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Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP: True love and friendship

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Young dancers get emotional after Pope Francis greeted them following the Stations of the Cross during World Youth Day at Eduardo VII Park in Lisbon, Portugal, on 4 August 2023. Photo: CNS photo/Lola Gomez
Young dancers get emotional after Pope Francis greeted them following the Stations of the Cross during World Youth Day at Eduardo VII Park in Lisbon, Portugal, on 4 August 2023. Photo: CNS photo/Lola Gomez

This is the edited text of the Catechesis given by Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP on ‘Social Friendship’ at World Youth Day 2023 Lisbon, on Thursday 3rd August 2023

Many of our shared spaces are broken and we seem only able to see things through a hyper-tribal lens of progressive and conservative, us versus them. On hot-button topics there’s little room for civil exchange of views, reasoned arguments and openness to persuasion, nuance, compromise, or respectful disagreement; instead, we have slogans, vitriol, and cancel culture, bullying people to join the pile-on and silencing those with a different view.

There’s been a turn against reason and argument. Media thrives on controversy, sensational politics, a polarised society, culture wars around sexuality and much more. Behind all this, markets, interests, and ideologies treat social harmony and debate as bad for business.

This can also infect the church, from the Vatican, to parishes, to families, to individual souls: whether it’s liturgy wars, sex or life issues, role of women, identity and governance of church institutions, views of the pope or his predecessors: whatever your position, someone is spoiling for an ecclesiastical brawl with you and perhaps you are with them.

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Behind widespread division and contempt in our society (and sometimes even in church) there’s more than disagreement about issues: at heart it’s about our very humanity, our ability to see the other person as another “I” and not just as ally or enemy, and our willingness to engage with, learn from, and work with them.

God’s dream for us is simple: that we become great lovers! It’s a dangerous proposition for an archbishop to articulate in a world that thinks love = sex, but most friendships have nothing to do with sex: loving our families, loving our friends at school, uni, work, loving our nation, our world, loving God, loving selves.

Christian wisdom is clear: we are made for friendship, communion, love. The Bible opens with telling us it’s not good for human beings to be alone; if we are too caught up in our work, study, leisure, the e-universe, if we’re too busy for family and friends, too self-sufficient, we can end up lonely, moody, narcissistic; we can make arbitrary judgments, unchecked by other people’s opinions, interests, emotions; we become uninterested in others and plain rude.

We end up reading all reality in binary terms, as a zero-sum game where no compromise is possible; the pool of those we listen to shrinks; we evade scrutiny, challenge, change; we become disruptors to communion to which the Christian is called and of which we’re supposed to be agents. Or we create façades of consensus by keeping hard topics off table, being mealy-mouthed, bullying or disengaged altogether. When this happens, truth is sacrificed for the sake of love, or love for truth, and in the end, both are lost.

Human beings, especially Christians, can exist in isolation, but can only really live in communion. In The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote that “hell is the suffering of being unable to love;” a serious Christian, he knew we are creatures made for loving by God of Love; for us not to give ourselves to others in love is a tragedy and our undoing.

Now I am not sure if you read existentialist authors like dusty Dostoyevsky; some might prefer the philosophy of the Peanuts comics by Charles Schulz. In one of his comics, Charlie Brown declares he has “come to the conclusion that there’s nothing worse than being unloved;” his crabby companion Lucy replies that being lost in the forest is worse and to prove it, shoves him into one and tells him to wait and see.

Eventually his mate Linus comes by and asks what’s doing? To which Charlie laconically replies: “No matter what anyone says, it’s much worse to be unloved than it is to be lost in the woods.” Linus wanders away remarking that he sometimes thinks Charlie Brown has been lost in the woods his whole life!

Jokes aside, Schulz’s definition of hell inverts Dostoyevsky’s: for Dostoyevsky hell is the failure to love; for Schulz it’s failure to be loved. We Catholics say it’s both.

St Catherine of Siena explained that God was pazzo d’amore—drunk or insane with love for us even before creation, and this mad love is what brought us into being. But then, Catherine added, He decided to make us social beings, interconnected, needy; none of us has all the gifts, none can really go it alone and flourish. God deliberately made us incomplete, needy; dependent on each other and Him. That should ground both humility and friendship.

In the Gospels, Jesus is presented as the great lover: here was a man displaying the full range of human emotions: laughing, frowning, weeping, teasing, angry, sometimes celebrating or commiserating, always compassionate.

But his love was not mere sentimentality: He loved with good reasons: “As the Father loves me, so I love you … Whoever loves me will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.” (Jn 15:9)

He loved with commitment: “Some people say ‘Love your friends and hate your enemies’ but I say love even your enemies and pray for your persecutors.” (Mt 5:43-4) Love when the loving is hard.

He loved widely: young and old, men and women, individuals, and crowds; rich and poor, sinners and saints, sick or ignorant: He loved them all. When a rich young man came to him for advice, “Jesus looked at him and loved him” (Mk 10:21); He had his own particular friends: Martha, Mary and Lazarus, and the 12 whom He calls ‘friends’, ‘intimates’, ‘beloved’ (Jn 11:3,5,36; 13:23; 15:9-17; 19:26; 20:2; 21:7,20; John ‘the beloved disciple’ who leaned against his breast at Last Supper.

John sets the scene for that night: “Jesus knew the hour had come for his own Passover from this world to the Father. Having loved those who were his own in the world, he loved them to end…” (Jn 13:1). Then he washed their feet and offered the first Eucharist for them. He taught them “A man can have no greater love than to lay down his life for his friends” (Jn 15:13) .Then he went to his cross, loving and forgiving even those who betrayed him or did not love him back.

He loved self-sacrificingly: such friendship is contagious: “As the Father loves me, so I love you. As I have loved you, you must love each other. Love God above all. Love people more than things. Love family, friends, fellow disciples, neighbours. Non-believers and sinners also: love them into conversion and new life. Love even those who don’t love you back.

Love from the cross.” (Mt 5:44; 6:24; 10:37; 19:19; 22:37-9; Lk 6:26-35; 7:47; 11:42; Jn 13:34-5; 14:15-24,31; 15:9-19; 16:27; 17:23-6 etc.) Be fratelli tutti, all siblings and friends to each other under God. Now, some people reduce Christianity to propositions but it must be about relationship with Christ; they then reduce articles of faith to articles of morality; then reduce morality to easier bits to sell, avoiding life and sex and other challenging personal issues, and focusing on more fashionable concerns. In the process, they reduce Christianity to do-gooding; but as Pope Francis insists, the Church is not a secular NGO.

We care for hungry, thirsty, imprisoned, sick, lonely, marginalised, not because they are projects but out of love of those people in themselves, out of love of the God in whose image they are made, knowing that what we do for them, Jesus said, we do for him. We don’t choose between love of creation and love of people, or between love of people and love of God. Love has it’s degrees and priorities, but love is one—and so like St Thérèse of Lisieux when she was asked to choose, she said I choose them all.

Christian love is an active love, a practical love, not just a feeling or words, as the story of Mary arising in haste and going to help of her cousin Elizabeth shows, and today’s story of Mary telling stewards at wedding reception in Cana to do stuff, to do what Jesus says.

That’s why the largest and oldest systems of education, healthcare, pastoral care, aged care, and welfare in the world are Catholic ones: it’s because generations of great lovers of God and humanity have engaged in these ministries and built up our Church.

Christians must be God and humanity’s dearest, most reliable, most active friends; we must in Pope Francis’ words be modernity’s Good Samaritans, caring “for the needs of every man and woman, young and old, with the same fraternal spirit of care and closeness that marked the Good Samaritan.”

As an example, today we heard of a fundraising concert to enable drinking water for families without; of peacemaking between Christians, Jews and Muslims in the Holy Land: of resisting bad laws by creating spaces for dialogue; of finding hope and values in unsatisfying consumer culture; or responding practically to the crisis of the Amazon.

Or we might think of those who work in pro-life advocacy, pregnancy help, addressing homelessness or other poverty, teaching faith, nursing and palliative care, justice and peacemaking, anti-trafficking, and so many other ways of expressing our love of God and humanity.

Friends do practical things for each other; but lovers also talk to each other and listen to each other. Mary was a great one for addressing Jesus directly, for her own sake or the needs of others; Mary was also examplary for pondering all He said and did in her heart; She was a super prayer-er.

No friendship survives long no-speaks; we need to listen and talk to God regularly if we want friendship with him; we call that conversation prayer, and it comes in many forms.

Pope Francis says all serious discernment, whether it’s of our life calling or just what to do next, must be prayer; a favourite place for us Catholics to do that is at Mass or outside Mass in front of Blessed Sacrament.

It’s a cliché that young people need constant noise and distraction, but you guys swim against that current by demo your yearning for spiritual nourishment, for being in God’s presence, for sitting quietly with God; in the end no smart-phone app, no entertainment, no credit limit will satisfy your restless hearts: only God.

So, we must cultivate, repair, and deepen friendships with each other and with God; we repudiate hatred, violence, and division, and seek to forgive it or heal it when it comes.

If WYD does nothing else for you, I hope it makes you a better lover! John the Beloved said that God is love (1Jn 4:16) and that he “so loved the world, he gave his only Son” (Jn 3:16). Jesus is his love song, sung to all humanity.

Our loving must be converted lest it be worldly and selfish, purified lest it be sinful, intelligent lest it be wrongly directed; but like Jesus, you must demonstrate the full range of human affections, intellect and will; like him, love both broadly and particularly; like him, love in good times and bad; like him, love infectiously, so others love also.

The church is God’s gift to help you love like that! May this WYD week make you all great and godly lovers!

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