Sometimes I think the Pope must be reading my mail! Recently I suggested in an editorial for HOPE magazine that a good companion volume to Benedict’s book, Without Roots, would be Without Hope. The first book portrayed a Europe that had forgotten the source of her values. The second, I proposed, could describe a Europe that had forgotten her destiny.
Lo and behold, last Friday the Vatican released Benedict’s second encyclical, ‘Spe Salvi‘, describing Europe’s (and the world’s) crisis of faith as essentially a crisis of Christian hope!
Last year I unexpectedly met the pope after a public audience in St Peter’s Square. My Catholic companion had urged me to dig out of my bag a copy of my book, Living as People of Hope, to present to the pontiff passing our way. Benedict’s eye fell on the book’s title as he shook my hand, and said emphatically, ‘Hope! That’s what we need!‘.
Now I don’t for a moment imagine that Benedict has more than glanced at the contents of my book. I’m sure he is deluged with such gifts. But, eager to discover how he would treat this subject, I avidly devoured the encyclical to grasp his insights. So what then is his message to his global flock?
It’s not light reading. Twenty-three pages of closely-argued and broad-ranging theological reasoning is typically ‘Benedictine’. But it’s worth working through his survey of history from the early church and the rise of monasticism through to the French Revolution, the Marxist Revolution and into the atomic age.
He begins with the apostolic testimony on hope. Paul reminds the Ephesians that they previously had been ‘without hope and without God in the world’ (2:12). Now they had become people with a future. Life would not end in emptiness.
‘The dark door of time, of the future, has been thrown open. The one who has hope lives differently; the one who hopes has been granted the gift of a new life,‘ he writes. ‘Only when the future is certain as a positive reality does it become possible to live the present as well‘.
For life is no longer lived under the dominion of the ‘elemental spirits of the universe’, Paul writes in Colossians 2:8. The story of the Magi, ‘guided by the star, adored Christ the new king, overturns the world-view of that time, which has become fashionable once again today. It is not the elemental spirits of the universe, the laws of matter, which ultimately govern the world and mankind, but a personal God governs the stars, that is, the universe; it is not the laws of matter and of evolution that have the final say, but reason, will, love–a Person. Heaven is not empty. There is a personal will, there is a Spirit who in Jesus has revealed himself as Love.‘
Turning to the famous passage in Hebrews, chapter 11, Benedict draws on Aquinas to explain the elusive link between faith and hope: ‘through faith there are already present in us the things that are hoped for: the whole, true life. (Faith) 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.‘
But the hope portrayed in this same chapter in Hebrews-with its ‘hall of fame’ of Biblical heroes-has in modern times been dismissed as individualistic, privatised salvation. Not so, says the pope, citing verses about the communal hope of a ‘city’, the restoration of humanity’s unity (Heb 11:10, 16; 12:22; 13:14).
Monasteries, seen as retreats from worldly responsibilities, were also places of practical and spiritual ’tilling the soil’, preparing the new Paradise: ‘A wild plot of forest land is rendered fertile–and in the process, the trees of pride are felled, whatever weeds may be growing inside souls are pulled up, and the ground is thereby prepared so that bread for body and soul can flourish.‘ The pope muses if any positive world order can prosper where souls are overgrown.
Benedict explores the ‘disturbing step’ taken by Francis Bacon and others, who ushered in the modern age with a new hope that science would give man dominion over creation. This hope replaced faith in Jesus Christ for the recovery of the lost Paradise. Faith was not denied, simply displaced to the private world, irrelevant for the world. This vision, he says, shapes the present-day crisis of faith which is essentially a crisis of Christian hope. For hope today is faith in progress.
But this kind of hope is deceptive, he warns his readers. Science can contribute greatly to making the world more human. Yet it can also destroy mankind unless it is steered by forces that lie outside it. Progress, seen accurately, is progress from the sling to the atom bomb. It is not science that redeems man: man is redeemed by love.
‘Let us put it very simply,‘ he writes drawing his argument towards a close. ‘Man needs God, otherwise he remains without hope. Given the developments of the modern age, the quotation from Saint Paul with which I began (Eph 2:12) proves to be thoroughly realistic and plainly true. 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 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.’ To which I say, ‘Amen!’
Till next week,
Till next week,