By Cardinal Justin Rigali
Archbishop of Philadelphia

At this time of year, we see many images of human love placed before us. Let us take this great and unique characteristic of human beings as our topic this week.

In the spanine image He created them
In the period of human history, in which God has willed us to live and work out our salvation, there is a great need to affirm the dignity of the human person. As you know, we have done this in many different ways in this column. Since it is such an exalted reality, it has many different aspects. We have affirmed the dignity of the child in the womb; of the elderly; of the mentally and physically challenged; and of the poor and needy.

At this time of year, when we see and hear many references to human love, some trivial and some serious, we can take the opportunity to extol this great and unique characteristic of the human person: the ability to love and be loved.

In the book of Genesis, we read: “God created man in his image; in the spanine image he created him; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27). Our reference point for the concept of “image” is generally something we can see and perceive with the senses. What does it mean to be created in the “image” of One who does not have a physical body? We are made in the image of God, in the sense that we are called to share in the qualities that God is by nature.

So we say that God is perfect knowledge, and we share in that quality by our ability to know. We also say that God is love, as affirmed by His Son Jesus, and we share in that quality by being able to love. Because of the effects of original sin, our love is imperfect, yet it is a magnificent sharing in God’s perfection. It is also what elevates us above every other earthly creature and thing.

The “Catechism of the Catholic Church” elaborates on this by stating: “Being in the image of God, the human inspanidual possesses the dignity of a person, who is not just something, but someone. He is capable of self-knowledge, of self-possession and of freely giving himself and entering into communion with other persons. And he is called by grace to a covenant with his Creator to offer him a response of faith and love that no other creature can give in his stead” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 357).

‘Taking back’ the true meaning of love
At times, if a word has been widely misused, we can tend to dismiss the word or its reality as having been so distorted that we just lay it aside. Pope Benedict XVI was so concerned that the misuse of the word love would continue to distort this basic reality in the minds of inspaniduals that he wanted his first encyclical to be on that very topic of love.

In explaining his choice, the Pope said: “Today the word ‘love’ is so tarnished, so spoiled and so abused, that one is almost afraid to pronounce it with one’s lips. And yet it is a primordial word, expression of the primordial reality; we cannot simply abandon it, we must take it up again, purify it and give back to it its original splendor so that it might illuminate our life and lead it on the right path. This awareness led me to choose love as the theme of my first encyclical” (Address to Pontifical Council Cor Unum, 23 January 2006).

In reminding ourselves of the genuine meaning of this sometimes misused and misunderstood word, we need to affirm that the ability to love is a human potential. It has not been given to any other of God’s creatures.

We all know that various animals can be wonderful and consoling pets for many people. They are companions to the elderly and lonely; their mannerisms can bring great joy and relief in a complicated world; they are the great “friends” of children; they are used to uplift the sick and, as service dogs and “Canine Companions,” they greatly assist the physically challenged. However, in spite of how intelligent and affectionate they may seem, they do not have the genuine ability to love in the human sense. This is because the gifts of reason and love have been given to human persons alone.

In this column, I have extolled the modern means of communication which are part of the wonders of our age. We are called to make use of them as one of the modern means of proclaiming the Gospel. However, we also know that they have their dangers.

We know that professionals have expressed concern over electronic means of communication endangering wholesome human intercommunication. This does not make the technology bad, it jut presents a danger along with the advantage. Since the computer cannot reason (although sometimes it seems as if it can!), it is the human person that must use human reason to use the technology wisely.

So it is in our relationships with the animals God has given us. It is for us to acknowledge their value, but also to remember that they do not replace human, loving relationships. As with the computer, it can be tempting to have a “relationship” with an animal rather than a human person because they seem less complicated and more “loyal” at times, but neither can replace the human ability to love.

Who do we give this love to?
God makes it possible for us to express our potential to love in many and varied ways. The highest form of human love is found within marriage, because it is the total giving, in love, of one person to another. It is a love that is sealed with a solemn promise of both fidelity and permanence, along with the intimate and total giving of one body to another. This is why St. Paul describes marriage in the glorious terms that liken it to Christ’s love for His Church (cf. Ephesians 5: 25 33).

Pope John Paul II extolled this teaching in many ways during his pontificate. Just one of these affirmations was given in his Apostolic Exhortation on the Christian Family in the Modern World. He wrote: “By virtue of the sacramentality of their marriage, spouses are bound to one another in the most profoundly indissoluble manner. Their belonging to each other is the real representation, by means of the sacramental sign, of the very relationship of Christ with the Church” (Familiaris Consortio, 13).

Children are called to be born as the result of such a loving relationship, where the loving security of the home, regardless of how modest it is, can give to children those indispensable gifts which will last them a lifetime.

Solid and lasting friendships present another means of sharing the gift of love. Once again, in a society which is often utilitarian in its relationships, in other words seeking what a person can do for me, genuine friendship is a precious gift. It should not be shared in a trivial or fleeting manner, but with the firm foundation of mutual giving and respect.

Some sociological studies have shown that many people, especially young professionals, say that they do not have time for friendships! It is indeed true that friendships make demands of time and commitment. However, how sad it would be if we would refuse to fulfill these demands, thereby sacrificing one of life’s joys and consolations: that of sincere and well-founded friendships.

For those called to the vocation of the single life, the love given to family members and the consolations of friendships are especially valuable. Those who lead an unmarried life are still called to share in loving relationships within their families and among their friends. In this they can fulfill a unique role for those around them, and both receive and give the precious gift of love.

Love in the lives of those called to celibacy ‘for the kingdom of God’
It is unfortunate that it is sometimes thought that men and women, leading lives consecrated to God through chastity, poverty and obedience, and priests in the Western Church who live out the gift of celibacy, are somehow thought to be deprived of love in their lives. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, if anyone aspiring to the consecrated life or the priesthood would view it in that way, he or she would not be seen as fit candidates for such a life. As an example, I think of those leading the contemplative life. We have the blessing of their presence in our Archdiocese, and I had the privilege of ministering to them during my many years in Rome. What else could impel a man or woman to live a life of silent prayer and sacrifice but love? What is the reason for their prayers? It is love. First, love for God to whom they have given themselves in such a selfless manner, and then love for the world and all those in it. This is why we rightfully turn to these consecrated religious and ask for their valuable prayers.

As so many reminders of human love are put before us at this time of the year, let us be mindful of the true and exalted meaning of the word, so that we may love and be loved as God has intended, and as He has made possible for those created in His image and likeness.

10 February 2011