top of page


Fr Billy Swan

The following is the second part of a three part reflection series on the often quoted line from the prophet Micah: ‘Act Justly, Love Tenderly and Walk Humbly with your God’ (6:8).

We now consider the second of the great commands from Micah which is to ‘love tenderly’. To love tenderly is a requirement of justice for in the words of St Catherine of Siena: “If justice were without mercy, it would be joined to the darkness of cruelty and would be injustice rather than justice” (Letter to Pope Urban VI). In other words, justice, by itself, is not enough. It must be open to a deeper power which is love.

Everyone, whether they believe or don’t, has a deep need to love and to be loved. It is the one truth that we all agree on and therefore is the bridge that connects us to everyone. Even when we are struggling to talk about faith to our friends and family members, love is always a route into a deeper conversation. Recently, a lady in my parish shared her struggle to talk about God and faith to her children and grand-children. In response, I simply passed on advice that was once given to me. “Tell them what you love”. This is evangelisation – ‘telling people what we love’. Look at St Peter as he gave the first ever homily after Pentecost – he couldn’t help but tell the people about the One he loved (Acts 2:14ff). So, if you love the Lord, tell your children and grand-children why you love him; if you love the Mass, then tell them why you love the Mass. For if we love something or someone, we will somehow find the words to share why we love what we do.

Like justice, love begins with the God who is love. In the words of St John, “We have come to believe in the love God has for us” (1 John 4:16). The first Christians came to believe this because it was revealed in the life of Jesus of Nazareth. In Christ, the God of faithfulness and mercy from the Old Testament had revealed himself fully. Again, St John sums it up best: “For God so loved the world that he sent his only Son so that whoever believes in him may have eternal life” (John 3:16). Jesus’ death on the cross revealed not just God’s judgment on the world but also his mercy that poured out from his wounded side.

On the night before he died, Jesus left us the great Gospel command to ‘Love one another as I have loved you’. He asked us to give ourselves away in love as he had done for us. We note from the Lord’s words that love is what we do and not something only that we feel. In our culture today, we hear of people looking for love and finding love. We even hear of a place called ‘Love Island’! But for followers of Christ, love is not something we find or a place where we go. It’s something we do.

Yet, the command to love is not a cold command given by a superior officer. The command to love is always according to ‘as I have loved you’. And how did Jesus love us? By loving us first and giving us nothing less than himself. For us, the love of God always comes first. It is what Pope Francis calls ‘the primacy of grace’ (The Joy of the Gospel). Before ever we are asked to say or do anything, the personal love of God comes first. In the words of St John’s first letter: “God loved us first”. In Christ we contemplate the love of God that does come first and that we encounter as transforming mercy. Here is the love that was fully revealed on the cross of Calvary when it was lifted up, exalted and continues to draw many people to itself. Here is the love that is re-presented every time we celebrate the Eucharist, where the love of Christ gives itself away over and over again, totally and completely. And it is only by contemplation of this divine love can we hope to love in the same way. For when we contemplate the love of Christ, the presence of that same love that dwells within us begins to stir and compels us to move out beyond ourselves in selfless service and commitment. Only then can we not only love like Jesus but with Jesus and always in his name.

One of the best examples from the Gospels comes in the last chapter of St John with Peter’s encounter with the risen Lord. By the Lake of Galilee, Christ approaches the humbled Peter and first asks him “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these others do?” After Peter responds three times “Yes, Lord, you know everything, you know that I love you”, Jesus reminds him of what he had called him to, answering “Feed my lambs, feed my sheep” (John 21). God calls us because he loves us. He calls us after he loves us. He loves us first. It is always that way round.

God’s love is always engaging. When it encounters us, it shakes us up and calls us out of our comfort zones. It sends us on mission. Love is not a fuzzy feeling. It sends us to help the poor, to seek justice and to serve the common good. On the day we were baptised, our lives were claimed by the love of Christ as the sign of the cross was marked on our foreheads with the words: “I claim you for Christ our Saviour by the sign of the cross and I invite your parents and godparents to do the same”. Love claims us and sends us to where God wants us to be. As St John of the Cross wrote: “Where there is no love, put love and you will draw out love”.

Finally, in Micah’s words, we are to love tenderly. Let’s look again at the Lord Jesus. He loved people tenderly. Their needs touched him deeply. When he first met Peter, we are told he ‘stared hard at him’ (John 1:42) as if he was looking right into his soul. He did the same after Peter denied him three times (Luke 22:61). When he asked the rich young man to follow him, we are told that Jesus looked at him and loved him (Mark 10:21). When Jesus saw the funeral of the boy who was the only son of his mother, the Lord ‘felt sorry for her’ (Luke 7:12-13). When he saw the crowds he felt sorry for them because they were “harassed and dejected like sheep without a shepherd”. For the Lord, love was something that flowed from his heart. It was not just something that came from the head but from the heart and his gut. Tender love connects with the suffering of another and allows itself to suffer with them. That is why we too must stay close to Jesus to love tenderly like him. St Bernard of Clairvaux helps us to do so. He asks:

“Do you let his fire inflame your heart? Unless you let him warm you more and more with his love and tenderness, you will not catch fire. How will you then be able to set the hearts of others on fire by your words and witness? If, gazing on the face of Christ, you feel unable to let yourself be healed and transformed, then enter into the Lord’s heart, into his wounds, for that is the abode of divine mercy” (Sermon on the Song of Songs, 61, 3-5).

That is why Pope Francis, ever since his election almost ten years ago, has spoken beautifully about the nature of God’s mercy as tenderness itself. It is a love that is not afraid of emotions and knows how to weep. In a moving quote from ‘Christ is Alive’, addressed to young people, he writes:

“Those of us who have a reasonably comfortable life don’t know how to weep. Some realities in life are only seen with eyes cleansed by tears. I would like each of you to ask yourself this question: Can I weep? Can I weep when I see a child who is starving, on drugs or on the street, homeless, abandoned, mistreated or exploited as a slave by society?.. Weeping is also an expression of mercy and compassion. If tears do not come, ask the Lord to give you the grace to weep for the sufferings of others. Once you can weep, then you will be able to help others from the heart” (Christus Vivit, 76).

To love tenderly is also closely connected to kindness. The power of human kindness is underestimated in what it can do and the hearts of stone it can move. As a priest I have seen this time and time again when the kindness you show to someone who is elderly, sick or in trouble not just touches the person themselves but draws in their parents, families and children. The words of Pope Benedict XVI come to mind here – that “Faith grows when love is received” (Porta Fideii).

Friends, this is what is means to love tenderly. Even if our society became perfectly just overnight, there would still be the great need for love – for people to know that others care and that we are never alone. Our prayer today is that of the Little Flower, St Therese of Lisieux who prayed that there be “Love at the heart of the Church”. May the Holy Spirit of tender love fan into a flame the gift of God’s presence within us so that we might love not just like Jesus but with him. And that we might love everyone and all things in his name.


bottom of page