Pope Benedict’s Love Letter

Did Pope Benedict write the encyclical during his summer vacations in Val d’Aosta? If not, what was he writing over there?

The encyclical seemed to me, in fact, a very personal work of Pope Benedict. As I read it, I spotted ideas and the style I had found in Cardinal Ratzinger’s books and preachings.

Take, for instance, the document’s final point that the saints are “the true bearers of light within history.” You can easily find it in the cardinal’s homilies and essays.

Another example — the German cardinal had often said that the Christian faith is not an abstract truth or a code of moral laws but rather a friendship with the Son of God. Here you have the idea in the introduction to the encyclical: “Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.”

Pope Benedict’s first encyclical was introduced to the press on Jan. 25 at noon.

When I got there at 11:45 a.m., the Holy See Press Office, on the Via della Conciliazione, was already packed with 180 journalists.

During the briefing, spokesman Joaquín Navarro-Valls confirmed my suspicion.

“I noticed that Pope Benedict spent a lot of time writing in his cottage during his two-week vacation in Val d’Aosta,” said the papal spokesman.

“I asked him then, ‘Holy Father, are you writing your first encyclical?’ ‘No,’ he replied. ‘I am completing a book I began three years ago during my summer vacations. I am planning to draft the encyclical in Castel Gandolfo.’ That means he started working on it in September.”

The date the papal document was signed is most meaningful: Dec. 25, Christmas Day. In the mystery of  the Incarnation we find the most sublime and revealing expression of the truth “God is love.”

The day it was presented to the public is also meaningful: the conversion of St. Paul.

If you don’t associate love with St. Paul, then that’s because charity is one of the most misunderstood virtues.

Archbishop William Levada, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, said the encyclical is a “strong text about the center of the Christian faith, a strong text that intends to attack the wrong use of the name of God and the ambiguous meaning with which the word ‘love’ is manifestly used today.”

In his view, the Holy Father is “inviting us to know better what our faith professes when we say, ‘God is love,’ to open our hearts to recognize the needs of our brethren, and to fulfill the great commandment of loving God and our neighbor by imitating Christ, the Good Samaritan and the Good Shepherd.”

It was a sentiment shared by others at the event. Cardinal Renato Martino, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, expanded upon the American archbishop’s point.

“This is, without a doubt, a programmatic encyclical,” he said. “By reminding us that God is love, the Holy Father is asking us to delve into the center of our Christian faith.”

The papal document, in effect, proposes “a deep and insightful reflection about Christian love in the light of its philosophical, theological, spiritual, pastoral, ethical and cultural aspects.”

The feast of St. Paul’s conversion is the end of the octave dedicated to prayer for the unity of Christians. The Apostle of the Gentiles became for all Christ’s disciples a compelling inspiration of love for God and love for our brethren as well as of tireless work to enhance the unity willed by Christ for his followers.

John Paul II’s name was said to be a homage to St. John — the Apostle of Love — and St. Paul — the Apostle of Truth — I believe that Pope Benedict’s first encyclical could not have chosen a better topic to show the link of his pontificate to that of his predecessor.

John Paul II’s last encyclical, Ecclesia de Eucharistia (The Church in Relation to the Eucharist), was dedicated to the sacrament of love — the mystery where God’s love finds its best current expression.

Furthermore, the late Pope had told Cardinal Ratzinger that he was planning to write an encyclical on the theme of charity. He couldn’t fulfill that goal. Providence had reserved it for his successor.

Thus, Deus Caritas Est is a crossroads, where John Paul’s legacy, Benedict’s central message and the Holy Spirit’s push for the New Evangelization converge in the core of our faith and life: God is love and we, human beings, are created by Love in order to love.

This is the only truth we must present to the world.

Legionary Father Alfonso

Aguilar teaches philosophy

at Rome’s Regina

Apostolorum University.