The universal love of God for his creatures and especially for mankind is undeniable. Clearly, in the words of St. Paul, “God desires that all men should be saved and come to the knowledge of his truth.”
The wideness of God’s mercy is recalled every day at the words of consecration when the priest reminds the faithful that the blood of Christ was shed “for many.” St. John pushes the envelope even more when he places the whole world in God’s hands: “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that all who believe in him might not perish.” Practically speaking, the conversion of the pagan centurion Cornelius first signaled Christianity’s break with Judaism’s exclusiveness when the imperial soldier and his family were welcomed into the fullness of the believing community. The Jewish Scriptures gave rare hints that the love of God might extend beyond the boundaries of old Israel but universality or catholicity became a mark of the people of God only with the arrival of Jesus Christ and his magnanimous mandate to preach “the Gospel to every creature,” as St. Mark happily records.
While the Scriptures make clear that no one is excluded from the love of God ahead of time, biblical evidence that the love of God is elective, that is, selective, is even clearer. God did not create mankind as a generic group or tribe. Rather, God created the individual man Adam intending all human destiny to rest with him.
God mysteriously favored the younger Abel over the older Cain. God elected the patriarch Abraham, singling him out from many tribal chiefs for a special covenantal relationship with the Almighty. God selected the younger Jacob over the senior Esau to continue the divine promises. As he had done with Joseph, God chose the lad David, the youngest of eight, in preference to his mature brothers to unite the Jewish nation around Jerusalem. The selection of Israel from all the various nations well illustrates the focused love of God, who selected Mary to be the mother of his Son, uniquely bestowing on her the gifts of an immaculate conception, a virgin birth, a divine maternity and a body and soul assumption into heaven.
Jesus, although he was indeed the Savior of all mankind, continued the divine prerogative of electing certain persons to enter more closely into a loving relationship with him. Jesus decidedly and deliberately selected the Twelve Apostles and shared with them the deepest of Gospel insights, which were not shared with his other beloved sheep. Within the Twelve, Jesus set Peter, James and John aside as his special spiritual allies at the Transfiguration, the raising of the young girl and the agony in the garden. And even among these three, Christ elected St. Peter to be the visible head of the believing community here on earth with awesome authority and remarkable responsibility.
The early church assumed Christ’s mantel of selective love by singling out from the larger community the first deacons for special duties. Men elected to the presbyterate and to the episcopacy were carefully distinguished from the rest of the community by the laying on of hands.
The elective or selective love of God has been ominously understood at times to approach a form of predestination by which God entered into a loving relationship with one believer but at the expense of other believers. The salvation of some implied the damnation of others.
Rather, God certainly loves all men and women universally but not generically. God always enters into unique, loving, personal relationships with each of his sons and daughters. This election by God is exceptional, distinctive and inimitable. Accordingly the believer must discern his own role, own vocation, own task before God.
The love of God for his people is rightly compared to the love of spouses for each other. Conjugal love is not generic. Husband and wife must personally discern the strength and needs of one another and then respond to those strengths and needs. Each marriage, like each divine encounter, is unique.
The place of the priest in Catholic life is another example of the elective love of God. While the Father loves all the people of God, he elects men from the community to preside over the assembled faithful with a ministry of service not shared with everyone else. The visual uniqueness of the Catholic male priesthood is a distinctive sign of the uniqueness that every believer has with God.
The individual presiding priest should remind all believers of their own individuality before God. Men and women are indeed all loved, but they are all loved in personal, elective, and particular ways.