Fr Peter cswg looks at the contents of Pope Benedict’s recent encyclical, Spe Salvi, a wide-ranging and inspiring examination of the nature of hope

As with his first encyclical on Love, Pope Benedict has chosen a subject of timely importance and universal human concern, showing himself remarkably in touch with the often unspoken questions in our hearts, and eloquently able to articulate the aspirations behind them. For those of an age to recall encyclicals of earlier Pontificates, the contrast of presentation of the two from Pope Benedict is arresting, yet comes over in a gentle, self-effacing way. There is no ‘weight’ here – of ecclesiastical authority – of the ex cathedra kind, but rather the humble meditations of a (Chief) Pastor leading his flock in the true character of the Shepherd-Philosophers of old, to whom he refers in Spe Salvi, in the search for what ‘human beings must do to become truly human. Benedict addresses his encyclical notably to ‘Christians’; indeed to everyone, for hope affects everyone. The wide range of sources, ancient and modern, is in evidence throughout, in the references to such contrasting minds as Plato and Immanuel Kant, Augustine and Karl Marx, Justin Martyr and Francis Bacon. The whole is adorned with generous quotations from less-known contemporary saints/martyrs, as well as with his own quotable one-liners that have their own arresting appeal.

The encyclical begins with an exploration into the biblical and patristic basis of hope, and is richly adorned throughout with scriptural quotations and allusions. Having established that the hope he is investigating is one ‘trustworthy to face the present’ and with a goal great enough to merit the journey’s effort’, the Pope notes how closely the virtue of hope is bound up with faith: ‘faith is hope’. His concern is that this hope be performative, not simply informative: it is ‘to make things happen, to be life-changing’ so ‘the one who hopes lives differently’. The Christian knows ‘life does not end in emptiness’: ‘the future is certain as a positive reality’. This produces a question that penetrates to the heart of things: ‘in what does this hope consist which, as hope, is redemption?’ He illustrates his answer with the touching story of a Sudanese slave-girl (later canonized), harshly treated by her earthly masters, who found her salvation in ‘the Supreme Master who knew her, loved her and created her’.

Hope is likewise confirmed in a true theology of creation. Pope Benedict is mindful of the impersonal character the latest scientific knowledge can give to our world. We are called to find the origins of the Universe in a personal divine Being: ‘at the heart of the Universe is a Personal Will, Spirit and Love’. It is not ‘the laws of matter that ultimately govern the world and mankind’ but a ‘Personal God governs the stars.’

A personal God

It is such knowledge of a personal God that sets the believer free. The same freedom is revealed in the later renunciations of the monks, who do not express ‘a flight from responsibility’ but, in St Bernard’s view, ‘perform a task for the whole Church, and hence for the whole world’. ‘From the hope of these people who have been touched by Christ, hope arises for others.’ Hope is not only a real ‘possession now, but overflows to benefit others. Here is a striking image of the service Christian hope gives to the world.

Benedict emphasizes the ‘unknowing’ character of hope: we ‘don’t really know what it is that we truly want’, or ‘what true life really is’; yet this ‘unknown thing’ is ‘the true hope that drives our life’. He looks at the meaning of ‘eternal life’ and our ambivalent attitude to it. Having agreed that eternal life as unvarying repetition would be ‘unbearable’, he takes Augustine’s understanding of it as ‘the blessed life’, but goes further: ‘It is the moment of supreme satisfaction, which totally embraces us and we embrace totally’ Such a moment is life in the full sense, Tike plunging into an ocean of love’ where there is ‘no before or after’, ‘where we are simply overwhelmed with joy’. ‘It is along these lines we must think, he encourages us, ‘if we want to understand the Christian hope our faith leads us to expect’ [n. 10-12].

The central part of the encyclical is concerned to answer the claim that Christian hope is individualistic (and so selfish). In rebuffing this accusation, Benedict draws attention to the biblical image of’the city’ (in Hebrews) to underline that salvation is always a ‘social reality’, ‘linked to lived union with a People’ [n. 14]. He goes on to ask: ‘how has hope in present times become ‘individualistic’ and salvation understood as ‘flight from the world’?’

A social reality

His answer is in fact a penetrating analysis of the modern era, beginning with Francis Bacon, who perceived ‘a new correlation between science and praxis’, which ‘re-established man’s dominion over creation, but without Christ’. Faith is displaced and becomes ‘private and otherworldly’, ‘irrelevant’. Hope acquires a new form called ‘faith in progress’, as the ‘kingdoms of men take the place of the Kingdom of God, in ‘the political realization of this hope’, ‘based on the here and now’ and ‘the possibility of all-encompassing change.’ There follows a gentle but penetrating assessment of Karl Marx, demonstrating his ‘fundamental error’, and ‘the trail of appalling destruction it left’: Marx forgot that ‘man is man, ‘he forgot man’s freedom’ (for evil as well as good).

With the analysis comes a timely call for ‘a self-critique of modernity in dialogue with Christianity and its hope, and for a self-critique of modern Christianity. The Pope underlines the ambiguity of ‘progress’: technical progress needs to be matched by ‘man’s ethical formation’ – his inner growth – or it is no progress at all. Man’s freedom has constantly to be won over to good in every generation. So ‘the kingdom of good can never be definitively established in this world’, and ‘tomorrow’s better world cannot be the proper and sufficient content of our hope’. Such has ‘limited the horizons of [modern Christianity’s] hope’. Man is not redeemed by structures or science, however important. ‘Man is redeemed by Love, unconditional Love that is not destroyed by death.’ ‘Only this Absolute Love redeems.’

So we are bidden to contemplate, beyond ‘the lesser and greater hopes of life’, ‘the great hope that alone sustains life: something infinite, something always more than we can ever attain.’ Simply but reassuringly, he points out that only God can be this, since only he can provide ‘true life which whole and unthreatened in all its fullness is simply life’, that is ‘a relationship with him who is the source of Life…if we are in relation to the one who does not die, who is Life Itself, and Love Itself, then we are in life’ [n. 27].

Learning and practising

All this rich spiritual nourishment is then given, in the final section of Spe Salvi, particular ‘settings’ for learning and practising hope. A first essential for learning hope is prayer, but it needs to be purified, so that we can ‘ask of God the things worthy of God’. This necessitates the purification of our hopes and desires. In Augustine’s memorable image, we need to be emptied of ‘the vinegar in us’, if we are to be ‘filled with God’s honey’. Prayer thus is to become ‘the capacity for listening to the Good Itself [n. 33].
All serious and upright human conduct’, we are told, ‘is hope in action.’ With this encouragement to motivate us, we are bidden to keep before us the Kingdom of God, which is ‘a gift’, great and beautiful, and constitutes the response to our hope’, so ‘we can always continue to hope…even when there seems nothing left to hope for’.

With life comes suffering, which we should do all we can to alleviate, whilst recognizing it is not in our power to eliminate it altogether. Suffering in the light of the Christian hope is rather to be transformed: we read the powerful witness of a nineteenth-century Vietnamese martyr, whose prison became an ‘image of..hell’, yet whose suffering God turned into a ‘hymn of praise’.

Hope for justice

Faith in the Last Judgement is, first and foremost, hope for God’s justice. It is a ‘symbol of our responsibility for our lives’, since ‘the way we live is not immaterial’. In the face of injustices in life, we are bidden to trust God like the innocent Sufferer on the Cross, who offered him ‘our God-forsaken condition in the certitude of hope’: God (and only God) can ‘create justice in a way we cannot conceive’. Certain that ‘with death our life-choices become definitive’, Benedict draws a radically bold and courageous understanding of Purgatory based on 1 Cor. 3.12-15 as our meeting with Christ, who is the Fire before whom ‘all falsehood melts away’. Prayer for the departed is commended on the basis of the unity of the human race: ‘no man is an island’. ‘No one sins alone. No one is saved alone.’ We are assured: ‘It is never too late to touch the heart of another nor is it ever in vain.’ The encyclical closes with a personal prayer to Mary, Star of Hope, for our journey to lead us to her Son.

Pope Benedict contemplates his subject with a sure mastery that communicates itself to the reader: no one who attends sympathetically can fail to have his own hope strengthened, enlightened and deepened. All that a discourse on ‘hope’ should touch on is there, including the prophetic word: ‘The present day crisis of faith…is essentially a crisis in hope’. Several excursions into Spe Salvi only serve to intensify how absent this virtue has been from the mind of the Church and Christians in recent years: as though firing on two cylinders. Without hope, the middle of the theological virtues, faith and love remain at best stunted, at worst inoperative. Pope Benedict, in providing a full and deep appreciation of hope, has offered us all the remedy. It deserves, and will repay bountifully, a generous response.