When the apostle Paul examined the spiritual dynamics of our life in Christ, he found three great driving forces --"faith, hope, love" (1 Cor 13:13). Two of these theological virtues, as the Church calls them, continue to receive the lion's share of attention: faith and love. But what about hope?
Pope Benedict XVI is convinced that our generation needs to ponder the meaning of this neglected virtue. His recent encyclical Spe Salvi ("Saved in Hope," published Nov. 30, 2007), calls us to refocus our attention on it.
Here are some important questions about hope that the Pope addressed. (All direct quotes are from the encyclical.)
Benedict insists that we are created with a hunger for the Infinite -- that is, for God himself -- and in the end, nothing else truly satisfies. He writes:
"Day by day, man experiences many greater or lesser hopes, different in kind according to the different periods of his life. Sometimes one of these hopes may appear to be totally satisfying without any need for other hopes. ... When these hopes are fulfilled, however, it becomes clear that they were not, in reality, the whole. It becomes evident that man has need of a hope that goes further. It becomes clear that only something infinite will suffice for him, something that will always be more than he can ever attain" (No. 30).
A genuine Christian hope is different from all other hopes in that it offers the satisfaction of that ultimate human longing -- a union with God himself through His Son, Jesus Christ.
"We need the greater and lesser hopes that keep us going day by day. But these are not enough without the great hope, which must surpass everything else. This great hope can only be God, who encompasses the whole of reality and who can bestow upon us what we, by ourselves, cannot attain.
"The fact that it comes to us as a gift is actually part of hope. God is the foundation of hope: not any god, but the God who has a human face and who has loved us to the end, each one of us and humanity in its entirety. His kingdom is not an imaginary hereafter, situated in a future that will never arrive; His kingdom is present wherever He is loved and wherever His love reaches us.
"His love alone gives us the possibility of soberly persevering day by day, without ceasing to be spurred on by hope, in a world which by its very nature is imperfect. His love is at the same time our guarantee of the existence of what we only vaguely sense and which nevertheless, in our deepest self, we await: a life that is 'truly' life" (No. 31).
Critics of our faith have mischaracterized our hope as "a way of abandoning the world to its misery and taking refuge in a private form of eternal salvation" (No. 13). But the truth is that Christian hope, like every aspect of Christian life, is deeply shared with other believers through our communion in Christ; "we cannot achieve it alone or from our own resources alone" (No. 28).
"Our hope is always essentially also hope for others; only thus is it truly hope for me, too. As Christians we should never limit ourselves to asking: How can I save myself? We should also ask: What can I do in order that others may be saved and that for them, too, the star of hope may rise?" (No. 48)
"While this community-oriented vision of the 'blessed life' is certainly directed beyond the present world, as such it also has to do with the building up of this world -- in very different ways, according to the historical context and the possibilities offered or excluded thereby" (No. 15).
In the modern era especially, many people have actually abandoned hope, believing that their lives are utterly subject to the impersonal forces of the universe.
Yet "it is not the laws of matter and of evolution that have the final say, but reason, will, love -- a Person. And if we know this Person and He knows us, then truly the inexorable power of material elements no longer has the last word" (No. 5).
Some base their hope on the false security of material goods. But our faith, the "substance" of hope, is greater than any material "substance"; it "gives life a new basis, a new foundation on which we can stand, one which relativizes the habitual foundation, the reliability of material income" (No. 15).
Others place their hope in "progress," with faith that the human race on its own has the ability, through the use of reason and an unfettered "freedom," to build a perfect society on earth. They look to science and technology on the one hand, and political activism on the other, for their salvation.
Nevertheless, "the ambiguity of progress," both technological and political, became evident in the horrors of the last few centuries that were perpetrated in its name.
"We have all witnessed the way in which progress, in the wrong hands, can become and has indeed become a terrifying progress in evil. If technical progress is not matched by corresponding progress in man's ethical formation, in man's inner growth (cf. Eph 3:16; 2 Cor 4:16), then it is not progress at all, but a threat for man and for the world" (No. 22).
Apart from God, reason and freedom are less than fully human and will ultimately fail us. Without the light of divine revelation, science and politics will go astray.
By no means. Purgatorial cleansing is itself an aspect of Christian hope: It carries the promise that those who die in friendship with God, yet still suffering the injurious consequences of sin, will not be left in that state, unable to achieve final perfection and union with Him.
In that painful encounter with Christ as our Judge, "when the impurity and sickness of our lives become evident to us, there lies salvation. His gaze, the touch of His heart heals us through an undeniably painful transformation 'as through fire.' But it is a blessed pain, in which the holy power of His love sears through us like a flame, enabling us to become totally ourselves and thus totally of God" (No. 47).
The Pope identifies four contexts for cultivating the virtue of hope. The first is prayer.
"A first essential setting for learning hope is prayer. When no one listens to me anymore, God still listens to me. When I can no longer talk to anyone or call upon anyone, I can always talk to God. When there is no longer anyone to help me deal with a need or expectation that goes beyond the human capacity for hope, he can help me" (No. 32).
The second context for learning hope is action. "All serious and upright human conduct is hope in action. ... Yet our daily efforts in pursuing our own lives and in working for the world's future either tire us or turn into fanaticism, unless we are enlightened by the radiance of the great hope that cannot be destroyed even by small-scale failures or by a breakdown in matters of historic importance. ...
"Only the great certitude of hope that my own life and history in general, despite all failures, are held firm by the indestructible power of Love, and that this gives them their meaning and importance, only this kind of hope can then give the courage to act and to persevere" (No. 35).
The third context is suffering. "Like action, suffering is a part of our human existence. ... Indeed, we must do all we can to overcome suffering, but to banish it from the world altogether is not in our power. ... Only God is able to do this: only a God who personally enters history by making himself man and suffering within history. We know that this God exists, and hence that this power to 'take away the sin of the world' (Jn1:29) is present in the world. Through faith in the existence of this power, hope for the world's healing has emerged in history" (No. 36).
The fourth context is judgment. "'He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.' From the earliest times, the prospect of the Judgment has influenced Christians in their daily living as a criterion by which to order their present life, as a summons to their conscience, and at the same time as hope in God's justice." (No. 41).
"Faith in Christ has never looked merely backwards or merely upwards, but always also forwards to the hour of justice that the Lord repeatedly proclaimed. This looking ahead has given Christianity its importance for the present moment" (41). TCA
For the official English translation of Spe Salvi, go to www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/encyclicals/ documents/hf_benxvi_enc_20071130_spe-salvi_en.html.
For papal visit coverage, go to www.osv.com/papalvisit.»
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