I sat at the dinner table of a friend recently and asked: “Do you believe that God loves you? Have you had a personal encounter with the love of God?” Much to his obvious dismay, he answered no. But his eyes, heart and voice were full of hunger to know God’s love. I want that, he communicated with ardent longing.
I shared with him my own story of “waking up” to the love of God. Much like what St. Augustine described in his famous Confessions, God literally shattered my darkness and unbelief with His majestic presence and personal love. I was agnostic at the time, and in painful desperation, I begged God to show me if He was real.
You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness. You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness. You breathed your fragrance on me; I drew in breath and now I pant for you. I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more.
St. Augustine, Confessions
My life has never been the same. God’s love changed and transformed me, and I have hungered and thirsted for more of Him ever since. He has brought me along a continual path of conversion these past thirty years, wherein He has given me the grace to love Him and the desire to do His will.
This is precisely the Good News we are meant share with others when we evangelize: I have encountered the gracious love of God and so can you! God’s love will change your life! Yet so often, we communicate the opposite message, saying something that’s more like: Get your life straight! Then God will love you!
Sadly, it practically creates a scandal to suggest that God loves each and every one of us infinitely and unconditionally—and that nothing we think, say or do can make Him love us more or less. Do we really believe that deep down? Yet, this is the incredible truth of who God is: God is love, and we if we do love Him, it is only because He loved us first (1 John 4:19).
There is an urgent need in the Church today to proclaim the love, kindness and mercy of God, because it is the personal experience of God’s love and kindness that leads us to change. We see this over and over in the Gospels, where sinners meet Christ and change in response to His love. But tragically, it seems that so many people—even in the Church—have never encountered the tender love of God, hence the profoundly wounded condition of both the Church and the world.
I believe this is the message Pope Francis is trying to convey as He speaks constantly of God’s love and mercy, proclaiming love to a world bleeding to death from open wounds caused by an alienation from God that has led to numerous personal and social evils. “I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds, heal the wounds... And you have to start from the ground up.”*
How do we heal the wounds of the world? With the same remedy that Jesus applied to the wounded of the world. With Love. Love that goes out of itself to meet sinners right where they are. Love that eats with prostitutes and tax collectors and is not afraid to mix with the lost, the unrighteous, and the hurting. Love that is willing to proclaim liberty to captives and a recovery of sight to the blind.
This is only possible when we, ourselves, “have come to know and to believe in the love God has for us” (1 John 4:16); when we, ourselves, have encountered the medicine of God’s love. When we do, we will want to share “the love of Jesus which we have received, the experience of salvation which urges us to an even greater love of him.” It is then that we will “feel the need to speak of the beloved, to point him out, to make him known.”*
This is the new evangelization to which we are being called. For it is only a heartfelt witness of the experience of God’s love that will awaken us once more to the goodness this world so sorely needs.
*From “A Big Heart Open to God,” America magazine Sept. 19, 2013.
*From Pope Francis, The Joy of the Gospel, Par. 264.