Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.

“On this Solemnity (Trinity Sunday), the liturgy invites us to praise God not merely for the wonders that he has worked, but for who he is….” — Benedict XVI, Even of Trinity Sunday, Savona, May 17, 2008. [1]

“From the reality of God which he himself made known to us by revealing his “name’ to us comes a certain image of man, that is, the exact concept of the person. If God is a dialogical unity, a being in relation, the highest creature made in his image and likeness reflects this constitution; thus he is called to fulfill himself in dialogue, in conversation, in encounter.” — Benedict XVI, Trinity Sunday, Genoa, May 18, 2008.


Over Trinity Sunday, Benedict visited the Italian cities of Savona, where Pope Pius VII had been in exile in the time of Napoleon, and the port city of Genoa, which was the home of the World War I Pope, Benedict XV. In one way or another, the theme of all of Benedict’s homilies on this occasion was that of the inner nature and being of the Godhead, the most fascinating of all topics put forth to the human intelligence to consider. The Trinity is, of course, the feast that is devoted to God’s very being as such. In this feast, as Benedict said in Savona, “God proclaims his own name.”

It is not just that men, almost since they began to wonder about it, have sought to call God by His proper name. Or, barring that, they tried to come up with some name that would come closest to what God is. The names that we gave to God, names like “All Good” or “Perfect Being,” are neither complete nor are they wrong. They contain truth. The fact is that the accurate naming of God is not something, in the end, we concoct by ourselves. Rather it is something that, once we understand why, must first be given to us.

On coming to know it, we can think about its appropriateness or meaning in a more enlightened manner. Logically, if we claimed we could, by our own powers, accurately say what God is, we would ourselves be God. On the surface, if we reflectively know anything about ourselves, this alternative is rather doubtful.

Of course, nowhere in Scripture do we find God calling himself the “Trinity.” This is a human, philosophic word that the Church finds most suitable to state in a word the central point of the Christian understanding of what is said in the New Testament about God. At the Shrine of Our Lady of Mercy, Benedict said:

We are invited to contemplate, so to speak, the Heart of God, his deepest reality which is his being One in the Trinity, a supreme and profound communication of love and life. The whole of sacred Scripture speaks to us of him. Indeed, it is he who speaks to us of himself in the Scriptures and reveals himself as Creator of the universe and Lord of history.

Christianity begins not with “What do I think God ought to be called,” but with “How does God speak of Himself?” He speaks to us in words and deeds. The name we use is intended to identify, make intelligible, the reality that the name indicates. Among the ancients, to “name” a thing often meant to “possess” it.

Benedict cites the passage from Exodus 34 in which the question “What is God’s name?” is asked. The answer is given in the Old Testament that He is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.” These words are “human words” in the Holy Spirit, but they tell us “the truth about God.” This truth is after all what we want to know above else, the truth about God. These words tell us “the Name of the Ineffable One. This Name is Mercy, Grace Faithfulness.” The names used in the Old Testament and the name used in the New Testament do not describe different “gods” but, ever more clearly and incisively, the same God. They are continuations, developments, if you will, of the same revelation.

The “logic” in the understanding of God is the increasing comprehension of what it means to say that God is love. That name is the word used by John in his Gospel to speak of Him. We seek “the Face of the Invisible One, (words used in the Old Testament) to tell us the Name of the Ineffable One. This Name is Mercy, Grace, Faithfulness.” Each of these words, on examination, brings out a different aspect of what Love means. Hence, they indicate what God is.

Benedict recalls that in a famous apparition in Savona on March 18, 1536, Mary introduced herself precisely as “Our Lady of Mercy.” And it is under this notion of mercy that John Paul II often talked of our understanding of the limits of evil. Basically, as the late pope said in Memory and Identity, the limits of evil are the limits of what the divine mercy can forgive. The only thing that it cannot forgive, in brief, is what chooses not to be forgiven.

Benedict makes a most interesting remark of the Blessed Mother in this connection. “But Mary did not speak of herself, she never speaks of herself but always of God, and she did so with this name so old yet ever new: mercy, which is a synonym of love, of grace.”

The Old Testament descriptions of God are thus preparatory to the way God will “name” Himself in the Incarnation, through which fact the name of God becomes properly known to us. “God is One since he is all and only Love but precisely by being Love he is openness, acceptance, dialogue; and in his relationship with us, sinful human beings, he is mercy, compassion, grace, and forgiveness.” We thus “name” God differently depending on our condition, on the basis on which we choose to address Him.

“God has created all things for existence and what he wills is always and only life.” The central understanding of the Trinitarian life is “eternal life.” The term “death” thus does not mean that the dead disappear into nothingness. As the Pope explains in Spe Salvi the terms heaven, hell, purgatory, and death relate to our final condition with respect to the inner Trinitarian life of God. Once God creates us, we remain created. How we stand to God lies within our choice, which God cannot overcome except at the cost of denying to us the kind of free being that we are.


“In God’s gift of himself in the Person of the Son the whole of the Trinity is at work.” All of God’s acts outside of Himself are the results of the Trinity acting as one God. The Incarnation of the Word relates to the Father and is through the Holy Spirit. Christ ascends to the Father and sends His Spirit. The Name of God always includes the One and Three. This is what Trinity means and we can understand that these elements must be kept present. Our misunderstanding of God is reflected in our misunderstanding of ourselves and of our cities.

At his address at the major seminary in Genoa, Benedict continued his explication of the Trinity. Again beginning with the Old Testament names, he recalled that “God is merciful and compassionate.” In the New Testament God is Love and reveals Himself by giving His only Son whose death is steeped in mercy and compassion. Consequently, this Name clearly expresses that the “God of the Bible is not some kind of monad closed in on itself and satisfied with his own self-sufficiency but he is life that wants to communicate itself, openness, relationship.”

This passage clearly refers to those speculations of the philosophers about what the cause of being might be like. God was only a sort of “final cause” or enclosed “monad” who was just out there. He was not a person. He or it had no relation back to the cosmos or to rational beings within it. What is striking about Scripture, however, is precisely how it can accept what truth that may have been found in the philosophic positions and yet form a more complete understanding of God. The doctrines of Creation and redemptive Incarnation are central here.

Thus, it is God who takes the initiative. This God, in Benedict’s words, is the one who “desires to establish a solid and lasting bond” with us under the ideas of mercy, compassion, rich in grace. “Scripture knows no other God than the God of the Covenant who created the world in order to pour out his love upon all creatures and chose a people with which to make a nuptial pact, to make it become a blessing for all the nations and so to form a great family of the whole of humanity.”

What this passage implicitly says about other understandings of God, about what might be known as the human “religious” tradition, is that the God of Scripture is by far a more complete and intelligible understanding of God than any of its rivals. Even on the supposed grounds that “God does not exist,” we can still recognize the superiority of this “God of the Covenant.” The various “understandings” of God do not stand independently of each other, but in a dialectical one that separates what is true and intelligible from what is not.


The revelation of God is “fully disclosed” in the New Testament. The “Face of God” is seen in an actual face, that of Christ. It is no theological accident that our painters and sculptors have sought to represent, to picture this very Face. “If you have seen Me,” Christ tells the apostles, “you have seen the Father.” Thus we find the habitual speaking of the one God in the New Testament to be “Father,” “Son,” and “Spirit.” We have to assume this is not contradictory. This is why we also need philosophy. This is in fact the way Christ did speak of Himself and of His relation to His Father and to the Spirit.

The first question is not so much whether this way of speaking is true, but rather “Is this the way Christ did speak?” We recognize on empirical grounds, as the Holy Father showed in his book Jesus of Nazareth, that Christ did speak this way. On this basis, we can begin to reflect more deeply on what this God is like who is so conceived in His explication of Himself to us. [2] But the starting and ending points of our efforts to understand God are given to us by God, even though in our very creation we find ourselves, on reflection, to be driven by our desire to know the truth of things, including the cause of things. “Why is there something, rather than nothing?” This too is a Trinitarian question.

Moses climbed Sinai to be in God’s presence, where he received the Law. On this basis, Benedict tells us that “Our history depends on God’s Name.” Evidently, if we think of how God named Himself, we will begin to understand even ourselves. God made His reality known to us when He revealed His own “Name.” The very notion that something is “revealed” to someone else means that both parties are capable of understanding what is received.

God does not reveal Himself to the rocks as if they got the idea of the Trinity. But he did reveal it to human beings precisely because it was important that they did have the proper Name, proper understanding of God, how to address Him. The exact concept of a “person” means that there is someone one who can receive God’s indication of who He is. If the inner life of God is community, what is created in His name reflects this community. This reflection, as it were, requires someone who can receive knowingly what is reveled.

The foundation of our dignity, then, the very meaning of personhood, indicates that, within the universe, a specific kind of being exists who is free and intelligent. The completion of the universe that is not God requires a being that can and must seek to understand God in Himself, insofar as He can be understood by finite beings.

“If God is a dialogical unity, a being in relation, the human creature made in his image and likeness reflects this constitution: thus he is called to fulfill himself in dialogue, in conversation, in encounter.” What this remarkable passage says it that the inner Trinitarian life does not need creation to be itself. But if God does create, He creates only in His Trinitarian image. If philosophy exists in conversation, as it does, if truth exists in the judgment of the person knowing the mind’s relation to what is, then our relation to God will also imply communication and conversation, prayer and wisdom. All human relationships with God are intended to be and are personal.

What if man wants to fulfill himself by his own not inconsiderable powers? This effort, in a sense, is the history of much of modern thought. What if he wants to be autonomous? He can of course seek to do so. He has in fact so sought to do so. But he must live with the consequences of this choice. He will never find anyone to “converse” with about what really is.

“Man is not fulfilled in an absolute autonomy, deceiving himself that he is God but, on the contrary, by recognizing himself as a child, an open creature, reaching out to God and to his brethren, in whose face he discovers the image of their common Father.” It is indeed possible to think that we are ourselves “gods” and thus not wanting any relation with others. One of the purposes of revelation was to warn us that we are not this kind of a being, that we will never find ourselves if there is only ourselves to “converse” with.

Interestingly enough, the pope tells us that it is the family, with its central nuptial relationship of two persons in fidelity, not the more abstract state, is the model of our understanding of ourselves. This is perhaps something new in political philosophy, which has long understood that the family is that out of which the state a rises, but it has not understood it as that into which it should return. There are intimations of this return, of course, in the notion of leisure, but the key point is that the state to be itself needs relationships of love and compassion and mercy, which are not in principle political.

It is a model of the human family transversal to all civilizations, which we Christians express confirming that human beings are all children of God and therefore all brothers and sisters. This is a truth that has been behind us from the outset…. The Magisterium of the Church which has developed from this vision of God and of man is a very rich one. It suffices to run through the most important chapters of the Social Doctrine of the Church….

What is above the state takes us back to the political need of friendship is justice is to be justice. It is not an accident that Aquinas explained the notion of “charity” after the philosophic basis of Aristotle’s friendship. The relation of eros, philia, and agape is needed to complete this understanding of a nuptial based relationship to transcendence.

This background is reflected in both the first and last part of Deus Caritas Est. In the first part the pope addressed eros and its history in the light of agape or a descending love, the word the New Testament uses to describe God’s love. In the last part of the encyclical, the pope carefully points out that all Christian relations, even in the state, to be complete need to be suffused with personal love and attention. In a sense, the personal love that begets the family also is the end of the state, or at least its effect. This is indeed the purpose of our existence with God in which there is no relation that is not personal. There is no relation that is not suffused with love, a love that itself reflects the inner life of the triune God.

These reflections of Benedict XVI in Savona and Genoa, in conclusion, might easily pass unnoticed. “The he goes again,” some cynic might tell us, “speaking of God and other irrelevant topics, when will he talking of something important like, say, birth control or ecology?” Well, the fact is that this and related topics are what he is talking about. The Editor of L’Osservatore Romano, Giovanni Maria Vian, in fact took time in a special editorial to underscore the importance of these Ligurian addresses. “These are not words scattered to the winds but a teaching…” This observation is surely correct.

“The Triune God and the person in relationship; these are the two references that the Church has the duty to offer to every human generation as a service to build a free and supportive society.” The first, the Trinity, tells us what the inner life of God is. The second, following from this, tells us that we cannot be persons by ourselves. To be a person is to be freely related to other persons in a proper order.

In a society fraught between globalization and individualism, the Church is called to offer a witness of koinonia, of communion. This reality does not come ‘from below’ but is a mystery which, so to speak, ‘has its roots in Heaven,’ in the Triune God himself. It is he, in himself, who is the eternal dialogue of love which was communicated to us in Jesus Christ and woven into the fabric of humanity and history to lead it to its fullness.

The Trinitarian understanding of God is not something that we figured out by ourselves. But it is not less true or delightful for all that. The greatest truths and goods are not those that we drummed up ourselves but those that were first given to us. On Trinity Sunday, we “praise God for who he is.”

The “reality of God” implies a certain image of man as a person who stands in conversation with the Persons of the Trinity, one God, one in Being, three in Persons. We are called thus to fulfill ourselves in “encounter,” yes, in “conversation” even with God if He so chooses. Our age is, with this pope, being taught first about God, without which teaching, all other teaching lapses into confusion. To think rightly about God is to name Him. His Name is “I AM.” I AM reveals Himself to us through His Son, true God and true man, who dwelt amongst us as a man to teach us what we are, persons created in the Spirit to know God as He is, Trinity.


[1] The Savona and Genoa homilies and talks are in L’Osservatore Romano, English, May 21, 2008. Also available online on the Vatican website.

[2] See James V. Schall, What Is God Like? (Collegeville: Liturgical Press/Glazer, 1992.