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In this Update we’ll take a look at the major themes of Benedict's new encyclical, Saved in Hope. It is divided into eight sections, covering biblical foundations for Christian hope, the true nature of Christian hope (as opposed to the trend in Western society to look for hope in the wrong places) and three “settings” for learning hope: prayer, action (including suffering) and our ultimate encounter with God’s judgment.

Catholic Update

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A Look at Pope Benedict’s New Encyclical

Christ Our Hope

By John Feister

In April 2008, Pope Benedict XVI will visit the United States, including a visit to the United Nations initiated by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. The Holy Father’s schedule includes a series of events in the Washington, D.C., and New York City areas, April 15-20. “Christ Our Hope” is the theme of this pastoral visit, a sure sign that the themes of his November 2007 encyclical, Saved in Hope (Spe Salvi), will illumine the event. In this Update we’ll take a look at the major themes of that encyclical.

“In hope we were saved,” Pope Benedict starts his second encyclical, quoting Romans 8:24 (his first encyclical, God Is Love, was in 2005). At the outset of Saved in Hope, Benedict draws a core biblical link between faith and hope, setting the stage for a long and rich reflection on the nature of hope for Christians. As he says in his opening paragraph, “The present, even if it is arduous, can be lived and accepted if it leads towards a goal, if we can be sure of this goal, and if this goal is great enough to justify the effort of the journey” (#1). In short, our hope, given to us by God, is key to our Christianity.

The document is divided into eight sections, covering biblical foundations for Christian hope, the true nature of Christian hope (as opposed to the trend in Western society to look for hope in the wrong places) and three “settings” for learning hope: prayer, action (including suffering) and our ultimate encounter with God’s judgment.


Hope in the Bible

Hope is one of the great themes of Scripture. The pope observes a deep link between faith and hope, so much so that, in some passages, they are almost “interchangeable.” Benedict draws on the Letter to the Hebrews, Letter to the Ephesians and other New Testament letters to make his point. In Ephesians, he observes, “To come to know God—the true God— means to have hope.” He discusses Paul’s encounter with the Ephesians. “Before their encounter with Christ they were ‘without hope and without God in the world’ (Eph 2:12).” In spite of their empty gods, the Ephesians “were ‘without God’ and consequently found themselves in a dark world, facing a dark future” (#2). Hope, of course, in and through Christ, is a different story.

Among other aspects of hope found in the Letter to the Hebrews, Benedict discusses the link between faith and hope, translated in the New American Bible as “Faith is the realization of what is hoped for and evidence of things not seen.” Translation issues and theological debates aside, the pope tells us this: “There are already present in us the things that are hoped for: the whole, true life.” This presence of what is to come creates the certainty of hope, he says. How do we know it is here? Through the gift of faith. “Faith is not merely a personal reaching out towards things to come that are still totally absent: It gives us something. It gives us even now something of the reality we are waiting for, and this present reality constitutes for us a ‘proof’ of the things that are still unseen. Faith draws the future into the present, so that it is no longer simply a ‘not yet.’ The fact that this future exists changes the present; the present is touched by the future reality, and thus the things of the future spill over into those of the present and those of the present into those of the future” (all quotes from #7).

Pope Benedict uses the example of the life and witness of St. Josephine Bakhita, the 19th-century African slave who transformed her pain and oppression into a powerful witness for hope. St. Josephine was born in the Darfur region of southern Sudan in 1868. Sold into slavery, she received brutal treatment at the hands of a series of owners in Africa. Eventually she was taken by the magistrate who had bought her to his home in Italy and given, as a gift, to a friend. Bakhita accompanied that friend’s child to Venice’s Institute of Catechumens and found herself, overhearing the instruction, drawn to the Catholic faith.

She was baptized and confirmed in 1890. When the family wanted to return to Africa and take Josephine with them, she refused to go. The courts sided with Josephine: Slavery was illegal in Italy. Eventually, Josephine entered the Canossian religious order and lived among her sisters cooking, doing simple tasks and offering hospitality to visitors. This humble woman became a fixture in the community, encouraging those around her to “pray for those who do not know the Lord.” She was widely recognized for her saintly character. She was a woman of tremendous hope!

The modern question

A central message of this encyclical is the encounter of Christianity with the modern world. Pope Benedict, the learned professor, digs into the philosophical debate in ways that go beyond a Catholic Update. But he drives at a central theme we can appreciate. Christianity is not a private event, not something isolated to the individual. Being Christian is radically different from “anything goes,” but most especially in modern times. Christianity differs from those strains of thought that leave all moral and ethical decisions up to the individual. We live in community, informed by God.

In the classic tradition of turning to our liturgy for an understanding of our faith, the pope breaks into this discussion by studying the elements of the Rite of Baptism. When parents bring a child for Baptism, he says, for example, they don’t just do it for social reasons. Parents expect more: “They expect that faith, which includes the corporeal [physical] nature of the Church and her sacraments, will give life to their child—eternal life. Faith is the substance of hope.”

He turns to one of his favorite theologians, St. Augustine, to make his point. What is true life? What is eternity? These are ancient questions for Christians, informed by our faith and tradition. In a letter on prayer that St. Augustine wrote to Proba, a Roman widow, he explained that a blessed life all boils down to happiness. Augustine said that ultimately, what we ask for in prayer is happiness. But there is another factor, one that St. Paul taught about in Romans: “We do not know how to pray as we ought” (8:26).

That statement sums up the human dilemma, writes Benedict, “the situation that gives rise to all [man’s] contradictions and hopes. In some way we want life itself, true life, untouched even by death; yet at the same time we do not know the thing towards which we feel driven. . . .This unkown ‘thing’ is the true ‘hope’ which drives us. . .” (#12).

Analyzing several ancient and more modern thinkers, Benedict drives away at his basic point: We have a “community-oriented vision of the ‘blessed life’” (#15). Yet there are voices in our modern Western culture which call us away from this Christian vision. “It is not that faith is simply denied; rather it is displaced onto another level—that of purely private and other-worldly affairs—and at the same time it becomes somehow irrelevant for the world” (#17).

In the end, after the fallacies of Marxism and other theories of materialism have come up short, we are left with the same question, notes the pope: “What may we hope?” He sees a dialogue between Christianity and modernity around this theme of hope, including a critical evaluation of Christianity (“Christians, too…must learn anew in what their hope truly consists” [#22]). Simply stated, he writes, “Man needs God, otherwise he remains without hope” (#23).

True shape of Christian hope

So, we ask again, what may we hope? Hope is not a matter of getting somewhere, as we might do with progress in science, observes the pope. Hope, rather, is always about a new situation, a new beginning, because our freedom is always new.

That means that there is no social structure that’s going to fix things once and for all, even though just social structures are necessary. Within the best of such structures (political systems and so on), conviction, necessary for freedom, “must always be gained anew by the community.” What’s more, it must also “constantly be won over for the cause of good.” Writes Benedict: “The kingdom of good will never be definitively established in this world.” This is true because an enforced goodness would not be freely chosen. So our very freedom always leaves us to make a choice for the good. That leaves us on a journey of faith, language in this encyclical reminiscent of the “Pilgrim Church” about which the Second Vatican Council Fathers wrote so eloquently in the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church.

Love, not science, redeems people, writes Benedict (#26). “In this sense it is true that anyone who does not know God, even though he may entertain all kinds of hopes, is ultimately without hope, without the great hope that sustains the whole of life (see Eph. 2:12)” (#27). Once again, we hear the call to community. Hope which is hope only for myself is not true hope, writes the pope: We know God through communion with Jesus, thus “living for others.” That’s the true shape of Christian hope.

Once again, Pope Benedict turns to St. Augustine for an example. “The Gospel terrifies me,” wrote Augustine. That, in Benedict’s words, produces “that healthy fear which prevents us from living for ourselves alone and compels us to pass on the hope we hold in common” (#29). It was this hope that caused Augustine to dedicate himself “completely to the ordinary people and to his city—renouncing his spiritual nobility, he preached and acted in a simple way for simple people” (#29).

In summary, the true shape of Christian hope is not the same as the incremental progress of scientific hope, which is a lesser, albeit good hope, as far as it goes. Indeed, we need such hope, but it does not fulfill our deepest need for “the great hope, which must surpass everything else.” That great hope, the pope teaches, can only be God, “who encompasses the whole of reality and who can bestow upon us what we, by ourselves, cannot attain.” That great hope, present in the Kingdom of God, “is present wherever he is loved and wherever his love reaches us” (#31).

Moving from the theological and philosophical, Pope Benedict XVI turns next to the practical. How can we learn and practice hope?

Prayer, school of hope

Here, Benedict is simple and to the point: “A first essential setting for learning hope is prayer.” You can always talk to God, he says, even when there is no human source of hope. He uses the poignant story of the late Vietnamese Cardinal Nguyen Van Thuan as an example. Cardinal Van Thuan was imprisoned by the Vietnamese authorities after the fall of Saigon in 1975, and remained in prison until 1988; nine of those years were in solitary confinement. From his cell, he smuggled out messages to people on scraps of paper, messages that were copied and circulated throughout the persecuted Catholic community. Guards smuggled into the prison some small pieces of wood and wire that the cardinal used to make a crucifix. He also wrote a prayer journal and made a small Bible from scraps. These writings were published after his 1988 release as The Road of Hope and Prayers of Hope (published in English by Pauline Media). “In a situation of utter hopelessness,” writes Benedict, “the fact that he could listen and speak to God became for him an increasing power of hope, which enabled him, after his release, to become for people all over the world a witness to hope.. .” (#32).

Cardinal Van Thuan’s experience helps teach us what so many of the saints have extolled: that to make room for hope we must make room for God. Benedict uses one of St. Augustine’s analogies to further his point: If you are full of vinegar, where will God put the honey? “The vessel, that is, your heart, must first be enlarged and then cleansed, freed from the vinegar and its taste. This requires hard work and is painful, but in this way alone do we become suited to that for which we are destined” (#33). This inner purification is not to draw us into some private happiness. Rather, it is to develop a capacity for listening to God, to the Good itself.

Part of that listening happens in the context of our liturgical community— our parishes and the broader Church. Benedict calls to mind the times when the imprisoned Cardinal Van Thuan was unable to pray anything from his own heart, but relied on the texts of the Church’s prayer, the Our Father, Hail Mary and others. In this way we nurture hope, writes Benedict, but always hope for others as well: “Thus we become ministers of hope. . .” (#34).

Action and suffering: Counterparts to prayer

The pope repeats an ancient truth of the Church: “All serious and upright human conduct is hope in action” (#35). Yet action, uninformed by faith, good as it may seem at the outset, can become mere fanaticism. Our action must be enlightened by the “radiance of hope.” He strikes a key theme again: that the world on its own will ultimately come up without hope; we must turn to Love, that is, to God.

Love will always give us what we need in ways beyond human hope or merit. We must open ourselves “and the world and allow God to enter: We can open ourselves to truth, to love, to what is good. This is what the saints did...”(#35).

The pope mentions that the stewardship of creation is not unrelated to this: “We can free our life and the world from the poisons and contaminations that could destroy the present and the future,” because creation is a gift from God that ought to be used rightly. He notes that concern for the environment is valuable even if it’s not popular, seemingly achieves nothing or seems “powerless in the face of overwhelming hostile forces.” This great hope is directed by God’s will (#35).

The pope turns then to suffering, and devotes considerable attention to a correct appreciation of suffering in spirituality. We must do what we can to reduce suffering, the pope clearly states. But suffering is a fact of life, a fact that we must encounter and learn from. “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” (#34).

Indeed, he says, and repeats in as many words later in the encyclical, “the true measure of humanity is essentially determined in relationship to suffering and to the sufferer. This holds true both for the individual and for society” (#38). Suffering for and with others, suffering out of love, and as a way to love, “these are fundamental elements of humanity,” he writes.

Judgment: The ultimate setting

Fear of the Last Judgment has faded from the modern mind, says Benedict, but it has been replaced by the absence of hope, in the face of injustice. “A world which has to create its own justice,” which it can never adequately do, “is a world without hope” (#42).

Contrary to what you or I might think at first blush, Final Judgment is “an image of hope,” says Benedict. That’s because there is justice, “and ‘undoing’ of past suffering, a reparation that sets things aright” (#43). Only God can create justice, says the pope; therefore “a world without God is a world without hope” (#44).

Much of this section of the encyclical is academic in nature, because so much of our understanding of hope in the modern world has been shaped by modern philosophers. Pope Benedict digs in on the debate, explaining the history of various understandings of judgment.

In the end, he offers the conjectures of some recent theologians who “are of the opinion that the fire which both burns and saves is Christ himself, the Judge and Savior.” Our ultimate encounter with Christ, offer these theologians, “is the decisive act of judgment. Before his gaze all falsehood melts away.” This ultimate encounter with Jesus “transforms and frees us, allows us to truly become ourselves” (#47). These unnamed theologians— could Pope Benedict be among them?—see the final judgment as ultimately a transforming, if possibly painful, experience. The pope turns to the Catechism: “The transforming moment of this encounter certainly eludes earthly time reckoning—it is the heart’s time, it is the time of ‘passage’ to communion with God in the Body of Christ” (#47).

Saved in Hope concludes with a rousing reflection on the Marian hymn “Ave Maris Stella” (“Mary, Star of the Sea”). On the sea of history, Benedict proclaims, Mary is one who shines a light to lead the way. His reflection on hope rightly ends on a note of praise.

John Feister is managing editor of Catholic Update. He has masters’ degrees in humanities and theology from Xavier University, Cincinnati.

NEXT: Mary of History (by Robert P. Maloney)


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