There is an essential link between the theological virtues. “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1) and it works through love, said Saint Paul (Galatians 5:6). Of these three which are on the path to holiness, the greatest is love.  To be sure, Paul emphasized, if we do not have love, we are nothing (1 Corinthians 13:1-3; cf. Gaudete et Exsultate, 56).

On the night before he was to give his life for us on the Cross, Jesus said, “As the Father loves me, so I also love you. Remain in my love,” adding, “This is my commandment: love one another as I love you” (John 15:9, 12; CCC 1823).

Love is the heart of the Gospel, and the story of the Lord’s love for us is told throughout the pages of scripture and human history. Even more, filled with transcendent mystery, “love embraces the whole of existence in each of its dimensions, including the dimension of time. It could hardly be otherwise, since its promise looks towards its definitive goal: love looks to the eternal,” explained Pope Benedict XVI in his magnificent encyclical on love, Deus Caritas Est (6).

The idea of love is the subject of innumerable songs, stories and movies, and our daily thoughts, too. Yet, despite all this focus and thirst for love through the ages, many struggle to find it or to even understand what genuine love is.

The culture often associates passion with love. But we should be careful not to equate mere feelings, however intense, with love because they can be very different realities. As Pope Benedict understood, “Sentiments come and go. A sentiment can be a marvelous first spark, but it is not the fullness of love” (Id., 17).

Likewise, Pope Francis adds, “Love cannot be reduced to an ephemeral emotion. True, it engages our affectivity, but in order to open it to the beloved and thus to blaze a trail leading away from self-centeredness and towards another person, in order to build a lasting relationship; love aims at union with the beloved” (Lumen Fidei, 27).

As a theological virtue, love is an habitual and firm disposition to seek to become like the Lord in concrete situations, loving God and our neighbor, and giving us the spiritual freedom of the children of God (CCC 1803, 1822, 1828).  Further, one of the words for “love” in Latin is “caritas,” from which the word “charity” is derived, and so to love is also the self-sacrifice of giving yourself freely, willing and seeking the good of another (CCC 1766).

Saint Paul provides an incomparable depiction of the virtue of love in his first letter to the Church of Corinth.  Love, he said, is patient and kind, rejoicing in truth, and it is not jealous or boastful, arrogant or rude, but bears all things, hopes all things, endures all things (1 Corinthians 13:4-8). Pope Francis expounds upon these words in a beautiful way in chapter four of Amoris Laetitia, his exhortation on love in the family.

In particular, love is relationship, and the fullness of love is directed toward union, toward communion. The fullness of love is also fruitful. By its very nature, it is dynamic and creative, seeking to burst out from itself and bring new life. Each one of us, in fact, finds our origin in love. Love is our final destination too, and all points in between. Further, it is in love – and only in love – that the world will be redeemed.

Human love between persons is a beautiful thing, yet when our human love is combined with divine love, it is greater still. In fact, this points to the proper order of love – we should love God first (Matthew 22:37-38; CCC 1822), especially if we want to love others better. As Saint John confirms, “God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him” (1 John 4:16).

When God is included, our own love is magnified. To love God before loving spouses, parents, children or neighbors, to love them with God and through God, means we actually love them more, not less. It means that love will endure.

This is the love for which we were all made. We cannot lead lives that are barren and static. Indeed, Saint John Paul II said, “Man cannot live without love. He remains a being that is incomprehensible for himself, his life is senseless, if love is not revealed to him, if he does not encounter love, if he does not experience it and make it his own, if he does not participate intimately in it” (Redemptor Hominis, 10).

What the world needs now as much as ever is love. If it is found wanting, then as missionary disciples loved by God, we need to help bring that indispensable love into the lives of others. By our love, we satisfy the longings of people today, we answer those demanding questions of the heart. Through love, hearts can be changed and new life brought to the world.