Church and absorb everything into itself:
Love—caritas—will always prove necessary, even in the most just society. There is no ordering of the State so just that it can eliminate the need for a service of love. Whoever wants to eliminate love is preparing to eliminate man as such. There will always be suffering which cries out for consolation and help. There will always be loneliness. There will always be situations of material need where help in the form of concrete love of neighbour is indispensable. The State which would provide everything, absorbing everything into itself, would ultimately become a mere bureaucracy incapable of guaranteeing the very thing which the suffering person—every person—needs: namely, loving personal concern. We do not need a State which regulates and controls everything, but a State which, in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity, generously acknowledges and supports initiatives arising from the different social forces and combines spontaneity with closeness to those in need. The Church is one of those living forces: she is alive with the love enkindled by the Spirit of Christ. This love does not simply offer people material help, but refreshment and care for their souls, something which often is even more necessary than material support. In the end, the claim that just social structures would make works of charity superfluous masks a materialist conception of man: the mistaken notion that man can live “by bread alone” (Mt 4:4; cf. Dt 8:3)—a conviction that demeans man and ultimately disregards all that is specifically human.
What is important is for the Church not to lose sight of what is essential to her nature, the service to charity. In this regard the Pope writes:
“The Church’s charitable organisations, on the other hand, constitute an opus proprium, a task agreeable to her, in which she does not cooperate collaterally, but acts as a subject with direct responsibility, doing what corresponds to her nature. The Church can never be exempted from practicing charity as an organised activity of believers, and on the other hand, there will never be a situation where the charity of each individual Christian is unnecessary, because in addition to justice man needs, and will always need, love.” (29)
In Camerino, the Capuchin reform was founded and confirmed by service to the poor, to the extent of a willingness of dying for the love of Christ crucified, made present in the poor. This was contained within the first Constitutions, those of 1536:
89. And since they who are detached from this world find it sweet, just and charitable to die for love of Him Who died for us on the Cross, we ordain that during a plague the Friars shall succour the afflicted according to the regulations of their Vicars. The Vicars, however, shall always have the eye of prudent charity open to such occasions.
The orderly service of feeding the poor was written into these first Constitutions:
85. We further ordain that during a famine the Friars, appointed to this task by their Prelates, shall go in quest for food to succour the poor, after the example of our most devoted Father who showed great compassion for the poor. When an alms was given to him for love of God, he would not accept it save on condition that he be allowed to give it to the poor, should he find one poorer than himself. We read that often , lest he be found without the nuptial and evangelical garment of charity, he would divest himself of his own clothes and give them to the poor, rather than be deprived of the ardent flame of divine love.
Br John of Fano OFM Cap, writing his Commentary on the Rule of Saint Francis in 1536, makes explicit the Christological dimension in the service to the poor:
647 Text: they should not be ashamed, for our sakes, our Lord made Himself poor in this world.
It is stupendously wretched to beg like plain people, but it is praiseworthy that we are like Christ.
Saint Francis used to say: “Whenever you see a poor person you ought to hold up to yourself a mirror of our Lord Jesus Christ, and of His most holy mother, who when he was rich in His majesty, became poor and despised in our humble state, was born poor, lived in a very poor state and died poor and naked on the cross and was buried in another person’s grave.”
Love has centrality of place in the Christian faith. The essential elements of this Christian charity are outlined in the encyclical as threefold: a) It is “first of all the simple response to immediate needs and specific situations.” b) It is “independent of parties and ideologies,” coming from a person who has contemplated the pierced side of Christ and so has a “heart which sees.” c) It is free, it does not operate as a strategy with the second intention of proselytism, but it is carried out with unabashed “credible witness to Christ.” (31)
This distinct type of love can only be lived in humility, which comes from contemplating the place Christ has taken on the Cross. He has taken the lowest place. Believing in this love of Christ in which Jesus did not consider himself superior to us sinners, but served life to us unto death, Christians do not consider themselves superior to others. They discover that they can love others without effort because it is the love of Christ urging them on. (36)
Believing that God has loved us first, Christians sustain their service to charity through the continual loving dialogue of prayer. In the encyclical Pope Benedict reminds us of the recent experience of the heroic service of charity carried out by Blessed Teresa of Calcutta. She has given living witness “of the fact that time devoted to God in prayer not only does not detract from effective and loving service to our neighbour but is in fact the inexhaustible source of that service. (36)
Having looked at the theological foundation of ministry to the poor using Deus Caritas Est, what insights can you gain from the following quote from Vita Consecrata in regard to the vow of poverty?
Evangelical poverty at the service of the poor
90. Even before being a service on behalf of the poor, evangelical poverty is a value in itself, since it recalls the first of the Beatitudes in the imitation of the poor Christ. Its primary meaning, in fact, is to attest that God is the true wealth of the human heart. Precisely for this reason evangelical poverty forcefully challenges the idolatry of money, making a prophetic appeal as it were to society, which in so many parts of the developed world risks losing the sense of proportion and the very meaning of things. Thus, today more than in other ages, the call of evangelical poverty is being felt also among those who are aware of the scarcity of the planet’s resources and who invoke respect for and the conservation of creation by reducing consumption, by living more simply and by placing a necessary brake on their own desires.
Consecrated persons are therefore asked to bear a renewed and vigorous evangelical witness to self-denial and restraint, in a form of fraternal life inspired by principles of simplicity and hospitality, also as an example to those who are indifferent to the needs of their neighbour. This witness will of course be accompanied by a preferential love for the poor and will be shown especially by sharing the conditions of life of the most neglected. There are many communities which live and work among the poor and the marginalized; they embrace their conditions of life and share in their sufferings, problems and perils. Outstanding pages in the history of evangelical solidarity and heroic dedication have been written by consecrated persons in these years of profound changes and great injustices, of hopes and disappointments, of striking victories and bitter defeats. And pages no less significant have been written and are still being written by very many other consecrated persons, who live to the full their life “hid with Christ in God” (Col 3:3) for the salvation of the world, freely giving of themselves, and spending their lives for causes which are little appreciated and even less extolled. In these various and complementary ways, the consecrated life shares in the radical poverty embraced by the Lord, and fulfils its specific role in the saving mystery of his Incarnation and redeeming Death.
- Herbert Vorgrimler (ed.), Commentary on the Documents of Vatican II (Vol. III), Burns & Oates, 1968 London. ↑
- Ibid, p. 171. ↑
- The bracketed numbers, eg. (1), throughout this presentation refers to the numbering provided by the encyclical. ↑
- Francis of Assisi, S., & Robinson, P. (1906). Writings of Saint Francis of Assisi (pp. 100–101). Philadelphia: The Dolphin Press. www.capdox.capuchin.org.au/francescanea/the-writings-of-saint-francis-of-assisi/#post-1248-_Toc493318790 ↑
- Francis of Assisi, S., & Robinson, P. (1906). Writings of Saint Francis of Assisi (p. 145). Philadelphia: The Dolphin Press. www.capdox.capuchin.org.au/francescanea/the-writings-of-saint-francis-of-assisi/#post-1248-_Toc493318800 ↑
- Francis of Assisi, S., & Robinson, P. (1906). Writings of Saint Francis of Assisi (p. 82). Philadelphia: The Dolphin Press.www.capdox.capuchin.org.au/francescanea/the-writings-of-saint-francis-of-assisi/#post-1248-_Toc493318786 ↑
- Francis of Assisi, S., & Robinson, P. (1906). Writings of Saint Francis of Assisi (pp. 81–82). Philadelphia: The Dolphin Press. www.capdox.capuchin.org.au/francescanea/the-writings-of-saint-francis-of-assisi/#post-1248-_Toc493318786 ↑
- Francis of Assisi, S., & Robinson, P. (1906). Writings of Saint Francis of Assisi (p. 83). Philadelphia: The Dolphin Press. www.capdox.capuchin.org.au/francescanea/the-writings-of-saint-francis-of-assisi/#post-1248-_Toc493318786 ↑
- Francis of Assisi, S., & Robinson, P. (1906). Writings of Saint Francis of Assisi (p. 23). Philadelphia: The Dolphin Press. www.capdox.capuchin.org.au/francescanea/the-writings-of-saint-francis-of-assisi/#post-1248-_Toc493318781 ↑
- Francis of Assisi, S., & Robinson, P. (1906). Writings of Saint Francis of Assisi (pp. 102–103). Philadelphia: The Dolphin Press. www.capdox.capuchin.org.au/francescanea/the-writings-of-saint-francis-of-assisi/#post-1248-_Toc493318790 ↑
- Francis of Assisi, S., & Robinson, P. (1906). Writings of Saint Francis of Assisi (pp. 112–113). Philadelphia: The Dolphin Press. www.capdox.capuchin.org.au/francescanea/the-writings-of-saint-francis-of-assisi/#post-1248-_Toc493318791 ↑
- Francis of Assisi, S., & Robinson, P. (1906). Writings of Saint Francis of Assisi (p. 103). Philadelphia: The Dolphin Press. www.capdox.capuchin.org.au/francescanea/the-writings-of-saint-francis-of-assisi/#post-1248-_Toc493318791 ↑
- www.capdox.capuchin.org.au/legislation/the-capuchin-constitutions-of-1536/#Chapter-Eleven ↑
- www.capdox.capuchin.org.au/home/writers/the-first-capuchin-commentary-on-the-rule-of-st-francis/ ↑
- Apostolic Exhortation of Pope John Paul II, Solemnity of the Annunciation of the Lord, 1996. ↑