The absence of love
IN his Lenten message, Pope Benedict urges Catholics to detach themselves from material goods and to give to the poor. When we “mortify our egoism and open our hearts to love God and neighbour”, the pope says, we come closer to Jesus.
The fast from comforts is a pivotal practice in our Lenten journey, but it need not be a time only for sacrifice. It is also salutary to take on new observances. Lent is a good time to examine our Christian conscience. Christ commanded us: “Love one another; as I have loved you, so you are to love one another” (Jn 13:34).
It is not difficult to see that even the most devout Christians find this directive hard to follow, if not in disposition then in the details. It takes a monumental and unceasing effort to live by the challenge that Jesus set for us.
Often we fail to love others when it should be so easy to do. The lapse of love plays itself out in families, when a child living an alternative lifestyle is cast out; or in the workplace, when office politics precede the observance of scrupulous Christian ethics; or in social gatherings when we gossip about others and, in defiance of Christ, pass judgment on them.
There are breaches of love in the Catholic environment. We sometimes observe these in the pages of The Southern Cross when disagreement over one issue or another is expressed with contempt; when impure motives are ascribed to fellow Christians; when the good faith of individuals is questioned; when the least charitable interpretation is employed; when respect for the views of others is discarded; when our certainties leave no room for the opinions of others.
Love is absent in many church communities when parishioners jockey for position, denounce each other, or even the priest, or when the priest alienates parishioners.
Love is absent when laws take precedence over respect for the conscience to the point of personal attack. This happens on all levels of the Church, even in Vatican dicasteries and bishops’ conferences.
Church teachings and disciplines are necessary and important. But those who challenge teachings or question disciplines are often treated poorly, by Church leaders and by the faithful. Jesus trenchantly criticised the Pharisees, of whom he very likely was one himself, for placing their law above charity, asking them: “Why do you also transgress the commandment of God in the interest of your tradition?” (Mt 15:1-3). Today, he might well ask: “Why do you transgress my commandment in the interest of doctrines?”
It is perverse that in serving Christ, we often resort to profoundly anti-Christian measures. Love is absent when in defence of our faith (as we see it) we forget to do so with respect and charity.
Love is absent when people wish to ban fellow Catholics from receiving the Eucharist because they don’t conform to their expectation of appropriate dress. Love is absent when Catholics refuse to receive Holy Communion from a priest whom they have judged guilty of some slight or lapse in conduct (or, scandalously, because he may be a celibate homosexual).
Even the liturgy, the celebration of the Holy Eucharist which we are called to receive as one in communion, is a battleground on which love often is absent.
Our challenge this Lent, and all year round, should be to examine our conduct as to where we have violated Christ’s commandment, and resolve to control our impulses when these may be in conflict with the mandate to love our neighbour.