Saved in hope

Hans
Hans Rollmann
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Just in time for Advent, Pope Benedict XVI published his encyclical letter Spe salvi, "Saved in Hope."
The encyclical, titled in traditional fashion with the beginning words of its Latin text, is the second in a series that deals in reverse order with the classical Christian triad of faith, hope and love.
Hope as a subject is particularly relevant at the beginning of a new year, when even disillusioned makers of broken resolutions in the past may once more hope for renewal and change in 2008.
The hope for a new beginning at New Year's may be rooted in a deeper faith that men and women of goodwill can leave behind what they dislike and become what they would rather be.
In writing this I have already touched on two fundamental human dimensions that are also crucial themes of the new papal encyclical: faith and hope, and their intimate relation each to the other.
The encyclical is by no means "light reading," since it brings out the former professor in the pope as he lectures on the human condition in the modern world, citing worldly philosophers from Francis Bacon to Karl Marx and from Immanuel Kant to the critical thinkers so influential in the 1960s, Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno.

Open to the future
Yet this encyclical letter remains a biblical and spiritual reflection on hope for our contemporaries. Benedict draws on the Church Fathers and great theologians of the past, such as Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, but he also learns from believers who have found hope amid suffering and trial, such as the African slave canonized by Pope John Paul II, Josephine Bakhita, and the Vietnamese martyr Paul Le-Bao-Tinh.
In his letter, Benedict presents Christianity as a redemptive faith in the person and work of Christ, offered by God's love to all of humankind.
In Christian faith, according to the pope, we may encounter "a hope stronger than the sufferings of slavery, a hope that therefore transformed life and the world from within."
Far from merely looking to the future, men and women who respond to this greater-than-human reality are set free to live a profoundly meaningful life in the present.
They are, Benedict asserts, filled with hope, open to the future and already transformed by it. In the pope's own words, "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."

Faith in community
In his encyclical, the pope also addresses the danger of an isolating individualism and shows that sin and salvation have a social character.
Using the New Testament Letter to the Hebrews and the Church Fathers, he points to the destructive divisiveness of sin, which fragments and separates human beings not only from God but from one another.
Redemption, on the other hand, heals the fractures and rebuilds the broken unity of God's people while liberating humans from their isolation and self-imprisonment.
"This real life," writes Benedict, "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.'"
Such a life "presupposes," he continues, "that we escape from the prison of our 'I,' because only in the openness of this universal subject does our gaze open out to the source of joy, to love itself - to God."
Benedict's encyclical explores many other aspects of hope and its human environment, such as the ambiguity of progress, the potential of science for good and evil, the ethical principles that should govern our attempts to master nature, and how societal structures and social order need the vital convictions and free assent of the community.
He critically probes "eternity," seeing eternal life as more than mere earthly existence extended to infinity.
The greater and lesser hopes for the individual and the world we live in are, for Benedict, ultimately grounded in "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."
This hope-full encounter with God is a gift. "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 Kingdom is not an imaginary hereafter, situated in a future that will never arrive; his Kingdom is present wherever he is loved and wherever his love reaches us."

School of hope
In concluding the encyclical, Benedict surveys three places where hope can be learned and practised: prayer as a school of hope; action and suffering as opportunities for learning hope; and judgment, not as a lurid catastrophe but as a setting for hope.
One cannot mine this rich theological and spiritual meditation on hope in so few words.
Thanks to the Vatican presence on the internet, Benedict's encyclical on hope and its predecessor on love are available in their entirety at www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/encyclicals/index_en.html.
Not only Roman Catholics but also other Christians (who may not be able to follow Benedict in his demythologized version of purgatory and religious significance of Mary) may yet find in this encyclical much material for further reflection and meditation. I certainly shall return to it.

Hans Rollmann is a professor of religious studies at Memorial University. He can be contacted by e-mail at hansrollmann@gmail.com

Organizations: Church Fathers

Geographic location: Hope, Vatican

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