2006-05-03 12:15:00

Paper of Karl Gervin, Delegate for Culture of the Lutheran Cathedral of Oslo, read at the international Orthodox-Catholic Conference “Give a Soul to Europe. The Mission and Responsibility of the Churches”

Caritas - The dispensation of love on the part of the Churches as communities of love

This is the third of May, and in the church calendar of the West the feast of Saint Philip and Saint Jacob. Their gospel reading is taken from John 14: We are in the middle of the discourse where the Lord at length identifies the legacy to his disciples.

He, who has the heavens as his footstool, has just washed the feet of his followers, and emphasized how in doing so he has given them an example. On the threshold to his passion he now goes on to recapitulate the mystery of love. This is also the theme as we now reflect on the role of caritas in the mission of giving a soul to our continent.


In the farewell discourse, as so often, the evangelist leads us in a spiral movement, so that we may look at the centre from several perspectives, and today’s section of what the gospel has to say about love is seen in a Trinitarian setting. The Lord says: ”I am in the Father and Father in me”, and he goes on with the promise of the Holy Spirit.

This biblical background gives an ecumenical foundation for our mutual reflection on the dispensation of love. “If you see charity, you see Trinity” said our common ancestor Saint Augustine.

The Anglican theologian John Macquarrie develops how humankind is made in the image of the Trinity and may only realize the divine likeness by living a common life such as the persons in the Trinity: As they dwell in one another, so we must dwell in our fellow human beings, and so “in this doctrine is summed up the marks of a saving revolution in human thought”.

Lutherans also take the mystery of the Trinity as their point of departure. Love issues from the Trinity itself - not so much by understanding the Trinity, as by living in this mystery of creatio, salvatio, and communio.

Kallistos Ware makes the point in his Approaches to God in the orthodox tradition that ”Because God is three in one, each of us should engage in a life in the other and for the other in practical service and active compassion” - making the dogma of the Trinity a social programme.

In his first encyclical letter Deus caritas est, pope Benedict describes the church’s charitable activity as a manifestation of Trinitarian love - in order that we may become witnesses before the world attending to humankind’s suffering.

How could this doctrine of love assist the in forming a soul for Europe?


When speaking about love Saint John uses the Greek word agape. The church fathers continue to explore the concept of love - among them Clemens, and perhaps more systematically Origenes - by using the image of Jacob’s ladder, with its upward and downward movements, and developing the concepts of possessive and oblative love. Origenes said that love is agape as it is also eros - in doing so maintaining the individuality of each and emphasizing their complementarity.

It could perhaps be argued that eros assisted Saint Augustine in discovering agape, and that he went on to form a synthesis - caritas. In his concentration on caritas he safeguarded the nature of Christian love, but at the same time the concept provided a common theme, a mutual territory of interest and understanding and activity, which was shared both by the church and a very large section of its environment.

In a Europe which is quite rapidly becoming secularized, the concept of caritas could perhaps be a bridge and provide a passageway for people to rediscover Christianity, making faith accessible, and thereby renewing their minds and spirits (Eph 4:23).

Caritas also provides links to so much of European cultural history, and to the cultural expressions around us today. Caritas could enable the contemporary scene to bring better together divine and human activity, complementing human efforts and letting their souls find rest (Matt 11:29).

And also, does not the concept of caritas give the church seeking to renew Europe a platform for practical cooperation with all humans of good will so that together we may gladden the soul and help Europe lift its soul to the Lord (Psalm 86:4)?


For Saint Augustine caritas is at the centre of Christianity. Let us briefly consider how charity could be as it were a measuring rod for all the activities of a church: Faith without love could easily turn into philosophy, hope without love might become selfishness. Proclamation, worship and diaconal work should all bear the marks of caritas.


The letter of James (1:21) highlights that word “which brings salvation to your souls”, and so gives the proclamation of the word of God priority. Christ said that the one who hears his word, and believes in the one who sent him, will be saved. He handed on to the church the word concerning reconciliation.

He also entrusted to the church the word with the law of the Lord. Psalm 19 praises this law because it gives new strength: “The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul” (19:7). But it would seem that to revive this consciousness is a task against many odds in today’s society. Where the church advocates a self-giving love based on Christ’s model, mass media and aggressive advertising in today’s consumer society constantly present a very different ideal: Self-realization and self-fulfillment.

In the very complex contemporary societies of today it is difficult for the church to carry out its important assignment of offering concrete moral advice, be it to individuals or societies - or big corporations with funds not infrequently well above many nations. However, the numerous pitfalls of the past must, however, not paralyze the church of today.

There can be little doubt that the clarification of ethics should be part of the churches’ dispensation of caritas. But bear with me when I offer an example from a Norwegian context: My bishop has recently been under attack, not least from the media, because of his restrictive views on homosexual practice. He is honestly convinced that this stand is based on love and is the expression of love. The problem is that the media and a very large section of society disagree with him, and he is subject of attacks because he is said to alienate people from the Church.

It is not difficult to list a number of similar issues: The church deeply regrets and combats the very large number of abortions. But in doing so the church has somehow - and again I refer to my Norwegian context - appeared as insensitive and not caring to women and couples who have carried out an abortion.

My issue for the present is not the stands and formulations - but how they are perceived - and how they alienate from the church precisely a large number of people whom the church claims to love. There is a challenge ahead in finding formulations and shaping help as expression of the caritas entrusted to the church.


While still a cardinal, Joseph Ratzinger pointed out that the cult transforms humanitarianism into love. Worship must necessarily entail a healing of wounds.

The Danish Erik A. Nielsen has lectured in the Lutheran Cathedral of Oslo. His poignant observations echo his position as a University lecturer in literature, when he says: ”A church should foster visions by opening eyes, it is called to live in a world of images so exciting, attractive and beautiful, that humans experience an elementary desire to participate in it. This world of pictures should satisfy, that is it should bring order, it should create happiness and perhaps rapture, it will set forces free which have been in bondage. It shall provide safety, because it is able to bind forces in the process of paralyzing or splitting one’s existence. It should let us experience that we are a far more precious being than we might suspect when we behold ourselves in our everyday mirror.

This is not always the case. Bear with me what I again touch on a painful subject: Today a very large number of couples at least in the West live together without being formally married and without the blessing of the church. At the same time and at the other end of the scale, so to speak, we find the growing number of divorces. In many of these cases people find themselves excluded from the full fellowship of the mass. Again at this stage I am not advocating a specific practice, but trying to point out how a teaching and a practice aiming at dispensing caritas in today’s society may well be perceived as something else.

The challenge is to defend and proclaim a Biblically based moral concerning homosexuality, abortion and remarriage - and at the same time not break a bruised reed and not quench a smoking wick.

Under the headline of worship I would also like to add a few words on prayer. It is an essential element of the dispensation of caritas - not claiming to change God’s plans or correct what he has foreseen, but lifting the needs of the world to him who has every living soul in his hand (Job 12:10).

Saint Basil claimed that pious exercises nourishes the soul with divine thoughts, since “What could be more blessed than to begin the day with prayer - and that prayer is good, which imprints a clear idea of God in the soul. The Cistercian William of St. Thierry said that “prayer is the devotion of a person who clings to God, a secure and pious conversation, a condition where the enlightened mind enjoys God”.

In my Norwegian context many are no longer familiar with prayer in any form - meditative, contemplative, or petitive - they no longer know how to speak to God. If the church is to help heal Europe’s soul, there is a rather urgent need to encourage and to facilitate prayer.

In my cathedral as in others we have devoted an altar to meet these needs: Visitors are invited to write down on small sheets why their souls are bowed down (Psalm 44:26) or so disquieted (Psalm 42:6). The papers are deposited in a box, and the staff of the cathedral later reformulates them into petitions to be used in our worship life. This also brings the worship life into closer contact with the everyday life around the cathedral - just outside.


In the words of the Lord, the church is called to be like salt and light. What could this indicate other than that the church should somehow be noticeable - visible and different. These are images which more than hint at a service for others.

When the realities that Jesus describes are not anywhere near the situation for the church at least in my part of Europe, this gives food for reflection. As churches we are somehow often quite conform to society around us. I am afraid we must expect a wider gap in the time ahead between Christian patterns and others - between a life style and a charity coloured by the words of the Lord, rather than the opinions of the world.

As advocates of love, the church must also itself dispense love. In the words of Louis Evely: The world now criticizes the church with all the force it would have loved it, because the church defends itself in a way all too human - because it claims to be different, yet remains so very like everything else.

The church is called to walk in the footsteps of the holy men and women in so many respects - in doing charitable work we do so strengthened by their example and guided by their faith. In their witness to a life of charity, they have one thing in common: They were in a special way elected and empowered by God. When God receives the saints and their offering, he is crowning his own achievement.

In a book about the blessed Saint Catherine of Siena the Norwegian Nobel prize winner Sigrid Undset says that: ”All love between human beings is really a spark from that burning fire which is God’s love towards humankind ...all love on earth is but broken rays from God’s love’s fire. These rays should illuminate the soul until it mirrors God - as clear water mirrors heaven.”

In a special position among the holy is Mary - line by line her Magnificat gives a whole programme for the dispensation of caritas. What we say about Mary we should be able to say more frequently of the church: The Holy Spirit took residence in her, and the church should be fellowship of the Spirit. She carried Jesus for the salvation of the world, and the church should bring Christ to the world. She is full of grace and the church should be a society of grace.

In the Norwegian collection of Medieval sermons - we have only one - congregations are reminded “that there is more honour in giving good examples than in imitating them - and although God gave Mary all these things she did not exalt herself, but became more and more humble in conduct”.

Saint Bernard encouraged the foundation of a Cistercian monastery in my parish - it was said to be in finibus mundi - and around the same time he wrote moving verses on the biblical concept of humility, saying: “It is hardly possible to exaggerate the importance of humility in the spiritual life: The beginning of humility is the beginning of all blessing, and the fulfilment of love is the fulfilment of all happiness. Humility contains the response to all the great problems of life and soul.”

And so we have the indispensable witness of monks and nuns who live caritas in their diverse vocations. The 2 Vatican council, with a suggestive image, pointed out how they are at the heart of the church - that hidden organ which works for the whole body.


Let me conclude with a few remarks on caritas and the characteristics of the church, on the nota ecclesiae, as vehicles of caritas - since caritas coveys unity, holds a key to holiness, ensures Catholicity, and relies on apostolicity.

When talking about unity and charity, Jesus indicated a missionary perspective: In words from Saint John: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” In this tradition Dionysios the Areopagite in his work on the hierarchies reflects on how the whole interactive structure is sustained and linked by love.

The church is called to be a sign of the holy God, and his presence and will. It should be confident concerning the gospel and valiant when loving, a safe place to be for everyone, active for unity between Christians. Proud to be a church for the expelled, inventive in bringing about reconciliation between those who fight, persevering in the struggle for justice for the poor and desolate: A church which is invincible in faith, hope - and charity.

The church should bear witness to how including and encompassing this caritas is, which is part of the essence of the church. The extraordinary variation among its expressions is a warning against any limited concept of the church and its charity which should encourage and encompass.

Saint Isaac the Syrian, the great doctor of love asked: ”What is purity?” and replied that in a few words it is compassion regarding the whole universe. And what is this compassion of the heart? It is the flame which embraces all creation, all humans, all the animals, all the demons, all that is”. The issue at stake is to create sustainability and at the same time deal with the roots of hunger and the price of overeating, to replace economic profit by ecological wisdom, about safeguarding water ecosystems, reconciling trade and development, and turning strife and disasters into peacemaking opportunities.

Unless we rediscover caritas a part of our Christian identity, we will not live up to the challenge of this hour. It is a question of being radical in the sense of going back to the roots and reflecting on the apostolic foundation. They practiced caritas against very considerable odds, minding us that loving brings with it a degree of risk and commitment and intensity.

The apostolic heritage is not an abstract doctrine of love or a system of rules. The Lord speaks to us in parables and rather fewer overall concepts. Together with that of his disciples and apostles his teaching is linked to the end of time: At a time when we are aware of the possibility of an ecological breakdown, eschatology is somehow strangely absent in much of what the church is doing. This is not due to any dramatic development - it is perhaps more like the wick of a lamp that has been slowly turned down. Could it be that a renewed eschatological awareness holds a key to a more authentic Christian caritas?


There is a touching story from the apostolic testimony - when we are told how Saint Lawrence when challenged to give up the riches of the church, presented the poor of the congregation to the authorities, saying that they represented the true wealth of the church.

One point seems to be that the needy have something to offer the affluent. We are perhaps accustomed to seeing love as something we should practice to give others life and to renew their souls - but caritas at the same time sustains and strengthens our own souls.

Vienna, May 3-5, 2006