Francis Cardinal George, O.M.I.

Lent, 2011: Love and freedom

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Charity or almsgiving is the third component of the discipline of Lent, along with prayer and fasting. Almsgiving is a way of expressing our love of neighbor, coming to his or her help in response to their needs. Love of neighbor is the second great commandment. The first commandment, of course, is to love God with all our hearts and minds and souls. Since God is not needy, we can’t give him alms. We can, however, return to him what he, in his infinite love, has given us: everything we have and are. We can also daily demonstrate our love for God by doing his will, by following his way, marked out by the commandments, the beatitudes and the natural moral law written in our hearts. Obedience to the way of the Lord is a source of joy for those who love him and a source of resentment for those who don’t.

We love God and therefore willingly obey him because God loves us first. Some weeks ago, I wrote that God does not love everyone equally. A significant number of people have raised questions about that statement, and I would like to return to it. The basic truth is that God loves everyone, all of us and each of us. “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ,” St. Paul asks. “Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (Rom 8:35- 37). We can and should count on that love, even when we have sinned. God’s love is called mercy, because God is always eager to forgive. God loves us. He desires what is good for each of us, which is what a lover always desires for the beloved.

God loves everyone with an infinite love; but God is also completely free. He makes choices, as do we. Why did God accept Abel’s sacrifice and reject Cain’s? We don’t know. Why did God choose the Jews and not the Chinese in order to save the world? We don’t know. Why did God choose Mary of Nazareth and send an angel to tell her that she is “blessed among women,” when there were thousands of other young women eager to do God’s will? We don’t know. Why was St. Francis of Assisi, in his time and in ours, singled out as the man most like Christ? We don’t know. God is free to choose special relationships, and he does so.

Some look at people and see individuals and their rights; others look at people and see persons and their relationships. “Rights” are the realm of equality, where legal justice is paramount. “Relationships” bring us into the realm of love, and not all relationships are equal. A husband loves his wife more than he loves other women, although he is called to love everyone. A citizen loves her own country and feels an obligation towards its flourishing that affects her life in ways more profound than does her general love of all humanity. Loving everyone and giving everyone his or her proper due, as the virtue of justice enables us to do, go hand in hand. The dynamics of love and of justice, however, are not the same as the demands of purely legalistic equality. Legal rights might be equally protected, but justice can still go wanting and love be banished.

Jesus said that he had come to fulfill the law (Mt 5:17). He fulfilled it in love. God is not bound by our idea of what it is right for him to do. It’s all gift, and gifts are not the same for everyone. Gifts from God, however, no matter how small or how large, are given in love. And that is enough for us to know so that we might go forward through life confident that God loves us.

This issue touches on many other theological conundrums. How is it possible that an all-powerful God loves us with an infinite tenderness but that we can still reject that love and be separated from him forever? How is it possible that God is sovereign but that we remain free? How does the suffering of the innocent square with the fact of God’s love? There are multiple ways to approach these questions, and the value in thinking about them lies in their helping us to come to an ever clearer grasp of the immensity of God’s love and the mystery of our freedom, of the inexplicable nature of God’s free actions and the daily struggle of the saints to conform their lives to God’s will. Mysteries that escape our complete comprehension can nevertheless elicit our gratitude and motivate our love of God and neighbor.

Finally, in the scheme of things governed by God’s grace, we are to love our neighbor because God loves the neighbor, even when we are not naturally attracted to him or her. The conviction that God loves everyone should not makes us complacent about our own status in God’s eyes and in his heart; it should instead lead us to seek out those who seem most neglected or even hated and freely give them the alms of our love so that they too will come to the knowledge of God’s love for them and for everyone he has created and Christ has redeemed.

Sincerely yours in Christ,

Francis Cardinal George, OMI
Archbishop of Chicago