In Greek, the word “fileo” means the love of friendship, tender but not all-encompassing; instead, the word “agapao” means love without reserve, total and unconditional. Jesus asks Peter the first time: “Simon… do you love me (agapas-me)” with this total and unconditional love?

Prior to the experience of betrayal, the Apostle certainly would have said “I love you (agapo-se) unconditionally.” Now that he has known the bitter sadness of infidelity, the drama of his own weakness, he says with humility: “Lord; you know that I love you (filo-se),” that is, “I love you with my poor human love.” Christ insists: “Simon, do you love me with this total love that I want?” And Peter repeats the response of his humble human love: “Kyrie, filo-se” – “Lord, I love you as I am able to love you.” The third time Jesus only says to Simon: “Fileis-me?” – “Do you love me?”

Simon understands that his poor love is enough for Jesus, it is the only one of which he is capable, nonetheless he is grieved that the Lord spoke to him in this way. He thus replies: “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you (filo-se).”

Pope Benedict XVI in The Apostles

This is an important passage and the analysis by Benedict XVI is very illuminating and it shows the value of careful attention to differences in language. Reliance on a particular translation – particularly if this is then converted into a literalist interpretation – is naive.

We also remember the wonderful four-fold analysis of Lewis in The Four Loves. Both Lewis and Benedict XVI both identify true Christian love with agape. Lewis argues that each of the other kinds of love is good, but that each of the lower forms of love, if it becomes exaggerated and loses the balance brought by obedience to virtue will become distorted.

  • Storge – affection can become obsessive and distorting, leading to prejudice.
  • Fileo – friendship can become clubbish, cliquish.
  • Eros – erotic love can be selfish and narcissistic.

For Lewis ‘agape’ is the ideal form of love, proper Christian love, which is universal, selfless and truthful. It does not exclude or dimish the other forms of love – it completes, balances and transforms them – this transformation can also require suffering.

But Benedict XVI makes the additional and necessary point – God will even accept the poorest versions of our love – he knows agape is often a stretch for human beings in all their weakness.