Mission Sunday is the real valentine's day.
According to the logic of Pope Benedict XVI’s first encyclical, Mission Sunday is a much bigger feast, celebrating a much deeper love than the romance we celebrate in the winter.
On the face of it, the Church and the world seem to agree that love is the answer to the world’s problems. In the Bible, the most famous words of Paul and John are their words about love. And in the Beatles, the most famous words of Paul and John are their words about love. But “God is love” is a far cry from “Love me do.”
Judged by the world’s standards, Mission Sunday might, in fact, show a lack of love on the Church’s part. After all, this is the day we promote the Church’s ancient practice of going to other lands and butting in.
Wouldn’t true love have looked at the American Indians and affirmed who they are by accepting what they do? Wouldn’t true love have honored the Aztec civilization, with its pyramids and statues, and left it alone?
Take the American Indians first. On Oct. 19, we celebrated the feast of the North American Martyrs. The kind of civilization St. Isaac Jogues and lay missionary Rene Goupil found was the kind in which people lived together in the smoky squalor of longhouses without privacy. These were people capable of killing Goupil, and torturing and maiming Father Jogues, who refused to abandon them until the executed him.
If “God so loved the world that he sent his only son to save it,” these missionaries followed the way of God’s love to the letter. They truly loved the Indians — loved them enough to die trying to teach them a better way.
And while Aztec civilization’s giant pyramids were beautiful, they were used for human sacrifices in which a victim’s still-pumping heart was carved out of his — or her — chest. The beautiful statues depicted demonic-looking monsters. The Mexican Indians were guilty of genocide against each other.
Love wouldn’t leave them as they are. Nor would it eradicate them altogether.
The image of Our Lady of Guadalupe is beloved because it is an image of true love toward the Mexican Indians. The Blessed Mother appears in it as an Aztec maiden, but elevated by Christian imagery.
This is true missionary charity, in which the Church falls in love with the peoples it meets, and then elevates and ennobles them. It’s this kind of love that Pope Benedict XVI describes in the culmination of his encyclical Deus Caritas Est (God Is Love).
First, he describes eros — what Pope Benedict calls the possessive kind of love. This is the “love me do” love of many modern stories and songs in which the protagonist pours out his soul about how wonderful the lover “makes me feel” how the other “completes me” how “I can’t imagine my life without you.”
In each case, the beloved is someone who fills in the gaps of my life, who satisfies me, and advances my cause a step more.
The Holy Father contrasts this with agape. “Love now becomes concern and care for the other. No longer is it self-seeking, a sinking in the intoxication of happiness;” he writes, “instead it seeks the good of the beloved: It becomes renunciation and it is ready, and even willing, for sacrifice.”
Christian love doesn’t deny eros for the sake of agape. Instead, it allows agape to purify and ennoble eros, which would otherwise be less humane.
“Even if eros is at first mainly covetous and ascending, a fascination for the great promise of happiness,” he writes, “in drawing near to the other, it is less and less concerned with itself, increasingly seeks the happiness of the other, is concerned more and more with the beloved, bestows itself and wants to ‘be there for’ the other. The element of agape thus enters into this love.”
Thus, it isn’t a great romantic lover who is mentioned more frequently than any other human being in the Pope’s encyclical on love. It’s Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta — the great missionary who Pope John Paul II forever associated with Mission Sunday. She is named four times in the encyclical.
And that’s appropriate. In her Indian sari, living among the poorest of the poor, she was another icon of true love — eros ennobled by agape.
Mission Sunday is a call for Catholics to move past modern multiculturalism to a true love of the cultures of the world. It’s the love we see in Pope Benedict’s respectful insistence on dialoguing with Muslim leaders, discussing aspects of Islam that trouble him. It’s a love that admires and instructs.
It’s a love that respects others enough to tell them the truth.