A scan of the headlines in recent weeks offers a series of dashed expectations and plenty of reasons for cynicism about the human condition.
Most dramatic may be the Penn State scandal. Not only has a football coach been accused of repeated, unspeakable crimes against the innocence of childhood, but those around him — including one of the most respected figures in college football over the last four decades — have been shown to be more concerned with preserving their sporting institution than stopping and addressing the horror perpetrated on the victims.
Catholics are likely to find the Penn State crisis particularly painful because of its parallels to the clerical sex abuse scandal that erupted a decade ago.
But that’s surely not the only example of celebrity downfall. The trial and recent conviction of Dr. Conrad Murray, Michael Jackson’s $150,000-a-month personal physician, revealed a culture of adulation and lack of common sense in the pop star’s entourage that reached such levels that no one around him seemed to think it a bad idea to administer a hospital-strength anaesthetic as a nightly sleep aid.
More generally, Americans are feeling pretty cynical about public institutions as 2011 comes to a close. A recent poll showed that 75 percent of Americans — a record number — believe the nation is on the wrong track. An abysmal 11 percent express approval and confidence in Congress.
All this represents a particular challenge for Catholic Americans as the season of Advent begins. Even in good years, adults can find it difficult to shed world weariness and embrace the childlike innocence and optimism that characterizes the spiritual journey of Christmas.
To recover hope in Advent, however, requires a conscious decision to go beyond the routine of yuletide traditions, particularly when the spirit of consumerism and secular good cheer vies to empty them of their transformative potential.
In the 1986 book “Seek That Which is Above,” Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger — now Pope Benedict XVI — called Advent critical to reawakening the virtue of hope in believers.
“Advent’s intention,” he wrote, “is to awaken the most profound and basic emotional memory within us, namely, the memory of the God who became a child. This is a healing memory; it brings hope. The purpose of the Church’s year is continually to rehearse her great history of memories, to awaken the heart’s memory so that it can discern the star of hope. ...
“It is the beautiful task of Advent to awaken in all of us memories of goodness and thus to open doors of hope.”
Since becoming pope, Pope Benedict has repeatedly called Advent “par excellence a time of hope.”
Recovering authentic hope grounded in Jesus Christ, says the pontiff, doesn’t mean adopting a Pollyannish attitude or naivete about human frailty. In fact, living with hope strips away the distorting lens of celebrity and fame, and allows “a new outlook on man, a look of trust and hope.”
Far from setting up believers for disappointments, hope reveals the true inestimable value and dignity of each human person, even when it is most shrouded. In fact, the pontiff writes, “Love for all, if it is sincere, naturally tends to become a preferential attention to the weakest and poorest.” Like victims of abuse. And drug-addled celebrities. And those struggling Americans now caught in Congress’ partisan crossfire.
May all Catholic Americans find new reason for hope this Advent, and be themselves a source of hope for a nation desperately in need of it.