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VATICAN LETTER Jan-20-2006 (870 words) Backgrounder. xxxi

God is love: Simple papal message reflects basics of faith

By John Thavis
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Even before the release of Pope Benedict XVI's first encyclical in late January, it was clear that the theme -- "God is love" -- reflected an emerging focus of his papacy's first year.

From his inaugural Mass in April to his recent improvised sermon at a baptismal liturgy, in speeches to world leaders and bishops, the pope has been preaching a basic message -- God is good, God cannot be shut out of personal and social life, and God reaches out to humanity through Jesus Christ.

Many were expecting a rule-tightening papacy from Pope Benedict, who headed the Vatican's doctrinal congregation for 24 years. But instead of loading his talks and texts with Catholic magisterial pronouncements, the pope has used scriptural, philosophical and anthropological sources to stir an awareness of the transcendent purpose of human affairs.

As a teacher, the pope is taking a less-dogmatic approach in order to reach a wider audience. He is inviting individuals and modern society to change their relationship with God -- a relationship, he argues, that is often one of indifference or antagonism.

"God does not hide behind clouds of impenetrable mystery. ... He has shown himself, he talks to us and is with us; he lives with us and guides us in our lives," the pope said in a sermon in early January.

Two months earlier, speaking to academics at the Vatican, he warned of a tendency for modern men and women to withdraw into a "suffocating existential microcosm, in which there is no place for the great ideals that are open to transcendence and to God."

In his sermon at Christmas, the pope emphasized that God loves everyone, then added: "But some people have closed their hearts; there is no door by which his love can enter. They think that they do not need God, nor do they want him."

The encyclical's theme was clearly on the pope's mind last summer, when he confided to a group of priests: "We believe that God exists, that God counts; but which God? A God with a face, a human face, a God who reconciles, who overcomes hatred and gives us the power of peace that no one else can give us.

"We must make people understand that Christianity is actually very simple and consequently very rich," he said.

That would seem to be one of the goals of his first encyclical, "Deus Caritas Est" ("God Is Love"), to be released Jan. 25.

"God Is Love" strikes some as more fitting for a '60s poster than the cover of a papal document, especially one written by an intellectual like Pope Benedict.

The phrase, taken from the First Letter of John, may be a simple one. But it's the starting point for what the pope hopes will be a deeper conversation with contemporary society, one that involves the nature of love and its relation to freedom, truth and Jesus Christ.

In the pope's view, unless people understand how "God is love," they will never overcome the age-old tendency to mistrust God.

In his sermon on the feast of the Immaculate Conception Dec. 8, Pope Benedict said that from the Garden of Eden to modern times humans have suspected that "God is a rival who curtails our freedom and that we will be fully human only when we have cast him aside."

In short, he said, man often believes God's love creates a limiting dependency.

For the pope, the challenge facing the church is to make people see that "love is not dependence but a gift that makes us live" and that "God's will is not a law for the human being imposed from the outside" but something intrinsic to human nature.

The pope followed up on this theme in an address to the new British ambassador to the Vatican Dec. 23, when he spoke about respect for the truth and its implications for civil society.

"Above all, it directs us toward a proper understanding of human freedom which can never be realized independently of God but only in cooperation with his loving plan for humanity," the pope said.

In his 2006 World Peace Day message sent to leaders around the world, the pope said acknowledging the full truth of God is the "first, indispensable condition for consolidating the truth of peace."

"God is love which saves, a loving father who wants to see his children look upon one another as brothers and sisters, working responsibly to place their various talents at the service of the common good of the human family," he said.

A pope's first encyclical is often viewed as a thematic touchstone for his pontificate. Pope Benedict has chosen to write on the place of God in human affairs and the nature of love -- topics that go far beyond the borders of the Catholic Church.

In doing so, he is pointing out that, as he said last July, faith is not extraneous to life, nor is it "a package of rules that we load onto our shoulders like a heavy backpack."

Faith is "simple and rich," he said. That's how he hopes "God Is Love" will be received.


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