When Pope Benedict XVI published his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est (“God is Love”), it seemed that the overriding reaction in the media was a great big yawn. God is love? Is this news? Within the Church, reactions were mixed, too. Some wished Pope Benedict had used his first encyclical to clamp down on liberal abuses; others wished he had used the opportunity to liberalize the Church. Did Pope Benedict miss a cue here?
I propose that he spoke profoundly on cue here. The expectations greeting the pope’s encyclical were spoken, in part, from a sensed need for healing in the Church, healing of division, healing of hurt. But there is no healing in the Church, ultimately, if we do not remember the essential proclamation that gives the Church its raison d’être. Listen, for a moment, to what the pope proclaimed:
“We have come to believe in God’s love. … Being a 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” (No. 1). This encounter is always “news,” Pope Benedict is saying, it is the good news of the Gospel, is always generating a “new horizon” beyond the gridlock of division and the seemingly closed circle of hurt.
Pope Benedict’s first encyclical was an encyclical in basic evangelization that aimed to forge a connection between evangelization and healing, or rather to remind us that evangelization and healing are intrinsically connected. The “encounter” with the Person of Jesus Christ, the encounter at which evangelization aims, is the intrinsically healing moment and the source of all healing. It is “loving personal concern … the love kindled by the Spirit of Christ” that offers people “refreshment and care for their souls” (No. 28).
Evangelization has the first priority, then, because it is a call to ourselves as Church to return to the sources of healing, to the God who is Love.
And yet, if there truly is an intrinsic connection between evangelization and healing, then it must also work the other way around. Divisions and hurts within the Church are blocks to evangelization, and if they are not healed, the Church’s energy for evangelization can be dissipated. Pope Benedict reminds us that love of neighbor is “constantly renewed” from the “encounter with the Eucharistic Lord,” but conversely, that this encounter acquires “its realism and depth” in our “service to others.” If this service is not rendered, it impedes the encounter with the Eucharistic Lord. Following his own advice, Pope Benedict did undertake significant gestures of apology and accountability, as a service of healing, just as he also took up gestures of dialogue across some of the divisions in which the Church is implicated. The enduring legacy of his pontificate will be the reminder of the intrinsic connection between evangelization and healing, and that this intrinsic connection arises out of the nature of evangelization.
John Cavadini is director of the Institute for Church Life at the University of Notre Dame. For more reflections, see Pope Benedict tribute section, Pages 9-24.