After mass one Sunday a young man said something interesting to me. He said, ‘Father, I think that at the mass you should be talking about loving each other and not just talking about things from the bible which people don’t understand.’ It is an interesting point and I agreed with him, partly. A few years ago at a wedding a man said almost the exact same thing to me. He said, ‘You should just be telling us to be good to each other. There is no need for all these words from St. Paul to the Corinthians, etc.’ They are both right about the need to talk about loving each other, because that is one of the most important things that Jesus asked us to do, ‘Love one another as I have loved you.’ ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ That is how Jesus told us that people would recognise us as Christians, by the way we love each other. But there is another part to it which is easy to forget.
If we are to love one another, and that is what the Lord God tells us to do, where are we supposed to get the strength to do that? How are you supposed to love people who are difficult, or who are unjust to you, who do you wrong, or steal from you, who have cheated you out of money, or offended your family? Since they are in the wrong, are we still expected to love them? Yes we are. ‘Love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you, bless those who curse you.’ It seems to be a lot to ask. In fact, it can seem quite unrealistic. This is where we have to go back to the Scriptures to see what God is saying to us, to try and make sense of this. And Jesus says, the two most important commandments are, first, ‘You must love the Lord your God above everything else’. Second, ‘You must love your neighbour as yourself.’ This may not seem very important, but this is where the answer lies.
What God is telling us is that if we are rooted in him, if he is at the center, and we become more and more filled with him and with his love, then and only then will we have the ability to love other people. We get the strength to love people, especially those we find more difficult to love, from the love we experience from God. The more our relationship with him grows, the more this is possible.
Let me give you one example. There is a woman called Sister Alvera, from Italy. Several years ago she set up a community to help drug addicts recover. She believed that what these people were missing more than anything else in their lives, was the love of God, and that this was where their problem was really coming from. So she set up a centre to help them recover, a place where they could experience the love of God first hand from other people. They live like a religious community. They have no TV, no radio and no newspapers. They do a lot of physical work and they pray a lot together. The interesting thing is that through this way of life (which is basically a monastic way of life – prayer and work) hundreds of men have overcome their drug addiction, but more importantly they have discovered faith, discovered the love of God for them and begun completely new lives. Sr. Alvera now has 36 different centres all over the world. They are known as the Cenacolo community.
There are hundreds of people like Sr. Alvera and not all religious either. The Missionaries of Charity, whom Mother Teresa founded, are another. How do they do this kind of work? It sounds very noble to work with the poor, but it can be really disgusting and dangerous too. Where do they get the strength to work with people who can be very difficult and sometimes ungrateful? The answer is that they are completely rooted in God. Their own personal relationship with God is where they get the strength and energy.
A few years ago I watched a BBC interview with some of the women fighters in Syria who fight with the YPG, or Kurdish coalition fighters. They are an all women group of soldiers fighting against ISIS in Northern Syria. The journalist was asking one of them how she felt about ISIS since they were killing her own people. Among other things that she mentioned, she said ‘We have to remember that they are people too.’ I was really surprised and impressed by this. This lady, although fighting this force of evil, was able to distinguish between the evil and the fact that they were also human beings. She had an inner sense of what is important and the value of each life. I’m sure those women didn’t want to be there, but they felt the need to be there to help protect their own people. ‘We have to remember that they are people too.’
What exactly does it mean to love your enemies, to love your neighbors who are difficult, or disrespectful? It doesn’t mean you have to like them, but it means we recognise their dignity as human beings, and respect them as human beings.
Our ability to love one another, to put up with and respect those we don’t like, or agree with, comes from our relationship with him. The more we come to know God, the more we can love the people around us, starting with our own families, our spouse, whoever is closest to us. As we come to know the Lord more, our ability to love others also grows. The key is in coming closer to God, nothing else.
How do we come closer to God? First, through prayer, through reading his words in the bible, through giving God our time, through receiving Jesus in the Eucharist. In the Gospel Jesus warns the people not to get caught up in lip-service. Doing religious things, such as going to mass every Sunday, does not mean you have a relationship with God. It must go deeper than that. Our relationship with God has to be from the heart. A real relationship with anyone has to be from the heart, or else it is not a relationship.
As a priest, I celebrate mass every day and pray the Psalms five times every day. That is part of what you promise to do when you are ordained. But just doing these things does not mean I have a relationship with God. They are important things to do, but they are not going to help me, unless I am living my relationship with God from the heart. My relationship with God is just the same as with anyone I love. I spend time with them, I listen to what they have to say, I make sacrifices for them and try to please them, because I love them. If it is important to me, I will make time for it.
All of these things help to bring about conversion of the heart, rediscovering God, coming closer to him. Only then will we be able to love the people around us and only then will our society begin to improve.
‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul. You must love your neighbour as yourself.’