Uncovering the Sources of Creation: Pope Benedict XVI on Hope

By McDonagh, Philip | Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture, Fall 2010 | Go to article overview

Uncovering the Sources of Creation: Pope Benedict XVI on Hope


McDonagh, Philip, Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture


WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO LIVE IN HOPE? (1) If we have a sense of this, it is probably thanks to someone we know who serves as a light of hope--someone whose life is fruitful and evolving, who has time for other people, who has the energy to deal with difficulty and even disaster. As I write this, I am thinking of a wonderful Canadian lady who lived in Rome and died of cancer last year. Even in the last phase of her life, she brought happiness and consolation to others.

Betty-Ann lived her life in a way that was far from being the product of circumstances. She saw things against a canvas bigger than herself and the years or months that remained of her life on earth. Cavafy has a poem that expresses deep dismay at the passing of time: "I don't want to turn back to see, with horror, / how quickly the dark row of candles has lengthened, / how rapidly the number of dead candles has grown." (2) Betty-Ann was never cornered by lingering regrets over life lived and now gone. She always had a level of ambition. To the end of her life, she was interested in her husband's work, in family and friends, in Rome, Florence, and Renaissance art. To live in hope is to live with continuing openness to the future.

Sometimes we see in a whole society the inner life that I have described in Betty-Ann--people who are oppressed and poor yet welcome strangers, celebrate music and festivals, raise children, support one another, dream of the future. Sometimes we experience the opposite--those who to all appearances are quite secure yet live with a low sense of self-worth and without hope. In a society where hope is lost, people's lives may be organized yet lonely. People may become fearful of having children or taking on commitments. We may become prone to fits of anger disconnected from reality, road rage, or random violence. The mass media revel in all of this with cheap indignation.

At the beginning of Spe salvi, Pope Benedict XVI quotes the first letter of Peter and its call to us to be always ready to give an answer concerning the logos--the meaning and the reason--of our hope. Our effort at understanding the workings of hope should be one in spirit with the kindness of people like Betty-Ann and with the courage of communities that have been able to persevere in the face of adversity through the strength provided by hope.

In this article, I will attempt to make four main points: first, the encyclical Spe salvi, "In hope we are saved," published at the beginning of Advent 2007, illustrates the central importance of hope in Benedict's thought; second, I will examine the important ways that Spe salvi complements the encyclical Deus caritas est, "God is love," published at the beginning of Lent 2006; third, I propose to bring into focus what I regard as the main theme in Spe salvi: that Christian hope is not individualistic but looks toward uniting the human family and a final fulfillment of justice; fourth, I will suggest seeds for future development present in Spe salvi and its relevance to the pope's third encyclical, Caritas in veritate, published in June 2009.

I. Spe salvi: A Key Document of the Pontificate of Benedict XVI

To appreciate the significance of Spe salvi (hereafter SS), we should consider first the Pope's biography and his perspective on European history. A recent book recalls that when Joseph Ratzinger began his theological studies after World War II, his main interest was in the question of the ratio spei, the reason for our hope. (3) In the Germany in which he grew to maturity, this was no mere theoretical question. The same book quotes the following passage by Konrad Adenauer, the first postwar German chancellor: "The German people ... endured in hunger, cold, need and death an existence temporarily without hope for the future ... despised by all the peoples of the earth ... each one suffering without despair, struggling not to go under but to save himself and his family from this present distress for the sake of a better future. …

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