Charity means holiness
January 26th, 2016
By Father Joseph Previtali
Despite its almost-ubiquitous presence at weddings, the magnificent “Hymn to Charity” of St. Paul in our second reading this Sunday is not about romantic or human love. St. Paul is never a sentimentalist, least of all in his First Letter to the Corinthians! In this part of his epistle, the Apostle is teaching the true meaning of Christian spirituality to the very troubled and disordered Church at Corinth. He is giving them here a full description of the theological virtue of Charity, which should be the main focus of their spiritual efforts.
The Corinthians were very keen on the more dramatic workings of the Holy Spirit. They focused on charisms like speaking in tongues, working miracles, and prophecy, while neglecting the Divine Love toward which all spiritual gifts are ordered. St. Paul is correcting them here, showing them that the only thing that really matters is that I have love for God and neighbor. As St. John of the Cross would put it centuries later, “In the evening of life, we will be judged on love alone.”
This love, given in the virtue of Charity, is infused into our souls at our baptism, along with faith, hope, the Gifts of the Holy Spirit, and the infused cardinal virtues. Charity is the virtue in our soul that makes us holy because it unites our will to God as our Ultimate End and purpose in life. Without Charity, we are not holy. Without Charity, we cannot go to Heaven. St. Paul’s marvelous Hymn shows us how charity is the form of all the other virtues and unites them all toward God.
In his “Treatise on Charity,” St. Thomas Aquinas describes Charity as a kind of friendship with God, based on Jesus’s own words in the Gospel of John: “I will not now call you servants … but My friends.” Love of friendship, Thomas explains, is mutual well-wishing (benevolence) based on communication. We know that God wills our good. What is more, God communicates to us His happiness by calling us to eternal life with Him in Heaven. Indeed, earlier in this same letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul had written of this communication: “God is faithful: by Whom you are called unto the fellowship of His Son.”
By communicating His own fellowship, His own Divine Life, to us through grace – which we receive in prayer and the sacraments – God calls us to friendship with Himself. You see what intimacy God has with us! In another of his epistles, St. Paul wrote, “Our conversation is in Heaven.” We are truly called to friendship and intimacy with God through theological Charity! This ought to stun us with delight. All this leads St. Thomas to conclude ecstatically: “The love which is based on this communication, is Charity: wherefore it is evident that Charity is the friendship of man for God.”
But there’s more. Our friendship with God is the basis also for our love of our neighbor, even our enemies. We love all men, even our enemies, because God loves them and we love what God loves because He is our Friend. Our love for our neighbor is a choice of our will, inflamed with love for God. It is not a mere feeling and it is not based on how much we like the person or how well they treat us. If we don’t live in this Divine Love, we are not living as Christians and we cannot be saved. The Apostle is very clear on this: “… if I … have not Love, I am nothing.”
Frequent confession, devout Holy Communion, and daily prayer and meditation are the principal means by which I receive the ongoing ability from Jesus to live in His friendship. Love of God and all men in God: This is our program of life in Christ, given to us so beautifully by St. Paul in his glorious Hymn to Charity.
Father Previtali is parochial vicar at Our Lady of the Pillar Parish, Half Moon Bay.
From January 28, 2016 issue of Catholic San Francisco.