St. Paul’s definition of love is not really a definition at all; it’s a list of some characteristics or properties of love. You know them well, probably from the last Catholic wedding you attended:
Love is patient; love is kind.
It 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, hopes all things, endures all things.
Love never fails.
I got this far in the composition of this homily, when I broke to catch up on the email that had arrived since I last checked. I found a note from a medical doctor whom I have met, I think, only once, but with whom I’ve corresponded occasionally ever since. He commented favorably on last Sunday’s homily and attached an essay he had written and which was published in the Newark Star-Ledger the day before. The connection between what he had written and what I was trying to say in the homily was too obvious and compelling to ignore.
For the past 13 years, this busy New Jersey internist, himself a husband and father, has been visiting Haiti, where he co-founded Lamp for Haiti, a community and health care center in a dangerously poor slum in Port-au-Prince. Since the earthquake six years ago, which killed nearly 300,000 Haitians and left the country in a shambles, he has been a hands-on participant in the merciful and generous response of the world, which saved thousands of lives and continues to help the country rebuild itself.
However, the doctor’s fear is that the world will begin to turn away, to wash its hands of Haiti, because of what he calls “disaster fatigue” and the belief that nothing really significant or of lasting value can be done to help Haiti. Not so, he insists: Roads and hospitals have been reopened, devastated communities rebuilt; and a new medical school to teach future Haitian doctors and nurses has been created.
The doctor points out that medical teams from around the world saved the lives of people with lost or crushed limbs and severe trauma. Donors contributed much-needed antibiotics, food and fresh water. But today, he notes, thousands of people still live in crowded tent encampments. Safe water remains a problem. The recovery is expensive and slow, but, he insists, it’s real. Positive work is being done and needs to be speeded up.
That’s the deepest meaning of love that Paul must have had in mind when he wrote his immortal treatise. Every line, every clause in it can be the subject of a lingering meditation on a central theme: our responding to the critical needs of others who have no way of helping themselves. These are persons who cry out to us for the assistance that will make the difference between life and death, or between a life of mental and physical misery and a decent, minimally comfortable life as a human being.
There’s no other word for it: it’s love, plain and simple. The doctor ends his note with these words: “I am writing obviously to a lay audience, but I find strength in the Good News (of Jesus and his Gospel) indeed.”
Although you and I are not in Haiti, I suggest that we look around us, starting maybe with our own homes & families, where we are very likely to find someone in desperate need of our love – the kind of love St. Paul describes.