“Love encompassed all vocations” — Part 4 of Novo millennio, on “Communio”

Pope John Paul II has a knack of stating the obvious with a freshness and a vigor; he expresses the simple but profound truths with an intensity and an encouragement to the reader. A good pastor. Part 4 of Novo Millennio is devoted to “Witness of Love.” St. Paul said it in I Cor 13, the primacy of love. Here is John Paul II’s gloss:

Love is truly the “heart” of the Church, as was well understood by Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, whom I proclaimed a Doctor of the Church precisely because she is an expert in the scientia amoris: “I understood that the Church had a Heart and that this Heart was aflame with Love. I understood that Love alone stirred the members of the Church to act… I understood that Love encompassed all vocations, that Love was everything”.

In the key section, on the spirituality of communion, John Paul II lays out a vision for the Church to become “the home and the school of communion.” §43 The spirituality of communion must be made the “guiding principle of education” wherever individuals and Christians are formed .  .  . wherever families and communities are being built up.Although this responds to the deepest yearnings of the age, the reason for Christian community is not mere sentimentality, an imitation of social networking, an attempt at  corporate branding, or an effort at maximizing a greatest good for the greatest number. It derives from the life of Trinitarian prayer — “the heart’s contemplation of the mystery of the Trinity dwelling in us, and whose light we must also be able to see shining on the face of the brothers and sisters around us.”

Some speak of an “apostolate of friendship.” John Paul II does say Christians are enabled to share the joy and sufferings of others, “to sense their desires and attend to their needs, to offer them deep and genuine friendship.” John Paul goes beyond an interpretation of friendship that would suggest simply one on one, or person to person relationship, as important as that is. There is a very important social dynamic he is suggesting that would make the Christian community counter cultural in the American context.

A spirituality of communion implies also the ability to see what is positive in others, to welcome it and prize it as a gift from God: not only as a gift for the brother or sister who has received it directly, but also as a “gift for me”. A spirituality of communion means, finally, to know how to “make room” for our brothers and sisters, bearing “each other’s burdens” (Gal 6:2) and resisting the selfish temptations which constantly beset us and provoke competition, careerism, distrust and jealousy. 

These brief remarks break out of a bourgeois Catholicism, which may find apostolate only in “like to like” or in a quiet working away in the bowels of corporate America. John Paul II calls us beyond,  calls us to an openness throughout the communities and to cut across social, racial, professional lines, making room for the other and the outcast in the bounty of God’s love.We see it in Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker and in some of the movements in the Church today, as well as in many humble Catholics throughout the land daily serving at hospitals, half way houses, and hospices.

The last sentence strikes at the heart of the university culture in America today, rife as it is with “competition, careerism, distrust and jealousy.” I ask you, did the Holy Father have the university specifically in mind? The Catholic universities seem to be no better than their secular counterparts in this regard. It is heart breaking to see Christian groups within the same university give way to such petty jealousies and rivalries, engaging in gossip and calumny, destroying the inner vitals of community. 

John Paul hits very close to home when he says — “let us have no illusions: unless we follow this spiritual path, external structures of communion will serve very little purpose. They would become mechanisms without a soul, ‘masks’ of communion rather than its means of expression and growth.”

We have now discovered two reasons why the Catholic university is so rare today, if it is at all existent — where is the joy in truth? where is the spirituality of communion?

My friends, do I read the Holy Father correctly if I suggest that we must tear away the masks and resist the soulless mechanisms? 

Be not afraid, said the Holy Father.

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