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How Much Do I Love God?

A checklist for priests

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A generation ago, Jesuit theologian Edward Vacek shook many readers of America magazine. He wrote in an article dated March 9, 1996, that many Christians no longer know what it is to love God. He even said that a researcher could not find priests who would talk about God. These phenomena are troublesome for a faith tradition whose founder placed love of God as its highest priority.

In the article, Vacek alluded to Karl Rahner’s “anonymous Christian” who substitutes love of neighbor for love of God. But can Christians, who recognize God as their creator and savior, forgo an affectual response to him? Vacek insisted that love of God is both possible and necessary. Instilling this love in themselves, as well as their congregants, remains a principal task of preachers.

Toward the end of this liturgical year, precisely on the Thirty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time, the Church invites priests to preach on a Gospel passage that directly takes up love for God. In Mark 12:28-32, a scribe asks Jesus to name the first of all commandments. Jesus responds as naturally as one giving his mother’s maiden name. Echoing the famous Shema (cf. Dt 6:4-9), he tells the scribe that the first commandment is to love God “with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength” (Mk 12:30). Then he proceeds to name the second commandment of loving one’s neighbor as oneself.

Daniel Harrington, SJ, in the New Jerome Biblical Commentary) article on the Gospel of Mark (cf. p. 622), advises us not to think of these four ways to love God as different body parts or faculties. For him, each bespeaks the whole person loving God. Yet the four ways may be differentiated and seem to be comprehensive. To love with the heart is not the same as loving with the mind or the soul. To love with all one’s strength implies an intensity about one’s love that can be distinguished from loving in general. The four ways may, I think, be profitably seen as a checklist to gauge one’s effort in this essential matter.

‘All Your Heart’

To say that one must love God with “all your heart” sounds much like the Beatitude, “Blessed are the clean of heart, / for they will see God” (Mt 5:8). It means that one is to love God with an undivided heart, a heart that does not hanker after other attractions like pleasure, power or popularity. St. Teresa of Calcutta famously said, “As to my heart, I belong entirely to the heart of Jesus.” So should we all.

Some may worry that such unmitigated love for God excludes love for others. This is not a valid concern. As Bishop Robert Barron frequently reminds his audiences, God is not another being competing for our attention like people or pets. Rather, he is the source of all being so that in loving him one can and should love others. The more a man loves God, the more he can love his wife. The more a priest loves God, the better he can serve his people.

Western civilization has located the seat of all feelings in the heart. Humans relate their heart’s affection for God as revealed in Jesus of Nazareth. Our love for Christ may not be as ardent as that of St. Catherine of Siena, who saw him quite literally as her nuptial spouse. But how can we not cherish one who willingly surrendered his life to free us from bondage?

Priests see Jesus not only as Lord and Savior but also as a guide and fellow worker. To us especially, he is one who has experienced successes and setbacks in ministry, acceptance and rejection by associates. We need to ask for his help, but we also want to share our hearts with him. Contemplative prayer is made for this. Dwelling on his love for us, we should freely express reciprocal affection. It is helpful to state our love for him clearly and directly. “Jesus, I love you more than anyone or anything” both clarifies our desire for him and reminds us that he is always our top priority.

• Does my prayer go beyond Mass and my breviary to an affectionate dialogue with my beloved?

• Do I entrust my trials and problems to God for a resolution first, or do I do so only after self-reliance gets me nowhere?

• Do I tell Christ regularly of my love?

‘All Your Soul’

The soul is the immaterial, immortal source of knowing and willing. It has insight that goes beyond physical appearance to make connections between the object being considered and other known realities. Then it chooses whether to pursue or reject the object. It also sees beyond the physical world to accept in faith revealed knowledge. The soul recognizes a benevolent God as the creator of the universe and reveres him for saving one from human folly.

For St. Ignatius, love of God is a spiritual benefit, or “consolation.” He describes it as an interior movement in the soul that becomes so inflamed that it cannot love any created thing for itself but only in the love of God (cf. Father Timothy M. Gallagher, OMV, “The Discerning Priest,” Institute of Priestly Formation, $10.95). Giving oneself over to God in love one experiences serenity.

To love God with all one’s soul, humans search for him in all things. They see in those who bring comfort the generous hand of God. They discern in those who cause trouble God’s corrective touch. They find in nonhuman beings, both big and small, God’s beneficent purpose and thank God. Their loving search never ends. They see God as the integrated source of every person encountered, every situation entered and every truth uncovered. Perceiving God pervading their lives, they are all the more enthralled by his grandeur.

Loving God with one’s immortal soul includes joining the angels and saints in eternal thanks and praise. We especially lift up our voices to God in the Eucharist and the Liturgy of the Hours. In both, the faithful celebrate the gaining of freedom making them God’s children destined for endless glory.

• Do I look for God in trying people and defying situations?

• If I recognize his presence, can I embrace him by always showing patience and respect, even when things seem to go in the wrong direction?

• Do I appreciate the natural world as a manifestation of the Creator’s generative love?

• Through human weakness, have I allowed boredom with routine to lead me to neglect prayer or even daily celebration of the Eucharist?

‘All Your Mind’

Christ calls us to love God with all our mind. He wants us to be intellectually adventuresome. This means seeking wisdom beyond the blithe answers people often offer when talking about God. However, such a search includes respect for the vast erudition the Church has accumulated. Scripture is the main well, providing knowledge of God. Commentaries provide significant help in the mining of ideas. Other theological reading, whether books or journals, is also requisite. Absorbing a few pages of theology can be part of the daily Holy Hour that most priest spiritual directors recommend.

Yet reading should not be limited to theology. Nor should the intellectual quest for God be limited to reading. Sensitive fiction, history and poetry often create spiritual wonder that leads to a deeper appreciation of the Lord. Occasionally, motion pictures and theater enable viewers to connect the dots revealing God’s merciful hand in the world.

Fruitful use of time can become a concern. We should not always be working, but that pendulum easily swings too far in the opposite direction.

• Do I keep my mind active in seeking knowledge and wisdom?

• Does the material I read or view give valid insights into God?

• Do I place healthy limits on the time I use for entertainment, whether television, movies or the internet?

‘All Your Strength’

Loving with all one’s strength probes the limits of one’s ability to care for and about the beloved. It is to love Christ like St. Martin de Porres, the first mentioned here among several examples. Day and night, he showed charity, most notably toward slaves and Indigenous. He also displayed kindness to animals and prayer and penitence to the Lord.

In a compendium of essays on priestly spirituality, Hans Urs von Balthasar writes of Mary as the symbol and model for the whole Church loving God with all her strength. He describes St. Peter as the same in a particular way for priests.

According to von Balthasar, Mary’s unconditional fiat at the Annunciation (cf. Lk 1:38) accepts not just the responsibility of carrying and giving birth to the Messiah, but also the commitment to love him more than herself (cf. Han Urs von Balthasar, “Priestly Spirituality,” pp. 24-25). She can hardly comprehend the sacrifices that her declaration entails, which culminate in the complete surrender of her most precious possession — her son, Jesus — at the cross. Because Christ saves all who are willing to go that far, Mary blazes the path of radical discipleship that leads to eternal glory. All the faithful — not just religious and priests — must leave behind everything to follow the Lord.

Peter’s pledge to serve is derivative of Mary’s and representative of all priests. Having failed Jesus three times, Peter must equally confess his love for him more than for anyone else to assume leadership of the Church (cf. von Balthasar, pp. 53-55). Each confession is as excruciating as death, for it not only admits failure, but a failure to revere the Lord out of a puny fear of possible repercussions. Each confession also promises a greater love that is ready to die on the Lord’s behalf.

• Have I sacrificed myself so that the People of God may know Christ as he is offered in the sacraments?

• Do I diligently prepare for Mass, especially for preaching?

• Do I extend myself to dying, non-practicing Catholics so that they may go to God in grace?

• Do I reach out sincerely and consistently to those who do not know Christ’s love?

The bulleted questions here are offered as a checklist to probe priestly love of God. Asked candidly every week, month or at year’s end, the queries will help us be more accountable for what is most important. A similar inquiry may help any adult Catholic. The questions here either apply directly or may be easily modified for all the faithful. Loving God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength is not optional for believers. He is the universe’s creator, savior and sustainer. To him, we owe our utmost.

FATHER CARMEN MELE is a Dominican priest ministering in Puerto Rico. He writes two homily blogs, at (weekday and Sunday homilies) and (Sunday homily in Spanish).


Jesus and Peter
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Jesus and Peter

In John 21:15-18, Peter, having denied Christ three times, affirms his love for Jesus. We read:

“When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.’ He said to him, ‘Feed my lambs.’ He then said to him a second time, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.’ He said to him, ‘Tend my sheep.’ He said to him the third time, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me?’ Peter was distressed that he had said to him a third time, ‘Do you love me?’ and he said to him, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.’ [Jesus] said to him, ‘Feed my sheep.’ Amen, amen, I say to you, when you were younger, you used to dress yourself and go where you wanted; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.’”


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