“What the World Needs Now is Love” – Fr. Bob’s Homily for Sunday, January 30, 2022

I was watching an EWTN interview a couple of days ago with Fr Joseph Espitaille, who had just been appointed auxiliary bishop of New York archdiocese. At 45, Fr Joseph thereby became the youngest Catholic bishop in the U.S. During his interview, Fr Joseph said he wanted to challenge young people, especially, not to live for “likes”, but to live for “love”. Too many of us, he said, live to get “likes” – a thumbs up from Facebook or Instagram, or whatever, when we should be living for “love”.

I knew that the type of love he was referring to was “agape” love, the very kind of love that St Paul is talking about in our second reading today.  “Agape” love is different from the other kinds of love: “eros” love, which is based on physical attraction, and “philos” love, which is based on friendship. “Agape” love is unconditional, undying, totally committed love – it is the kind of love which defines the very nature of God. As St John says in his first letter: ”God IS love” (1 John 4:8). God IS “agape”. It’s who he is, it’s what defines his very being. It’s what should define us also. To quote St John again: ”Beloved let us love (agape)  one another, because agape love is from God; everyone who loves like this is born of God and knows God” (1 John 4:7).

Which is why young couples who choose this reading from St Paul are setting themselves a gloriously high standard to attain. Their relationship may have begun with “eros” love, hopefully, “philos” love will always remain a large part of it, but unless and until they attain to “agape” love, it will fall short of the image of God’s love it is meant and designed to achieve. When Jesus says, as he does in Matthew 5:48:”Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect”, he means “seek to attain to agape love in your relationships”, especially in your marriage relationship. Understand, brothers and sisters, before you sink into despair that you can never achieve this exalted view of love, that we are not talking about “flawlessness” but “maturity”. To aspire to perfection is not to presume that we can never make mistakes and mess up from time to time – this is impossible for us human beings. It means that we always seek to respond in a mature way to all that life sends to challenge our relationships. It means that we seek to manage even our screw-ups, as well as others, in a mature fashion- not through angry denial, or indulging in the blame game, or storming off and ending the relationship, but through being, as the second reading says “patient and kind, not arrogant or rude, not insisting on its own way , not irritable or resentful, not rejoicing in wrongdoing”. In other ways, dealing with the mess-up in an adult way, through honest confession, repentance , listening and forgiveness. 

That is not something that can be taught, but it can be learned. It is learned through doing: messing up, trying to start over, again and again, having the assurance as you try to get it right, that you are in a relationship that both of you pledged, before witnesses, would be “for better or worse… until death you do part”. It is only the promise, the assurance that we are both in a relationship that we are pledged to persevere in, that we can relax and work out our differences with patience and kindness. Which is why the marriage relationship will always be a better, more secure, foundation for a life-long partnership than just “living together” can bring about. In the latter kind of relationship, since there are no legal or sacramental bonds to tie you into the relationship, either party can simply walk away from it when it suits them. 

Which is why St Paul describes the various qualities of agape love in a series of verbal phrases, not abstract nouns. Love is not about patience per se, it is about being patient, doing patience. It is not about kindness – it is about being kind, it is about doing kindness, and so on, with all the other qualities, being them, doing them, and being them, doing them, again and again and again. I can’t simply say to someone “I am patient, I am kind”. They can rightly say to me “Well, prove it. Show me .” Exactly. It is only over the course of time, through practicing all these qualities, that we perfect them, mature in them, until it becomes routine in us to behave in such a way. And until we come to perfection in these qualities, if we ever do, we will always need someone with us who has already said to us “I am with you. I am for you, for better or worse, no matter how much you mess up, until death parts us.” 

If I am sounding idealistic about marriage, it is not because I, a celibate, am naïve and ignorant. I have counselled many couples in various times of stress in their marriage, I know what can go wrong and frequently does go wrong. Sadly, most couples, or individual spouses, only come for help, when the relationship is just about at an end. No, if I am being idealistic, it is because God is. God is, and endlessly is, “patient and kind, not envious, or boastful, or arrogant or rude, or irritable or resentful, or rejoicing in wrongdoing” and  all the rest of it. God genuinely does, always: ”rejoice in the truth, bear all things, believe all things, hope all things, endure all things. God never fails in agape love.”

Because of this, God remains the perfect marriage partner. He will never stop loving us, in spite of our constant screw ups, and that assurance is the only atmosphere which gives us the security to try again, and again, and again, to get it right, to grow, in and through our mistakes and failures, into true mature, agape, love. If God were to storm off, in fury, every time we sin, and say to us “That’s it, you have failed me once too many, I wash my hands of you forever”, I for one, and, I suspect, all of us, would have no chance of making it. As Psalm 130 says:c”If you, O Lord, were to take a strict accounting of our sins, none of us would survive. But with you is always forgiveness, which is why we are so much in awe of you.” 

God is idealistic, yes. But he is also realistic. He knows how fickle the human heart is, how often our vices trump our virtues, how often we fail to do the right thing, the best thing. He has been experiencing the best , and the worst , of human behavior since the very beginning. As he says to Jeremiah in our first reading: ”Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you through and through.” God has no illusions about us. But he has already chosen, since before we were born, since before even the first human being was created, to stick with us, through thick and thin, for better or for worse. 

I asked the members of the bible studies this week, “What is the greatest gift?” They said “Love, naturally“, pointing to our second reading today, and I said, “Well, that’s not what  Paul actually says. He doesn’t call Love a ‘gift’ but a ‘way’, a way of life.” Something we walk out throughout our lives. In Galatians 5: 22, Paul describes agape love as a “fruit of the Spirit”. It is what the Holy Spirit produces in us, works in us, as we keep ourselves open to him, from the moment of our baptism, when we receive the Holy Spirit for the first time. Because we leak the Spirit through our sins, through our emotional wounds, we need, I need, to keep asking the Holy Spirit to fill us again and again, producing the works of love within us, day by day.

So let us finish with praying for that, shall we …