In her teaching, her institutions and the example of her saints, the Church has always kept alive the Gospel ideal of love Christ taught
At the General Audience of 3 June the Holy Father talked about the Church as a prophetic community which gives witness to love. In the two preceding catecheses he had described how the prophetic community gives witness to faith and hope. This talk is the 35th in the series the Pope has been giving on the mystery of the Church. The Holy Father spoke in Italian.
1. Let us return to the Second Vatican Council's Dogmatic Constitution Lumen gentium where we read: "The holy People of God shares ... in Christ's prophetic office: it spreads abroad a living witness to him, especially by a life of faith and love" (Lumen gentium, n. 12). We spoke about the witness to faith and hope in the preceding catecheses; today we move on to the witness of love. It is a particularly important topic because, as St Paul says of these three things, faith, hope and love, "the greatest of these is love" (1 Cor 13:13). Paul shows that he is well aware of the value Christ placed on the commandment of love. Over the centuries the Church has never forgotten this teaching. She has always felt called to give witness to the Gospel of love in word and deed, following the example of Christ, who—as we read in the Acts of the Apostles—"went about doing good" (Acts 10:38).
Jesus underscored the centrality of this commandment of love when he called it his commandment: "This is my commandment: love one another as I love you" (Jn 15:12). No longer is it merely the love of neighbour ordained by the Old Testament, but a "new commandment" (Jn 13:34). It is "new" because its model is Christ's love ("as I love you"), the perfect human expression of God's love for mankind. More particularly, it is Christ's love in its supreme manifestation, that of sacrifice: "No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends" (Jn 15:13).
The Church, then, has the duty of giving witness to Christ's love for mankind a love ready for sacrifice. Charity is not merely a demonstration of human solidarity: it is a sharing in the same divine love.
2. Jesus says: "This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another" (Jn 13:35). The love that Christ taught by word and example is the sign which must distinguish his disciples. He shows his heart's great desire when he confesses: "I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing!" (Lk 12:49). Fire means the intensity and strength of the love of charity. Jesus asks his followers to distinguish themselves by this form of love. The Church knows that in this form love becomes a witness to Christ. The Church is able to give this witness because, in receiving Christ's life, she receives his love. It is Christ who has set hearts on fire with love (cf. Lk 12:49) and continues to light this fire in every time and place. The Church is responsible for spreading this fire throughout the world. All genuine witness to Christ entails charity, it requires the will to avoid inflicting any harm on love. And so the whole Church must be distinguished by charity.
3. The charity kindled in the world by Christ is a limitless, universal love. The Church testifies to this love which overcomes every division between individuals, social classes, peoples and nations. She reacts against any national particularism which would limit charity to a people's borders. With her love open to all, the Church shows that the human person is called by Christ not only to shun all enmity among his own people, but also to esteem and love the members of other nations and their peoples as such.
4. Christ's charity also overcomes differences in social class. It does not accept hatred or class struggle. The Church desires the union of all in Christ. She tries to live, and exhorts end teaches everyone to live Gospel love, even for those whom some would like to consider enemies. In applying Christ's commandment of love the Church seeks social justice, and thus an equitable distribution of material goods in society and help for the poorest and all the unfortunate. At the same time, however, she preaches and promotes peace and reconciliation in society.
5. The Church's charity essentially entails an attitude of forgiveness, in imitation of the kindness of Christ who condemned sin but showed himself "a friend of sinners" (cf. Mt 11:19; cf. Lk 19:5-10), and refused to condemn them (cf. Jn 8:11). In this way the Church strives to reproduce in herself, and in the hearts of her children, the generous spirit of Jesus, who forgave and asked the Father to forgive those who had handed him over to be put to death (cf. Lk 23:34).
Christians know that they can never take revenge and, according to the answer Jesus gave Peter, they must forgive all offenses without ceasing (cf. Mt 18: 22). Every time they recite the Our Father they reaffirm their willingness to forgive. This witness to forgiveness, given and inculcated by the Church, is connected with the revelation of divine mercy: it is precisely because they are like the heavenly Father, according to Jesus' exhortation (cf. Lk 6:36-38, Mt 6:14-15; 18:33-35), that Christians are inclined to leniency, understanding and peace. This does not mean that they forego justice, but that justice must never be separated from mercy.
6. Charity is also shown through the respect and regard for every human person which the Church wants to practice and urges others to practice. She has received the task of spreading the truth of revelation and of making known the way of salvation established by Christ. In following Jesus Christ, however, she directs her message to individuals whom, as persons, she considers to be free, and she desires their fun development as persons with the help of grace. In her work, therefore, she uses persuasion, dialogue, the common search for truth and the good; and, if she is firm in teaching the truths of the faith and the principles of morality, she addresses people by proposing, rather than imposing them, with respect and trust in their powers of judgement.
7. Charity also requires a willingness to serve one's neighbour. In the Church throughout history there have always been numerous people who have dedicated themselves to this service. We can say that no religious society has ever inspired as many works of charity as the Church has: service to the sick, the disabled, service to young people in schools to people struck by natural disasters and other misfortunes, support for all kinds of poor and needy. Today we see a repetition of this phenomenon, which seems prodigious at times: every new need which appears in the world is met with new endeavours of relief and assistance by Christians who live according to the spirit of the Gospel. It is a charity which is often witnessed to with heroism in the Church. She has many martyrs of charity. Here let us simply recall Maximilian Kolbe, who gave himself up to death to save the father of a family.
8. We must recognize the fact that, since the Church is a community which is also composed of sinners, the precept of love has at times been transgressed over the centuries. It is a question of failures on the part of individuals and groups who bear the name Christian, failures on the level of reciprocal relations, both interpersonal as wed as social and international. It is a sad reality which appears in the history of individuals and nations, and also in the Church's history. Conscious of their own vocation to love according to Christ’s example, Christians confess these sins against love with humility and repentance, without, however, ceasing to believe in love, which St Paul says, "bears all things", and "never fails" (I Cor 13:7-8). But if the history of humanity and of the Church herself abounds in sins against charity, which cause sadness and pain, we must at the same time acknowledge with joy and gratitude that in every Christian age there have been marvellous acts of witness which confirm love; and that many times —as we have noted—this testimony has been heroic.
The heroic charity of individual persons goes hand in hand with the imposing witness of charitable works of a social nature. It is impossible to list them here or even give a summary. The Church's history, from the first Christian centuries to the present day, is filled with them. Nevertheless, the dimension of human suffering and need always seems to outstrip and surpass the possibilities of aid. But love is and remains invincible (amor vincit omnia), even when it appears to have no other weapons than indestructible trust in Christ's truth and grace.
9. As a summary and conclusion, we can make an assertion which finds empirical confirmation, so to speak in the history of the Church, her institutions and her saints. It is that the Church, in her teaching and her striving for holiness, has always kept alive the Gospel ideal of charity; she has inspired innumerable examples of charity, often to the point of heroism; she has spread love throughout humanity, and she is the more or less acknowledged source of the many institutions of solidarity and social cooperation which constitute the indispensable fabric of modern civilization. Finally, she has grown and continues to grow in her awareness of the demands of charity and in her fulfilment of the responsibilities which these demands entail: all this under the influence of the Holy Spirit who is eternal, infinite Love.
L'Osservatore Romano June 10, 1992