Hope, is a theological virtue, one of three. These virtues of faith, hope and charity, are called ‘theological’ because they are of God, they are our human way of sharing in the very life of God himself. They are ways in which God dwells/lives in us. They are based on the premise that God communicates his life to persons, that he shares something of himself, of his life, his nature, with persons. They are based on the Biblical affirmation that each and every person is created in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1, 26).
They are virtues, the word ‘virtue’ come from the Latin ‘virtus’ which means ‘virtue’ or ‘goodness’ and can also mean character and courage. The theological virtues touch us with God’s virtus, or God’s life, his dynamic grace, and in this way they are part of the transforming work of God in our lives which is always on-going. The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines a virtue as a habitual and firm disposition to do good. There are human virtues, moral virtues and the four cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance. These virtues are part of our nature and of our life experience. Catholic Theology teaches that we are always in need of ‘help’ from God in order to live the virtues; such ‘help’ is given to us through grace. Back in the days when the nuns taught me catechism I learnt that there were basically two types of grace, sanctifying grace and actual and habitual grace. The first was an inherent, indwelling grace or help from God to truly be and live as a child of God. The second was the ‘practical’ grace or help given in the day to day living of Christian life in order to make right choices and have the strength to live them.
Then in dealing with the theological virtues the Catechism says that they “dispose Christians to live in a relationship with the Holy Trinity”, that they have their origin in God and also have him as their object. In article 1817 of the CIC we read that:
‘Hope is the theological virtue by which we desire the kingdom of heaven and eternal life as our happiness, placing our trust in Christ’s promise and relying not on our own strength, but on the help of the grace of the Holy Spirit.’
‘The virtue of hope responds to the aspiration to happiness which God has placed in the heart of every person.’
‘Christian hope takes up and fulfils the hope of the chosen people which has its origin and model in the hope of Abraham.’
‘Christian hope unfolds from the beginning of Jesus’ preaching in the proclamation of the beatitudes.’
‘We hope in the glory of heaven promised by God to those who love him and do his will.’
The Catechism notes that the theological virtues have their origin in God, therefore we receive them as gifts from him to us. They are gifts given for our good, for building us up, in order to enable us to live in a right relationship with God.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church is a wonderful document, but sometimes it needs ‘unpacking’ and further study and reflection in order to grasp the treasures it offers. In ‘unpacking’ the teaching of the Catechism on Hope, the theological virtue, I looked for help, and turned instinctively to Pope Benedict XVI. I am almost embarrassed to admit it in public that I find Pope Benedict’s writings much more approachable, readable and meaningful than those of the late Pope John Paul II, but it is the truth. In particular his encyclicals are thought-provoking and inspiring. His first encyclical was Deus caritas est in 2005, and in 2007 he published Spe salvi on the virtue of hope, this was followed in 2009 with Caritas in veritate, on integral human development in charity and truth. The choice of these three topics for this first encyclical letters permits us to see that these themes or topics are ones he holds as a priority for society and for the Church’s dialogue with the world in which it is situated and which she is called to love and serve. The origin of all is God, who is love, nothing more, nothing less; Deus caritas est speaks of the unity of love in creation and in salvation history, then of the practice of love by the church as a community of love. We will look specifically at hope in the context of Spe salvi. Then Caritas in veritate, looks at the social teaching of the Church, at the eternal and perennial call to the Church to announce the truth and to engage with truth, in charity, is the areas of human development, economic development and civil society, the development of people, the environment, cooperation between peoples and technology.
The choice of Hope for his second encyclical by Pope Benedict permits us to know that the Pope is concerned with the direction the world is taking, a world where Hope seems to be missing, where the compasses which in previous generations had provided guidance and orientation for society have been set aside. He wishes to reaffirm the importance of Hope and to offer the world an opportunity to appropriate it. I would like to concentrate on a few of the points Pope Ratzinger makes which I find to be particularly relevant.
“Faith is hope… and hope is the equivalent of faith” according to Pope Benedict in paragraph 2, quoting sources from the New Testament. For instance in the Letter to the Hebrews the author closely links the ‘fullness of faith’ to keeping ‘firm in the hope we profess’ (10,23). The First Letter of Peter urges Christians to be always ready to give an answer concerning the meaning and the reason of their hope (3, 15). The early Christians were very confident that they had received the gift of a trustworthy hope. Paul writing to the Ephesians reminds them that before Christ they were “immersed in this world, without hope and without God” (2,12). “To come to know God – the true God – means to receive hope.” This is the conclusion he draws in paragraphs 2 and 3. He gives a beautiful example of this truth from the life experience of St. Josephine Bakhita, canonised by Pope John Paul II. A real encounter with God, knowledge of God, a relationship with God, is the source of our Hope.
Pope Benedict has the soul of a pedagogue, he likes to teach, to transmit knowledge, but he also likes to check that what he has taught has come across. In paragraph 4 of the encyclical he asks a question “can our encounter with the God who in Christ has shown his face and opened his heart be for us too not just ‘informative’ but ‘performative’, that is to say, can this encounter change our lives, so that we know we are redeemed through the hope it expresses? In this encyclical he takes great pains to provide an ordered presentation of what hope is, based on faith, in the New Testament and in the early Church by citing the writings of some of the great figures, he quotes Saints Paul, Ambrose, Augustine, Bernard, Benedict etc. But the emphasis is on the fact that these writers experienced the reality of hope, the theological virtue, and were able to put their experience in writing.
For the Christian life it is very important to have access to writings such as these, to the convictions of men and women of faith, such experiences can shape us and mould us. St. Vincent Pallotti is, obviously enough, a constant source of inspiration for me. An aspect of his spiritual experience was an intense awareness of his sinfulness, of his own insignificance, he would express this awareness very graphically and vividly, with phrases such as “I am nothing but evil and sin” “I am an abomination” etc. However, there is never in his writings any sense of depression, of darkness, of a prolonged dark-night which often characterized the lives of other great persons. It is due, I believe, to the virtue of hope, he knew that God is infinite love and infinite mercy, therefore his sinfulness, his nothingness was insignificant in the face of such infinite mercy and love. Indeed, his nothingness was a golden opportunity for God to show his infinite love and mercy.
I receive The Tablet each week, two column I look forward to reading are “Glimpses of Eden” and “The living Spirit”, neither column is polemical, no arguments are presented, they simply offer material for reflection, the one taken from writings of men and women of faith, the other from the observations of a Christian man in the world of nature which surrounds him. But, they both offer material of Faith-Hope.
To return to the encyclical, Pope Benedict asks “What is Eternal Life?” what is this eternal life that we hope for? He takes the rite of baptism and the question posed by the celebrant early on in the ceremony when he asks the parents who have presented their child for baptism, “What do you ask of the Church, for your child?” The answer of course is ‘faith’, they are seeking access to faith, the faith of the Church community, and they are asking that their child may share the hope of the Christian community of enjoying eternal life. They ask that the Church community will share its ‘knowledge’ of eternal life with the child and will provide it with whatever it has to offer so that the child may profit from it on this journey. Pope Benedict does then outline what eternal life is, the sharing in the eternal beatitude of God in the dynamic life of the Trinity, for all eternity.
At the end of the Baptismal liturgy there are three blessings, one for the mother, one for the father and one for the people, the prayer over the mother never fails to strike me: “God the Father, through his Son, the Virgin Mary’s child, has brought joy to all Christian mothers, as they see the hope of eternal life shine on their children. May he bless the mother of this child. She now thanks God for the gift of her child. May she be one with him (her) in thanking him for ever in heaven, in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
This brings us to a further step in his catechesis on hope; again he asks a question “Is Christian hope individualistic?” Of course the reply he provides is that it is not, the reply is that salvation is a ‘social reality’, salvation is communal and citing the Letter to the Hebrews he notes that according to the Fathers of the Church sin is understood as the destruction of the unity of the human race, sin is fragmentation and division. “This real life (our hope), towards which we try to reach out again and again, is linked to a lived union with a ‘people’, and for each individual it can only be attained within this ‘we’.” Therefore hope is communal, it is the hope of the faith community.
Pope Benedict continues with an analysis of Christian faith-hope in the modern world and engages with the philosophers starting from Francis Bacon, Emmanuel Kant, Karl Marx through to Lenin. Then in paragraph 22 he notes “We find ourselves facing the question: what must we hope? A self-critique of modernity is needed in dialogue with Christianity and its concept of hope. In this dialogue Christians too, in the context of their knowledge and experience, must learn anew in what their hope truly consists, what they have to offer to the world and what they cannot offer.”
Pope Benedict is in touch with the human situation, he affirms that day by day we experience many greater or lesser hopes, different in kind according to the different periods of life (paragraph 30) … sometimes we may feel that the realization of one or other of these hopes will bring fulfilment and complete happiness, however even when they are fulfilled “it becomes clear that they were not, in reality, the whole.” It becomes evident that we have need of a hope that goes further, that only something infinite will suffice for us, something that will always be more that we can ever attain. “We need the greater and lesser hopes that keep us going day by day, but they are not enough without the great hope … this great hope can only be God, who encompasses the whole of reality and who can bestow on us what we, by ourselves, cannot attain.” (31). The fact that it comes to us a gift is actually part of hope. God, the God who has a human face, is the foundation of hope, his kingdom is not an imaginary hereafter… it is present wherever he is love and wherever his love reaches us.
The pedagogue, the good teacher, gives us “Settings for learning and practicing hope.” He offers three: prayer, prayer as a school to learn hope; action and suffering as settings for learning hope; judgement as a setting for learning and practising hope. Prayer: there is a lovely example here of the intimate relationship between prayer and hope and what happens in prayer, it is taken from St. Augustine, “Suppose that God wishes to fill you with honey (a symbol of God’s tenderness and goodness) but if you are full of vinegar, where will you put the honey?” The person was created by God, to be filled with God, but the heart is too small, it needs to be stretched. The text continues reflecting on prayer as an experience where the vinegar is gradually replaced with honey. He then goes on to explore the concept of prayer, both private and individual and common and liturgical. Prayer as the enlarging and cleansing of the heart, a purification, a learning to truly ask of God what is worthy of God; a freeing of ourselves from the hidden lies with which we deceive ourselves, prayer as a place where I learn to abandon self-justification and listen to the Good itself. For prayer to develop this power of purification, he writes that it must be something very personal, an encounter between my intimate self and God, the living God. But on the other hand my prayer, my life of prayer must be one which is constantly guided and enlightened by the great prayers of the Church, by liturgical prayer in which the Lord teaches us again and again how to pray. He concludes that hope in a Christian sense is always hope for others as well. In prayer we become capable of the great hope, and thus we become ministers of hope for others. “It is an active hope in the sense that we keep the world open to God. Only in this way does it continue to be a truly human hope.” Action: all serious and upright human conduct is hope in action. 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, this kind of hope can give us courage to act and to persevere. Suffering is part of our human existence. Certainly we must do whatever we can to reduce suffering, to avoid as far as possible the suffering of the innocent, to soothe pain, to give assistance in overcoming mental suffering. We cannot eliminate suffering … it is not by sidestepping or fleeing from suffering that we are healed but rather by our capacity for accepting it, maturing through it and finding meaning through union with Christ. The true measure of humanity is essentially determined in relationship to suffering and to the sufferer. To suffer with the other and for others, to suffer for the sake of truth and justice, to suffer out of love and in order to become a person who truly loves… are fundamental elements of humanity. And he asks ‘are we capable of this?’ He offers a quotation from St. Bernard “God cannot suffer, but he can suffer with”, Christ has identified with us and with all human suffering. He appeals to our ‘heroic’ witness in the face of suffering and to accepting the task of being living witnesses to truth, justice and love, which are not simply ideals but are enormously weighty realities. And finally he reminds us of the value of the out-of-date-practice of ‘offering up’ the minor daily hardships, as a means of inserting these acts in Christ’s great compassion which is available for the good of the human race. Judgement: a tenet of our faith is the second coming of Jesus Christ and the final judgement; this is seen as the fulfilment of the desire and aspirations of the person which have never been fully realized in this world. The vision of the judgement is one of hope, God is just, and in his justice there is grace, there is mercy. St. Vincent Pallotti expressed his conviction that each and every attribute of God is ‘infinitely merciful’. Thomas Merton also expressed something similar in the transformative power of the final judgement and being in the presence of God, it is found in his book The Sign of Jonah:
“The voice of God is heard in Paradise:
“What was vile had become precious.
What is now precious was never vile.
What was cruel has become merciful.
What is now merciful was never cruel.
I have forgiven the universe without end,
Because I have never known sin.
What was poor has become infinite.
What is infinite was never poor,
I have always known poverty as infinite.
What was fragile has become powerful,
I loved what was most frail, I looked upon
What was nothing, I touched what was
Without substance and within what was not, I am.”
My antennae have been up and twitching since John O’Connor asked me to present this reflection, mention of the word ‘hope’ has had me scurrying around in my brain to ‘file away’ references to hope and examples of how it is lived. One particular reference came from a book written by Fr. Timothy Radcliffe, OP, with the title “Why go to Church?” It is a masterful and thought-provoking work on the Mass. In the book he refers to the fact that there are broadly speaking three parts of the Mass which can be identified as corresponding to the three theological virtues. The first part relates to Faith and is from the beginning up to the Creed; Hope then corresponds to the section which comprises the offertory and Eucharistic Prayer in Mass and Charity or love to the Communion. I have reflected on what he writes in the section on Hope and found it very challenging. I will not make direct reference to the work here but rather summarize my understanding. The Eucharistic Prayer together with the offertory is an expression of the hope which buoyed up Jesus on the eve of his Passion, he was facing ignominious rejection, suffering and a cruel death, in his humanity he suffered gravely, he questioned what was happening and what was to happen and wondered about the futility of his life. He prayed, the Priestly Prayer in St. John’s Gospel allows us share something of this prayer. The Gospels and St. Paul allow us to share what happened and the gesture of being at table, taking the bread, giving thanks, breaking it and giving it to those gathered with the words ‘do this in memory of me’ were an expression of hope, the hope of Jesus. This was the darkest time in the life of Jesus, a time of crisis, and yet he gave shape and form to it, he gathered with the twelve, it was ‘night’, and he took, blessed, thanked, broke, ate and drank.
Jesus was not spared the passion, crucifixion and death on the Cross. The fact that he instituted the Eucharist the night before and shared it with the twelve, did not free him from the passion. He went into it, and through it and, came out the other side, through the power of the Holy Spirit. This is our hope. We too can take part in the Eucharist, we too can share, daily, in this mysterious re-enactment of Jesus Christ and make it our own, make his prayer of hope our own, make his act of hope our own, we can identify with it, live it, as if it were our own struggle with darkness, meaningless and futility, and say “yes, I believe that this is your body given for me”, that the reality of salvation is being played out now, here, in this one eternal Mass.
Years ago I was introduced to the writings on an American-Irish author, Flannery O’Connor, and have dipped into her collection of short stories over the years. She is a Catholic writer, but in the broad sense of the word and her manner of dealing with faith, religious experience and the reality of salvation is cleverly worked into her stories. She was completely convinced on the centrality of faith-hope for a Catholic and that the mystery of salvation is played out daily in each life if it is real salvation. The following is an excerpt from a letter she wrote: “I was once, five or six years ago, taken by some friends to have dinner with Mary McCarthy and her husband, Mr. Broadwater. (She just wrote that book, “A Charmed Life.”) She departed the Church at the age of 15 and is a Big Intellectual. We went at eight and at one, I hadn’t opened my mouth once, there being nothing for me in such company to say. . . . Having me there was like having a dog present who had been trained to say a few words but overcome with inadequacy had forgotten them.
Well, toward morning the conversation turned on the Eucharist, which I, being the Catholic, was obviously supposed to defend. Mrs. Broadwater said when she was a child and received the host, she thought of it as the Holy Ghost, He being the most portable person of the Trinity; now she thought of it as a symbol and implied that it was a pretty good one. I then said, in a very shaky voice, “Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.”
That was all the defense I was capable of but I realize now that this is all I will ever be able to say about it, outside of a story, except that it is the center of existence for me; all the rest of life is expendable.”
‘The Eucharist is the centre of existence for me’, what a statement! And to know that she truly meant it, she had discovered here her enduring hope, the bigger hope which gave meaning and shape to all the lesser hopes and allowed her live her Christian life.
Barbara Kingsolver is another American writer and she writes about subjects which are very relevant to our world. Her best-known novel is The Poisonwood Bible, which is a very critical study on American imperialism in Africa. A lesser-known novel is Animal Dreams, one of the central characters has gone to Nicaragua to work with the oppressed peasants, she writes to her sister: “Codi, here’s what I’ve decided: the very least you can do in your life is to figure out what you hope for. And the most you can do is live inside that hope. Not admire it from a distance but live right in it, under its roof. What I want is so simple I almost can’t say it: elementary kindness. Enough to eat, enough to go around. The possibility that kids might one day grow up to be neither the destroyers nor the destroyed. That’s about it. Right now I’m living in that hope, running down its hallway and touching the walls on both sides. I can’t tell you how good it feels. I wish you knew.” ‘Live inside your hope, live right in it, under its roof, running down the hallway and touching the walls on both sides’!
To return to Spe salvi and Pope Benedict. He concludes the encyclical by turning to Mary, Star of Hope. He speaks of life as a voyage, and that there are stars to guide our way, the stars are good people who live good lives, and he affirms that Mary is a star of hope for us.
“In this faith, which even in the darkness of Holy Saturday bore the certitude of hope, you made your way towards Easter morning. The joy of the Resurrection touched your heart and united you in a new way to the disciples, destined to become the family of Jesus through faith. In this way you were in the midst of the community of believers, who in the days following the Ascension prayed with one voice for the gift of the Holy Spirit and then received that gift on the day of Pentecost. The ‘Kingdom’ of Jesus was not as might have been imagined. It began at that hour, and of this ‘Kingdom’ there will be no end. Thus you remain in the midst of the disciples as their Mother, as the Mother of hope. Holy Mary, Mother of God, our Mother, teach us to believe, to hope, to love with you. Show us the way to his Kingdom! Star of the Sea, shine upon us and guide us on our way!”Conclusion: on Tuesday I read this “More than any previous year, I meet families now who are almost empty of the one thing that can sustain them. Hope. For thousands and thousands of families, there appears to be no future at all. No hope of a job, no hope of ever getting on top of debt, no hope of breaking out of the cycle of poverty.” (Fergus Finlay, Irish Examiner, 27-11-2012). Pope Benedict affirmed that “In prayer we become capable of the great hope, and thus we become ministers of hope for others.” Can we do this; can we be ministers of hope for those who, according to Finlay, have no hope?