People may misunderstand love as a feeling, but agape love is not a feeling, but an action and a way of life. Father Robert Spitzer, SJ defines agape as “love that seeks only the good of the other, arising out of the recognition of the unique, intrinsic goodness and lovability of that other, leading toward forgiveness, care, compassion, and self-sacrifice for the other.” (A Light Shines In The Darkness, 264) Jesus asks us to love others in the way that He does. On the night before His Passion, Jesus said to his disciples: “This is my commandment: love one another as I love you” (John 15:12). Jesus loves us so much that He suffered and died on the Cross for our salvation, asking God the Father to forgive those who executed Him, and giving us an example of how we must love as Christians.
As agape is not based on our emotions, it is possible to love someone and not like him, and to love someone who does not like you. Jesus taught us: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.... Be merciful, just as [also] your Father is merciful.” (Luke 6:27-28, 36)
All of the saints lived lives of agape love, showing that it is not impossible. They made sacrifices to devote themselves to love of God and neighbor; many gave their lives as martyrs out of their great love. In our time, Saint Mother Teresa of Calcutta exemplified agape love by dedicating her life to caring for the poor and sick. Although not every person can devote himself to a full-time ministry of helping people, we all have the opportunity to practice agape every day in all of our interactions with people and by praying for them. Taking care of someone who is sick or making a meal for the family of a new mother are examples of such love in daily life. Even people who are sick can practice agape and greatly help others by offering up their sufferings to God for them and by their prayers.
All of the problems in the world are caused by a lack of agape love: for example, abortion, euthanasia, murder, war, terrorism, human trafficking, and slavery. If people learned to love as Jesus taught us, to love as He loved, they would not do such evil things. In order to really love our neighbor, we must love God. When people understand how much God loves them, they will love him in return, and want to love others as he does. To develop agape love, Catholics can pray to obtain it, ask for Mary’s intercession, go to confession on a regular basis, and receive Jesus’ Body and Blood in Holy Communion—which provides us with many graces. We also grow in agape by striving to live a life of love.
Agape love is the basis of all of the Church’s teachings and an essential aspect of being a Catholic. Agape is a necessary part of all our relationships. It is needed in marriage; in friendship; in being a parent, child, or sibling: however, as Jesus taught in the story of the Good Samaritan, it is also to extend beyond those we already care about, to include all people.
Saint Paul’s description of agape shows us how to live it. He wrote famously, “Love is patient, love is kind. It is not jealous, [love] is not pompous, it is not inflated, it is not rude, it does not seek its own interests, it is not quick-tempered, it does not brood over injury, it does not rejoice over wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails.” (1 Corinthians 13:4-8)
Jesus also expects us to practice agape by service to others in need. He told His disciples that when He returns, He will judge people on whether or not they provided food to the hungry, drink to the thirst, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, visited the sick, and visited the imprisoned. He told them that in each of these circumstances, “…whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did it for me.” (Matthew 26:40-41) Knowing that by doing these works of mercy, we are doing something for Jesus can inspire us to serve others, even when it is difficult. The Church has given us a list of spiritual and corporal works of mercy: specific examples of how to love one’s neighbor in our daily lives.
Corporal Works of Mercy
- Feed the hungry. (Donate food to a food pantry.)
- Give drink to the thirsty. (Donate to an organization that provides water during a natural disaster.)
- Clothe the naked. (Donate Clothing.)
- Shelter the homeless. (Support local homeless shelters.)
- Comfort the sick. (Visit people in hospitals and nursing homes.)
- Visit the imprisoned. (Volunteer in a prison ministry.)
- Bury the dead. (Attend funerals; send Mass cards to families.)
Spiritual Works of Mercy
- Instruct the ignorant. (Teach Catechism.)
- Counsel the doubtful. (Explain Church teachings to someone.)
- Admonish sinners. (Give guidance about a moral issue to a family member.)
- Bear wrongs patiently.
- Forgive offenses willingly.
- Comfort the afflicted. (Console someone who is mourning.)
- Pray for the living and the dead.
Agape love is not only meant to be practiced to a heroic degree, such as by becoming a missionary, but it is meant to be lived in all the ordinary experience of daily life. With God’s help, we can be patient, kind, forgiving, and helpful to others, which will evangelize the world by our love. As Jesus Himself stated: “This is how all will know you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:35)
~ Louise Merrie