Fr. Roger J. Landry
Espirito Santo Parish, Fall River, MA
Sixth Sunday of Easter, B
May 25, 2003
Acts 10:25-26, 34-35, 44-48; 1John 4:7-10; John 15:9-17
1) There’s a story told by St. Jerome, a fourth-century doctor of the Church, that when St. John was a very old man — likely in his 90s — in Ephesus (modern day Turkey), young men used to go up to his cave on a mountainside and carry him down for the Sunday Eucharist. His voice was by this point very weak, and so the people used to have to crowd around St. John to hear his message. “Little Children, love one another, because love is of God; everyone who loves is begotten by God and knows God. Whoever is without love does not know God, for God is love.” Every week, he would say essentially the same message: love one another, because God is love and we’re made in his image; therefore to know God and to become who he created us to be, we have to love. After the Sunday Eucharist, the young men would carry the evangelist back up the hill. After several weeks of doing this, one of the young men asked him, politely, why he seemed to be a broken record, why he constantly repeated the same message, “Little children, love one another.” St. John replied tenderly, “My Son, I never tire of repeating that message because Jesus, the Master, never tired of saying those words. Moreover, if we do that, we do it all!”
2) Today’s readings focus on this most central message of St. John, who, like Jesus, never tired of preaching it. If we learn this and live this, we will know and do it all. We will discover who God really is and who we really are. We will discover the real meaning of human life, why we’re here, what the point of our existence is. We will learn the way to the true, lasting peace and happiness that our hearts seek. The key to understand all of this is the real definition of love. God is love. We’re created in his image — and hence we’re called to be love. But to know God and to become whom he created us to be, we have to know what real love is. After the words like “the,” “a,an,” “and” and “but,” the most commonly used word in the English language is the word love. But love is also by far the most commonly misused word in the English language. To get to know God and to know ourselves, we have to learn what real love is. Today’s readings teach us very clearly.
3) In the Gospel, Jesus says, “As the Father loves me, so I love you.” Jesus loves us as the Father loves Him. And then he tells us, “love one another as I have loved you.” We’re called to love others with the same love with which the Father loves the Son and Jesus loved us. What is this love? Jesus tells us: “No one has any greater love than to lay down his life for his friends.” This real love is giving one’s life for another. Real love is not just a feeling of warmth in the presence of someone to whom you’re attracted. Real love is not even an emotion. Real love is a choice to give of oneself, to sacrifice oneself, for another. And not just a little. Real love is a TOTAL gift of oneself to another, even — as Jesus showed us — to the point of death. This is the way the Father loves the Son, completely giving himself over to the Son in love. This is the way Jesus loves us, giving his life for each one of us, not just on the Cross, but his whole life long and every day now in the Eucharist. And this is the meaning of our whole existence, what we’re made for, to give of ourselves totally in love to and for God and others.
4) But somebody may object, how can I love like that? How can Jesus really call me to love others with the perfect love with which the Father loves him or as he loved us? Jesus never calls us to something impossible; with his help, everything is possible. He also gives the steps.
a) The first step is to allow ourselves to be loved by the Father. St. John says in the second reading: “In this is love: not that we have loved God, but that he has loved us and sent his Son … as expiation for our sins, so that we might have life through Him.” The first step is to realize just how much we’re loved and allow God the Father to love us. God so loved us that he sent his Son into the world to die so that we might live. In some sense you could say that God loves us EVEN MORE than his Son, because when it came down to a choice between Jesus’ life and our life, between allowing Jesus to suffer, be tortured and executed in the gruesome way he was or allowing us to die eternally, he opted for us. God loves us THAT much. If we were ever to spend the time thinking and praying about this love of God for each one of us, it would change our whole lives forever.
b) The second step is what Jesus tells us in the Gospel: “Remain in my love.” We’re called to dwell in Jesus’ own love for us. How do we do that concretely? Jesus tells us very clearly: “You will remain in my love if you keep my commandments, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and remain in his love.” Each and every one of the commandments were given to us to help us to remain in God’s love and enter more deeply into it. We remain in God’s love when we’re faithful to him in our actions and don’t do anything that would rupture this communion of love, as worshipping idols would, as taking his name in vain would, as putting something or someone more important than him, especially on his own day, would, as the failure to love our parents would, or killing or hating someone God died for would, or using someone for our own sexual pleasure, or robbing or lying to someone whom God loves would, etc. To remain in God’s love, we have to realize that every commandment of the Lord is an application of the principle of God’s commandment to love as Jesus loved us, to love God as Jesus loved his Father and to love others as Jesus loved them, and Jesus would never have broken any of the commandments. Love means giving ourselves to God and to others in all of these ways specified by the commandments, in our speech, in our thoughts, in our business dealings, in how we spend our time, in our relationships with our family, in our relationships with those we love in a sexual way.
5) If God is love and the whole point of human life is to love as God loves, then what do you think the devil’s strategy would be in the world? The devil is the enemy of God — and our enemy! — who never sleeps, prowling like a roaring lion seeking someone to devour. He never ceases trying to separate us from God and all the things of God, including eternal life. If the devil wanted to steal us from God and from the vocation God gave us to love, his strategy would be obvious: He would want to distort the meaning of love. He would want to corrupt love, because if he could start to get us to fall for various imposters of true love, he would be able to corrupt us, and therefore corrupt our whole relationship with God. Man as a result would be lost. The Second Vatican Council said very beautiful, “Man cannot find himself except through the sincere gift of self in love.” Man would remain lost in this world, therefore, without knowing what real love is — and possibly lost forever. The fact is that the devil has been hugely successful in the past few decades getting people to fall into this trap. The human heart is made to seek love, but the devil has been able to get so many to fall for the various imposters of love, which is doing incredible damage to individuals as well as tearing apart the fabric of our families and our societies. Maybe there’s even someone here in Church today who has fallen for one of these tricks. I’ll like to give four examples of what the devil has been doing. There are others, but these are probably the most common and the most harmful:
a) The use of contraception within marriage — The purpose of our sexuality is to express in body language what real love is, a total gift of oneself to another in love. In every language that I know of, the bodily union between husband and wife is called “making love,” because that is what it’s called to do by God’s plan. I like to say, in making love, a married couple is to express by body language what they do in words on the day of the marriage, that they give of themselves wholly and entirely to each other and to God, holding nothing back, and receiving the gift of the other person in love. What has the devil been able to achieve through married couples’ use of artificial contraception? What happens is that, rather than giving oneself entirely to the spouse in love and accepting the spouse fully, the spouses actually reject each other, by rejecting that part of the other for which God most especially intended this action, the other’s fertility. Rather than nourishing and increasing their love, such contraceptive sexual activity becomes a means to use others — to use one’s spouse — for sexual pleasure. Rather than bringing a couple closer to God, contraception gets the couple to exclude God from the all “family planning,” to kick God out of the bedroom, to kick the God of love out of the act of making love — as absurd as that seems. And we see the bad fruits that flow from this type of tree. Rather than being open to cooperate with the Lord in the greatest possible human act — bringing another human being destined for eternity into the world — couples who use contraception begin to fear the conception of a child, which is why many couples often have recourse to the horror of abortion as the “insurance” for failed contraception. And as even the governmental and secular universities studies and statistics have shown, couples who use contraception are about 70% more likely to end up divorced than non-contraceptive couples. Are there serious reasons why a couple might need to delay having another child right now? Yes there are. But the means they choose have to be truly loving, loving of God and of another. Natural Family Planning, which accepts the way God made the woman fully, including with her monthly cycle in which she can only conceive a child about a quarter of the month, embraces both God and the woman and is in concert with the moral law of love. Those couples who have serious reasons for delaying having another child but who want to defeat the devil and please God should start practicing periodic continence or NFP. There are many great websites with information or you could see me and I would be glad confidentially to give you the information.
b) Extramarital sex — By this term, I want to describe all sex outside of marriage, from adultery to premarital sex. Again, sex is a tremendously beautiful gift of God that is supposed to “make love,” to express in body language this total mutual gift of self to another. But like any language, body language can either tell the truth or can lie. And the devil, the Father of lies, wants to have this body language lie. All sex outside of marriage is a lie. How can two people truly give of themselves completely to each other and to God when they’re not married, when they’re not already fully committed to each other until death? To give of oneself wholly to another means exchanging futures, exchanging bank accounts, exchanging hopes and fears, exchanging everything, and then together giving oneself to God. Anyone that’s not willing to do that isn’t ready to make love, and such an act would be a lie. Sometimes people say to me, “Well, Father, we’re planning to get married.” Whatever a couple’s intentions are, until they are really married, they really HAVEN’T given themselves over to each other wholly and entirely. They’re making love now would be about the same thing as if a young seminarian said, “I want to be a priest” and then went to try to forgive your sins in the confessional, or celebrate the Eucharist, or anoint your dying love one. It would be a lie and wouldn’t work. It’s the same thing with couples who hope to get married but still aren’t. They still are not in truth united by God in one flesh, and hence their trying to pretend that they are would be a lie. And what I’ve said here applies not just to sleeping with someone with whom you’re not married, but with doing anything with someone that should be exclusive to people who have given themselves to each other in marriage.
c) Homosexual activity — Everything that I’ve said about extramarital sex applies also to homosexual activity. The homosexual act is always and everywhere wrong. Someone might object, but can’t two men or two women sincerely love each other? Yes, it is possible, but their actions with each other must be consistent with true love, and homosexual sex is by nature selfish and obviously contrary to God the Creator’s plan. If they truly love each other, they will want what is best for the other. How could they say that they want the best for the other when engaging in such activity will endanger the one they say they love’s eternal salvation? Such an act could not possibly be loving. A few months ago, I was giving a speech up in Boston to a bunch of Harvard Law School students about the Church’s teachings on love, marriage and family, and, as you would expect, some asked some very penetrating questions. I remember the discussion that ensued after one queried, “Could someone with AIDS ever make love?” I said, frankly, “I don’t think so. However bad one might feel for someone afflicted with a such a disease, I can’t imagine how such an action would ever be loving, if ‘making love’ would involve the risk of passing along to someone you claim you love such a fatal disease. Someone who loves another is called to lay down one’s life for the other, not do something that might KILL the other.” The same principle applies all the more on a spiritual level to homosexual activity, to all sex outside of marriage and to contraception within marriage. How would one really be loving another if one would be risking the other’s eternal death through sinning with the other against God? The devil has been so successful in getting people to fall for false substitutes of love and to fall further and further away from the Lord that some no longer even think that the moral decisions they make concerning their sexual activity make no difference to God.
d) The attack on priestly celibacy — The fourth and last thing I’ll mention may in some ways the most serious, because it contains the seeds for bringing our culture back to one that is truly loving, one in which man can find himself through real love, and get to know God who is love. This is why the devil would fight so hard in this area. This fourth diabolical strategem has been getting people to attack priestly celibacy and religious chastity. Satan has convinced many in the world that priestly celibacy is impossible, an incredible burden, and bad for individuals and for the Church, because it leads to all types of problems, including the sexual abuse abuse of minors. These are among the subtlest and most pervasives lies of the Father of Lies. You can refute it easily just by turning to Jesus: He was celibate and of course there was nothing wrong with him. Moreover, with simple logic and common sense, you can see what a lie it is to blame the sexual abuse problems of the handful of priests over the past forty years on priestly celibacy. Blaming such abuse on priestly celibacy would be like blaming adultery on marriage. The abuse was carried out by those who were NOT faithful to priestly celibacy, not by those who were. Priestly celibacy is, in fact, an incredible gift to the priests and to the Church, because it is a call to the highest possible love, the total gift of self to GOD and the Church, in imitation of Christ’s own gift to God and to his bride the Church. By our celibacy, priests preach the reality that God can be and is to be loved above everything, and that he’s worth giving up the great gift of marriage and family. We preach as well the reality of heaven, in which there will be incredible love, but no longer marriage — as Jesus himself says in the Gospel — because we will be living in a complete communion of love with God and with the communion of saints. Priestly celibacy is a reminder of heaven. I often say to religious sisters and to my brother priests that are religious habits and black clothes are like a wedding ring, proclaiming to all others that we’re committed to God by a bond that will never end, and that he’s worth it. Priests are already married, and to wish that priests one day would be able to get married would be like saying to someone who’s happily married, “Someday I hope you can get another wife or another husband.” That would be opposed to what real love, which is this total gift of self to another. If you were to give to more than one person, the gift could never be total. You cannot serve two masters, Jesus says. Priestly celibacy and religious chastity, ultimately, is what we need more of, to help the whole Church return to the real meaning of loving God and others as God the Father loves the Son and the Son loves us.
6) “Love one another as I have loved you.” This is the secret of life, the answer to the riddle of what it means to be human, why you’re here, where you’ve come from, and where you’re called to go. Everything is at stake in whether we learn this type of love to which the Lord calls us — and whether we learn to say a firm no to the seductive lies of the father of lies. God calls us to remain in and reflect the love of God to a world that so desperately hungers to know this love for which he created each of our hearts. May the Lord who calls us to this love fill us with his own, take away whatever fears we have, and help us to experience the fullness of this love and life in this world and in the next. Jesus says again today, very directly, very personally, “I love you!: Love one another as I love you!”