God Loves Us

My wise former pastor John Weiss believed that it was the message ordinary Catholics most needed to hear. We talked about it several months ago while setting up for a parish reconciliation service. In all of his years as a confessor, he told me his sense was that people still weren’t getting it. They still needed to hear it. Not being a confessor, I don’t have first-hand knowledge of the truth of that. I have only my own experience undergirding such words from a trusted friend.

My first day in Schuyler last Friday I was immediately drawn to a book in the retreat center library, Phyllis McGinley’s Saint-Watching. Do you know it? It’s a collection of snappy, personal essays she wrote in the 60’s on various aspects of saints’ lives. Lots of the details have faded with my return to the world, but in retrospect the overarching theme of love strikes me as I think back to the book.

The saints knew they were loved by God. Teresa of Avila treated the Almighty as an intimate friend, not above a tart rebuke from time to time. (“If this is the way you treat your friends, it’s no wonder you have so few!”) Many saints were remembered for their outward sense of joy and freedom. They were attractive people, and there was no denying their commitment to the Gospel. They not only loved God, but they embodied the quality of love (cf 1 Cor 12:31ff) in such a bright and untarnished way, we are assured of their place in the eternal love-fest of heaven.

Without getting deep into the gory details, I reached my usual crisis a bit later on my retreat. I was fortunate to have Father Germar, the prior as my director for this time. “I want to be a saint,” I said.

You should be more concerned, he told me, with a better integration of the awareness of God’s love. Sure, sure, I thought, I know this. But the integration of head and heart was not quite there. And what is this anyway, I’ve come almost 300 miles to hear Fr John’s message re-preached to me? On the other hand, who am I to quibble about competent spiritual direction? I asked for it, after all.

“Romans 8:31, you know this?” asked my director. Read it aloud, he suggested. Your voice to your own ears.

What then shall we say to this? If God is for us, who can be against us?
He who did not spare his own Son but handed him over for us all, how will he not also give us everything else along with him? Who will bring a charge against God’s chosen ones? It is God who acquits us. Who will condemn? It is Christ Jesus who died, rather, was raised, who also is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us.
What will separate us from the love of Christ? Will anguish, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or the sword?
As it is written: “For your sake we are being slain all the day; we are looked upon as sheep to be slaughtered.”
No, in all these things we conquer overwhelmingly through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth,nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

In spite of all the stupid, sinful things we do, God loves us. Nothing changes that. Not even an impaired self-image or a misguided sense of sainthood. Wanting to believe it, believing it, living it–suddenly I had and have a mountainous task ahead. Walking hundreds of miles, fasting for days, enduring privations or even martyrdom seem elementary in comparison. The martyrs and the child-saints had it easy. Living a saint’s life of love for decades: there’s the challenge.

I read and hear the message of “God loves you” criticized by many Catholics as an outdated slogan from the 60’s. But is that fair? Fulton Sheen closed each of his 1950’s television shows with the farewell, “Bye now, and God love you!” If your diocesan newspaper was carrying his syndicated column in the last century, the title, God Loves You, was the first item in bold print to reach your eyes. Sheen is certainly not a fluffy figure in church history. Neither is the apostle Paul, who considered love to be the highest spiritual gift.

I’m inclined to trust my quivering bs detectors when the critics of God-loves-you emerge to bash the message. Pope Benedict didn’t think the message was too fluffy for an encyclical. As I ponder the aftermath of my retreat and the return to the world, I know I need more than a book, an encyclical, a few words in my journal to solve the depths of the insight of God’s love. On that point, I’ll leave off, and let the commentary begin.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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