In 2005, the Church experienced the sad loss of one of the great saints in our modern day, Pope St. John Paul II. For people my age, he was the only pope we had ever known and I remember feeling a bit of anxiety about who would replace him. When his successor was named, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI), many (including myself) were overjoyed, for his impact on the Church as a theologian was well known. Others were not so excited, for he was seen by some as being very rigid and too academic, and they wondered how he could possibly fill the shoes of the great pope he was to replace.
One of the early moves of his early pontificate that would calm the fears of many of those who questioned his ability to lead the Universal Church was the publication of his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est (God is Love). In that document, he wrote beautifully, blending his intellectual prowess with his pastoral heart and spiritual insights. If you have never read this document, it is well worth your time.
In this document, he distinguishes among three Greek words that are translated in English simply as “love”, all of which carry a different connotation. Those three words are eros, philia, and agape. Much of the document is focused on agape love, as it is the highest form of love and the one demonstrated by Jesus in the offering of Himself to us. It would thus become the model of the Christian love that is at the heart of the Great Commandment of love of God and love of neighbor.
The Holy Father writes about the importance of the Eucharist as it applies to this agape love. It is in the Eucharist that we are drawn into the love the God has for us. Our sharing in His life through this gift unites us to Him in a special way. It is then from that union with His love that we are capable of loving our neighbor in the way that He commands us. In fact, our reception of this gift demands that we love our neighbor. He writes the following to make this point:
A Eucharist which does not pass over into the concrete practice of love is intrinsically fragmented. Conversely, as we shall have to consider in greater detail below, the “commandment” of love is only possible because it is more than a requirement. Love can be “commanded” because it has first been given. (DCE, 14)
This is a helpful point on which we should all reflect. Does our reception of the Eucharist lead us to live this command to love our neighbor with greater intensity? It can be a helpful practice when we come to Mass to call to mind those whom we find most difficult to love and to ask for the grace that comes from the Eucharist to love them with greater generosity. We cannot be content to walk away from receiving the Eucharist without making a resolution to do our best to love those most difficult to love. Think back to what Father Peter wrote so powerfully on last week about our carrying grudges. If we walk away from Mass without a real desire to let go of those grudges, no matter how difficult it may be, our reception of the Eucharist is intrinsically fragmented, according to the pope. The Lord’s command to love that person is possible not because of any ability that we have, but because of the love that He pours into our hearts in the Eucharist.