Let There Be Love!
In February, radio stations, shopping malls and advertisers reminded us that it’s the “Month of Love”. Of course, their interests are purely commercial: hoping we will be bullied into paying premium prices for chocolates, red roses and sentimental cards as ways of showing how much we love that special person in our lives.
I trust that the sensible, Christian readers of The Southern Cross were not conned by such blatant marketing — we know that there are more sincere ways of showing our love for someone. And we also know that we need not be restricted to one month or one day in the year, even if that day is tenuously linked to the name of a saint.
But this month’s focus on love is a good opportunity for us to reflect on what we mean by love and how we live it out in our Church. Scripture is full of the word: “God is love”, “God so loved the world…”, “Love one another as I have loved you”. We should be in no doubt that “love” is a defining characteristic of our Christian experience.
St Paul articulates it beautifully in 1 Corinthians 13: “Love is patient, love is kind”, concluding that while “faith, hope and love will abide…the greatest of these is love”. But through overuse at weddings, we have become a bit immune to this reading and it may wash over us. As an experiment, write down each of the phrases on separate pieces of paper, mix them up and then read them out loud at random: you will find the words come to life again.
You may know the hymn with the chorus, “And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love”. The suggestion is not that red roses or heart-shaped chocolates will identify the followers of Christ in a crowd. But if we asked the average non-Catholic what word they would use to describe our Church, or even your local parish, would “love” be the one that comes to mind? Would it be in the top 5, or even the top 10? I fear it might not.
That is partly because the instinctive meaning of the word love has been captured by the marketers and narrowed to be the model of romantic love. But we know how inadequate that is. For most of us, our first experience of love is not romantic but comes from a parent or grandparent or sibling. Our families should be “schools of love”, where we first see it lived out around us, where we first experience it for ourselves, and where we first learn how to love others: love through actions; love through words; love through gestures; and, yes, love through gifts, but marked by their expressiveness, not their expense.
That love then expands to include love of people outside our families. As children we never tired of telling our best friend that we loved them: when did you last do that as an adult? The esteemed founders of religious congregations sometimes used the language of love when addressing their followers: if you are a religious Brother or Sister, take time to tell a member of your community that you love them — and see the reaction!
Is charity aways love?
One form of love is, I am pleased to say, prevalent in most of our parishes: love of neighbour, especially the one who is in need. We have formal and informal ways of serving people. But we use not the ordinary word “love” to describe that, but the English form of the Latin word for love: caritas. A good test is to look at the good works you do and ask yourself: even if they are “acts of charity”, are they also “acts of love”? It is interesting that the link is not always automatic.
Would most non-Catholics describe our Church with the word ‘love’?
And then, in the lives of some, romantic love comes along. This is the field where “love” is least likely to be associated with the Catholic Church. We are seen not as a community of love but as a community of rules. Of course, rules do matter — try driving in a place where no one observes the rules of the road! But to paraphrase Jesus’ words to his disciples about the Sabbath: “God created rules to serve people; God did not create people to serve the rules.”
A non-Catholic friend of mine was recently asked to be part of a marriage annulment process. Afterwards, she came to me baffled. “Where was love in all of this?” she wondered. I found it hard to give her an answer. Our Church is known for its strict rules about what does and does not qualify as a religiously-sanctioned romantic pairing. The hard lines that include some, inevitably exclude many others. (Curiously, it would have excluded the marriage of the Holy Family itself!)
The argument given is that this “upholds the sanctity of marriage”. I assume that this is an inductive not a deductive argument since no data is ever provided. But even if there were data, it would hide the impact on the individuals who are affected by these rules.
I can think of two people, very dear to me, both brought up in devout Catholic households. One is my cousin who married young but, after producing three children, left her abusive husband. She has been married now to another man for 25 years, and he has been a wonderful husband and a wonderful stepfather (in the tradition of St Joseph himself). But their marriage has never been recognised by the Church.
Another is my best friend from school who has been devoted to his partner for 30 years and been legally married for over 20. Since they are both men, the state recognises their love for each other but the Church does not. Both my cousin and my friend have long since left the Church because, they feel, the Church left them.
So let us celebrate our month of love and, rightly, rejoice in those couples visible in our communities who uphold our strict definition of Church-sanctioned love. But I pray that God’s love has space to rejoice also in the invisible couples. Their stories of love do not come out of the Catechism but they are written in the books of their own hearts.
Discussion about such matters used to be closed down with the Latin expression, “Roma locuta; causa est finita”, which means “Rome has spoken; the case is closed”. Swapping a few letters produces a different maxim: “Amor locutus; causa est finita” — Love has spoken; the case is closed.
This article appeared in the February issue of the Southern Cross magazine
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