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December 10, 2007

Special Report: The New Encyclical on Hope

1. An encyclical reflection for Christmas.
2. Glancing inside the encyclical.
3. The difference hope makes.
4. Is Christian hope individualistic?
5. Encyclical excerpt: Christ as philosopher, shepherd; giver of hope.
6. Is Christian hope oriented only to the future?
7. God, the necessary foundation of hope.
8. Encyclical excerpt: Hope for eternal life.
9. Prayer's link to hope.
10. What to pray for.
11. Suffering and hope.
12. Encyclical excerpt: Hope at the hour of our death.

1. A Reflection for Christmas

Allow me to begin this report on "Spe Salvi" (on Christian hope), the encyclical Pope Benedict XVI released Nov. 30, with something the pope says at the document's conclusion that you might find particularly relevant at this time -- as Christmas approaches.

"People who have lived good lives" serve us as "lights of hope," Pope Benedict writes. "Certainly, Jesus Christ is the true light, the sun that has risen above all the shadows of history," he says, then adds: "But to reach him we also need lights close by -- people who shine with his light and so guide us along our way." The pope asks, "Who more than Mary?"

Now the pope addresses Mary directly. He writes:

"Through you, through your 'yes,' the hope of the ages became reality, entering this world and its history. When you hastened with holy joy across the mountains of Judea to see your cousin Elizabeth, you became the image of the church to come, which carries the hope of the world in her womb across the mountains of history.

"But alongside the joy which, with your Magnificat, you proclaimed in word and song for all the centuries to hear, you also knew the dark sayings of the prophets about the suffering of the servant of God in this world. From the cross you became a mother in a new way: the mother of all those who believe in your Son Jesus and wish to follow him. The sword of sorrow pierced your heart.

"Did hope die? Did the world remain definitively without light and life without purpose? At that moment, deep down, you probably listened again to the word spoken by the angel in answer to your fear at the time of the Annunciation: 'Do not be afraid, Mary!' (Lk 1:30). How many times had the Lord, your Son, said the same thing to his disciples: Do not be afraid!"

2. Glancing Inside the Encyclical

The new encyclical -- this pope's second encyclical -- is more than 19,000 words in length. Clearly, I cannot sum up all that it says in this report. Rather, I will examine several key themes of the encyclical and offer a few brief excerpts from it that I hope those in pastoral ministries or participants in discussion groups and classes may find helpful in one way or another. The list of topics and encyclical excerpts to be covered appears at the top of this newsletter.

By the way, did you know that Pope Benedict himself has the habit of summing things up as he writes? Here is part of a summary the pope presents a little more than half way through the encyclical of what he has written up to that point:

"Day by day, man experiences many greater or lesser hopes, different in kind according to the different periods of his life. Sometimes one of these hopes may appear to be totally satisfying without any need for other hopes. Young people can have the hope of a great and fully satisfying love; the hope of a certain position in their profession or of some success that will prove decisive for the rest of their lives. When these hopes are fulfilled, however, it becomes clear that they were not, in reality, the whole. It becomes evident that man has need of a hope that goes further. It becomes clear that only something infinite will suffice for him, something that will always be more than he can ever attain."

3. The Difference Hope Makes

People who have hope live "differently," Pope Benedict believes. He says, "The one who hopes has been granted the gift of a new life."

What will happen if we don't possess true hope? The pope cautions readers about this, saying: "Our daily efforts in pursuing our own lives and in working for the world's future either tire us or turn into fanaticism unless we are enlightened by the radiance of the great hope that cannot be destroyed even by small-scale failures or by a breakdown in matters of historic importance."

The reason the saints "were able to make the great journey of human existence in the way that Christ had done before them" is that "they were brimming with great hope," the pope writes. And what is this "great hope"? In a discussion of this, the pope says:

"We need the greater and lesser hopes that keep us going day by day. But these are not enough without the great hope, which must surpass everything else. This great hope can only be God, who encompasses the whole of reality and who can bestow upon us what we, by ourselves, cannot attain. The fact that it comes to us as a gift is actually part of hope. 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."

People need the "lesser and greater hopes" in life, like "a kind visit, the healing of internal and external wounds, a favorable resolution of a crisis and so on," the pope says. He observes: "In our lesser trials these kinds of hope may even be sufficient. But in truly great trials, where I must make a definitive decision to place the truth before my own welfare, career and possessions, I need the certitude of that true, great hope of which we have spoken here."

4. Is Christian Hope Individualistic?

The hope one has as a Christian is not just hope for oneself. Furthermore, even when praying alone one's prayer is not only about oneself, the pope stresses in the encyclical. His concern about this point is perhaps made clear when he asks:

"How could the idea have developed that Jesus' message is narrowly individualistic and aimed only at each person singly? How did we arrive at this interpretation of the 'salvation of the soul' as a flight from responsibility for the whole, and how did we come to conceive the Christian project as a selfish search for salvation which rejects the idea of serving others?"

True hope neither forgets nor overlooks others, nor does it neglect the need to build up this world, the pope insists. Theologically, this is because "being in communion with Jesus Christ draws us into his 'being for all'; it makes it our own way of being." The pope says that Jesus Christ "commits us to live for others, but only through communion with him does it become possible truly to be there for others, for the whole."

To love God is to be led "to participation in the justice and generosity of God toward others," the pope writes. He says: "Christ died for all. To live for him means allowing oneself to be drawn into his being for others."

The pope offers this observation: "Modern Christianity, faced with the successes of science in progressively structuring the world, has to a large extent restricted its attention to the individual and his salvation. In so doing it has limited the horizon of its hope and has failed to recognize sufficiently the greatness of its task."

Even when we pray, we do not "step outside history and withdraw to our own private corner of happiness. When we pray properly we undergo a process of inner purification which opens us up to God and thus to our fellow human beings as well," the pope says.

A further thought of the pope's related to this point comes up, in fact, in his discussion of the reasons to pray for people who have died. He writes: "Our lives are involved with one another, through innumerable interactions they are linked together. No one lives alone. No one sins alone. No one is saved alone. The lives of others continually spill over into mine: in what I think, say, do and achieve. And conversely, my life spills over into that of others -- for better and for worse."

5. Encyclical Excerpt: Christ as Philosopher and Shepherd, Giver of Hope

In No. 6 of the encyclical, Pope Benedict presents a discussion, in one long paragraph, of ancient images of Christ as philosopher and shepherd, and what those images meant in the context of those early times. Here I will add some paragraphing for the sake of our readability.

The pope notes that the "figure of Christ is interpreted on ancient sarcophagi principally by two images: the philosopher and the shepherd." He explains:

"Philosophy at that time was not generally seen as a difficult academic discipline, as it is today. Rather, the philosopher was someone who knew how to teach the essential art: the art of being authentically human - the art of living and dying. To be sure, it had long since been realized that many of the people who went around pretending to be philosophers, teachers of life, were just charlatans. All the more, then, the true philosopher who really did know how to point out the path of life was highly sought after.

"Toward the end of the third century, on the sarcophagus of a child in Rome, we find for the first time, in the context of the resurrection of Lazarus, the figure of Christ as the true philosopher, holding the Gospel in one hand and the philosopher's traveling staff in the other. With his staff, he conquers death; the Gospel brings the truth that itinerant philosophers had searched for in vain. In this image, which then became a common feature of sarcophagus art for a long time, we see clearly what both educated and simple people found in Christ: He tells us who man truly is and what a man must do in order to be truly human. He shows us the way, and this way is the truth. He himself is both the way and the truth, and therefore he is also the life which all of us are seeking. He also shows us the way beyond death; only someone able to do this is a true teacher of life.

"The same thing becomes visible in the image of the shepherd. As in the representation of the philosopher, so too through the figure of the shepherd the early church could identify with existing models of Roman art. There the shepherd was generally an expression of the dream of a tranquil and simple life for which the people, amid the confusion of the big cities, felt a certain longing. Now the image was read as part of a new scenario which gave it a deeper content: 'The Lord is my shepherd: I shall not want. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, because you are with me' (Ps 23 [22]:1, 4).

"The true shepherd is one who knows even the path that passes through the valley of death; one who walks with me even on the path of final solitude, where no one can accompany me, guiding me through: He himself has walked this path, he has descended into the kingdom of death, he has conquered death, and he has returned to accompany us now and to give us the certainty that, together with him, we can find a way through.

"The realization that there is One who even in death accompanies me, and with his 'rod and his staff comforts me' so that 'I fear no evil' (cf. Ps 23 [22]:4) - this was the new 'hope' that arose over the life of believers."

6. Is Christian Hope Oriented Only to the Future?

"Faith is not merely a personal reaching out toward things to come that are still totally absent: It gives us something," Pope Benedict writes. In the encyclical it seems that hope and faith are so closely related that one clarifies the other, that one cannot be understood without the other. Faith, the pope says, "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."

In the pope's analysis, "faith draws the future into the present so that it is no longer simply a 'not yet.'" He writes, "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."

7. God, the Foundation of Hope

A central goal of this encyclical is to make clear that human beings need God and the reasons why they need God. God is hope's foundation.

Perhaps you have read that the pope actually was quite even-handed in his treatment of Karl Marx in this encyclical. The pope speaks, for example, of Marx's "incisive language and intellect." In this discussion and in his discussion within the encyclical of other influential thinkers or of the influence of modern science on the way people think, the scholar pope shares his experience and insights almost in the manner of a professor. "It is not science that redeems man; man is redeemed by love," the pope will say.

In the end, the problem with Marx's analysis is that it didn't take into account the role of human freedom in history's flow of events, the pope comments. Marx's error, he writes, was that "he forgot that man always remains man. He forgot man and he forgot man's freedom. He forgot that freedom always remains also freedom for evil."

Marx, the pope continues, "thought that once the economy had been put right, everything would automatically be put right. His real error is materialism: Man, in fact, is not merely the product of economic conditions, and it is not possible to redeem him purely from the outside by creating a favorable economic environment."

It is similar with other great plans for putting the world right, which is why every age must keep trying diligently to put the world right and why the human family needs God, the pope believes. He says: "Man needs God, otherwise he remains without hope. A 'kingdom of God' accomplished without God - a kingdom therefore of man alone - inevitably ends up as the 'perverse end' of all things as described by Kant. We have seen it, and we see it over and over again."

8. Encyclical Excerpt: Hope for Eternal Life

"Inevitably ['eternal life'] is an inadequate term that creates confusion. 'Eternal,' in fact, suggests to us the idea of something interminable, and this frightens us; 'life' makes us think of the life that we know and love and do not want to lose, even though very often it brings more toil than satisfaction, so that while on the one hand we desire it, on the other hand we do not want it. To imagine ourselves outside the temporality that imprisons us and in some way to sense that eternity is not an unending succession of days in the calendar, but something more like the supreme moment of satisfaction in which totality embraces us and we embrace totality - this we can only attempt. It would be like plunging into the ocean of infinite love, a moment in which time - the before and after - no longer exists. We can only attempt to grasp the idea that such a moment is life in the full sense, a plunging ever anew into the vastness of being, in which we are simply overwhelmed with joy.

"This is how Jesus expresses it in St. John's Gospel: 'I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you' (16:22). We must think along these lines if we want to understand the object of Christian hope, to understand what it is that our faith, our being with Christ, leads us to expect" (No. 12 in the encyclical).

9. Prayer's Link to Hope

"The late [Vietnamese] Cardinal Nguyen Van Thuan, a prisoner for 13 years, nine of them spent in solitary confinement, has left us a precious little book: 'Prayers of Hope,'" Pope Benedict notes in the encyclical. During these years in jail, "in a situation of seemingly utter hopelessness, 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 - to that great hope which does not wane even in the nights of solitude," the pope adds. Cardinal Thuan's 13 years of imprisonment under communism in Vietnam began in 1975. He died in Rome Sept. 16, 2002.

The pope also recalls that Cardinal Thuan's book of spiritual exercises "tells us that during his life there were long periods when he was unable to pray and that he would hold fast to the texts of the church's prayer: the Our Father, the Hail Mary and the prayers of the liturgy." In this context, the pope comments that prayer "must on the one hand be something very personal, an encounter between my intimate self and God, the living God. On the other hand it must be constantly guided and enlightened by the great prayers of the church and of the saints, by liturgical prayer, in which the Lord teaches us again and again how to pray properly."

Praying, the pope says, "must always involve this intermingling of public and personal prayer. This is how we can speak to God and how God speaks to us. In this way we undergo those purifications by which we become open to God and are prepared for the service of our fellow human beings. We become capable of the great hope, and thus we become ministers of hope for others."

10. What to Pray For

"In prayer we must learn what we can truly ask of God - what is worthy of God," Pope Benedict writes in his encyclical. He says: "We must learn that we cannot pray against others. We must learn that we cannot ask for the superficial and comfortable things that we desire at this moment - that meager, misplaced hope that leads us away from God. We must learn to purify our desires and our hopes. We must free ourselves from the hidden lies with which we deceive ourselves."

11. Suffering and Hope

"The true measure of humanity is essentially determined in relationship to suffering and to the sufferer," Pope Benedict writes. He says that all that is possible must be done "to reduce suffering -- to avoid as far as possible the suffering of the innocent; to soothe pain; to give assistance in overcoming mental suffering. These are obligations both in justice and in love." Yet, he says, it "is not in our power" to banish suffering from the world altogether.

What the pope doesn't want people to believe is that the way to be healed is "by sidestepping or fleeing from suffering." He advises his readers that it is possible to mature through suffering in union with Christ. And he says:

"It is when we attempt to avoid suffering by withdrawing from anything that might involve hurt, when we try to spare ourselves the effort and pain of pursuing truth, love and goodness, that we drift into a life of emptiness, in which there may be almost no pain, but the dark sensation of meaninglessness and abandonment is all the greater."

Pope Benedict writes: "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 -- these are fundamental elements of humanity, and to abandon them would destroy man himself."

A society is "cruel and inhuman" if it is "unable to accept its suffering members and incapable of helping to share their suffering and to bear it inwardly through 'com-passion,'" says the pope. However, he adds, "society cannot accept its suffering members and support them in their trials unless individuals are capable of doing so themselves; moreover, the individual cannot accept another's suffering unless he personally is able to find meaning in suffering, a path of purification and growth in maturity, a journey of hope."

Acceptance of another who suffers "means that I take up his suffering in such a way that it becomes mine also," Pope Benedict concludes. He says that the Latin word "con-solatio" ("consolation") expresses this in a beautiful way. "It suggests 'being with' the other in his solitude so that it ceases to be solitude."

12. Encyclical Excerpt: Hope at the Hour of Our Death

"Some recent theologians are of the opinion that the fire which both burns and saves is Christ himself, the Judge and Savior. The encounter with him is the decisive act of judgment. Before his gaze all falsehood melts away. This encounter with him, as it burns us, transforms and frees us, allowing us to become truly ourselves. All that we build during our lives can prove to be mere straw, pure bluster, and it collapses. Yet in the pain of this encounter, when the impurity and sickness of our lives become evident to us, there lies salvation. His gaze, the touch of his heart heals us through an undeniably painful transformation 'as through fire.' In this way the interrelation between justice and grace also becomes clear: The way we live our lives is not immaterial, but our defilement does not stain us forever if we have at least continued to reach out toward Christ, toward truth and toward love. Indeed, it has already been burned away through Christ's passion. We all work out our salvation 'with fear and trembling' (Phil 2:12). Nevertheless grace allows us all to hope and to go trustfully to meet the Judge whom we know as our 'advocate' or 'parakletos' (cf. 1 Jn 2:1)" (Encyclical No. 47).