Archbishop's column

Before the Cross - Archbishop Robert J. Carlson's Column

'Before The Cross' by Archbishop Robert J. Carlson. Archbishop Carlson is the ninth Archbishop of Saint Louis. Listed below are the most recent columns written by Archbishop Carlson; click on the title to read the column. The Archdiocesan website has more information about Archbishop Robert J. Carlson.

'Be Not Afraid!'

Hope, the individual and the community

Christians have naturally tried to represent in their minds and through art the eternal life which is our hope, which we know and, at the same time, do not know fully. These representations, which necessarily must remain inadequate to the full reality of eternal life, have, nevertheless, inspired in the faithful the desire to live by faith and not by an attachment to various kinds of material security, for example, property and possessions. Pope Benedict XVI refers again to the Letter to the Hebrews, which provides a description of those who have gone before us and have given us an example of living by faith, living in hope (Hebrews 11:4-39).

The hope of Christians, however, "has been subjected to an increasingly harsh critique in modern times: it is dismissed as pure individualism, a way of abandoning the world to its misery and taking refuge in a private form of eternal salvation" (Spe Salvi, n. 13). The Holy Father quotes one author, Jean Giono, who caricatures Christian hope as an individualistic joy in life, which is completely impervious and untroubled by the suffering of others. In other words, Christians are accused of holding onto an individualistic notion of salvation, which permits them to be complacent about or indifferent to the needs of their brothers and sisters in the world.

‘The City of the Living God’

The truth is otherwise. Cardinal Henri de Lubac, SJ, one of the greatest theologians of the last century, has shown, through a study of the Fathers of the Church, "that salvation has always been considered a ‘social’ reality" (Spe Salvi, n. 14). The Holy Father refers once again to the Letter to the Hebrews, which describes Christians hope in terms of "the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God" (Hebrews 11:10). The Letter to the Hebrews also refers to Heaven as "a better country" (Hebrews 11:16), "the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem" (Hebrews 12:22), and "the city which is to come" (Hebrews 13:14). In other words, eternal life is attained in the community of believers, the inhabitants of "the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem," the citizens of the "better country." Our Christian hope is hope for all our brothers and sisters and involves a commitment to assist them in their needs as they journey with us on the pilgrimage of life.

At the same time, the Fathers of the Church understand sin "as the destruction of the unity of the human race, as fragmentation and division" (Spe Salvi, n. 14). The account of the Tower of Babel illustrates the effect of sin: the introduction of confusion and division in the community. Christ’s redemptive work restores unity, drawing together those who were scattered. Christian hope forbids a complacency before or indifference to our brothers and sisters in the world.

St. Augustine’s Letter to Proba

Pope Benedict XVI chooses St. Augustine’s Letter to Proba as an example of the teaching of the Fathers of the Church on hope. St. Augustine writes about what he calls "the blessed life," another term for eternal life. Quoting Psalm 144 (143), St. Augustine describes the blessed life in terms of being numbered among the people who belong to God. We attain eternal life not as isolated individuals but as members of the body of believers: "This real life, toward 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’" (Spe Salvi, n. 14).

Eternal life certainly points us toward the hereafter, but, at the same time, it directs us to the building up of the present world. At the time of St. Augustine of Hippo, for example, "the incursions of new peoples were threatening the cohesion of the world, where hitherto there had been a certain guarantee of law and of living in a juridically ordered society; at that time, then, it was matter of strengthening the basic foundations of this peaceful societal existence, in order to survive in a changed world" (Spe Salvi, n. 15). In each time, man ultimately comes to realize that a "positive world order" depends upon the purification of human souls. In every time and place, there are challenges to the life of the community, like the challenges that divided the community at Babel. It is Christian hope that leads us to face the challenges with trust in God’s plan for us as the community of His sons and daughters.

Monastic life

Our Holy Father chooses the monastic life, as it was seen in the Middle Ages, to illustrate the connection of eternal life with both the world to come and the world in which we live. In medieval times, some saw the monastery as a haven in which to seek "private salvation" by fleeing from the world and renouncing any responsibility for it.

St. Bernard of Clairvaux, the renowned Cistercian monk who attracted so many other young people to enter the monastery with him, saw the matter otherwise. "In his view, monks perform a task for the whole Church and hence also for the world" (Spe Salvi, n. 15). The monks dedicated to a life of contemplation are obliged by the monastic rule to engage in manual labor. Their work with the soil reminds them of the discipline and purification of their own souls by which they anticipate the New Jerusalem. The monastic life teaches us all that the transformation of the world depends upon our conversion of life to Christ.

In my own experience, I have never found individuals more keenly attuned to the needs of the world and more ardently committed to seeking God’s help for their brothers and sisters in the world than contemplative religious. The late Mother Mary Francis, native of St. Louis and renowned author on the life of contemplative religious, rightly observed that the walls of the enclosure of a contemplative monastery embrace, in fact, the whole world.

Francis Bacon and the modern age

The philosophy of the modern era has very much re-enforced the idea of salvation as an individualistic and private matter. In the thought of the English philosopher Francis Bacon (1561-1626), for example, man, through his scientific achievements, can attain the "dominion over creation" which Adam and Eve lost by original sin (Spe Salvi, n. 16). In Bacon’s view, salvation no longer depends upon Christ but upon scientific achievement. "It is not that faith is simply denied; rather it is displaced onto another level — that of purely private and other worldly affairs — at the same time it becomes somewhat irrelevant for the world" (Spe Salvi, n. 17). In such a view, hope becomes "faith in progress," that is, trust in the advance of the world through new discoveries and inventions of the human mind.

For Bacon, philosophical thought is reduced ultimately to a philosophy of nature, from which God as the source and end of things, and the immortal human soul in relation to God have been removed. His philosophy of nature has both a speculative and practical aspect. "The speculative moment in this discipline studies the natural causes for the sake of the knowledge itself; the practical aspect has regard primarily for the use to which this causal knowledge can be put in establishing control over nature, for human purposes" (James Collins, A History of Modern European Philosophy, Milwaukee: Bruce Publishing Company, 1954, p. 63). Yet today, we are witnesses to the dominance of a similar thinking in which scientific research and the advance of technology are divorced from the moral order. The insistence that is right to generate artificially human life through cloning or to destroy human life at its beginning for the sake of scientific research on embryonic stem cells are current and most disturbing examples of the immoral thinking which results from a completely mechanistic and utilitarian view of nature, especially human life.

For philosophers like Bacon, the idea of progress is tied to reason and freedom. Reason is seen as the tool for man to attain ever greater dominion over creation; it is "obviously considered to be a force of good and a force for good." At the same time, reason’s dominion over creation permits man to become ever more independent. These notions naturally have a political aspect which, in fact, becomes revolutionary. Reason and freedom by themselves are seen to lead to "a new and perfect human community." They are also seen to be "in conflict with the shackles of faith and of the Church as well as those of the political structures of the period" (Spe Salvi, n. 18).

Conclusion

The Holy Father’s presentation of the virtue of Christian hope in its essentially social or communitarian dimension leads us to reflect on our own images of eternal life, of the "blessed life" which is without end. In making our reflection, it will be helpful for us to read again the last three chapters of the Letter to the Hebrews. Do we view our own salvation in the context of our active hope for the salvation of all our brothers and sisters in the world? Does our Christian hope engage us in working to meet the challenges to the life of the community in our day, that is, to address those forces which destroy the order which God has placed in our relationships with each other and the world, the forces which confuse us and divide us from each other?

Finally, Pope Benedict XVI’s reflection leads us to reflect upon the trust that we place in human progress. Do we see progress ultimately in terms of God’s plan for us and our world? Do we view human technology in the light of the moral order, understanding that the fact that man can do something does not mean that, in fact, it is right for him to do it?

‘Be not afraid!’

Hope in eternal life

Having discussed in depth the essential relationship between the theological virtues of faith and hope in the Christian life in his encyclical "Spe Salvi (On Christian Hope)," Pope Benedict XVI asks: "(I)s the Christian faith also for us today a life-changing and life-sustaining hope?" In other words, when we talk about faith and hope, we are not only speaking about the past but about the "here and now," about our own "living and dying." In the words of the Holy Father, faith and hope are not merely past "information" for us, but they are "performative," that is, they give meaning and direction to our lives in the present (Spe Salvi, n. 10).

In answering the question, Pope Benedict XVI begins by examining the initial dialogue between the priest administering the Sacrament of Baptism and the parents who were presenting their child for Baptism, according to the Rite of Baptism before the liturgical reforms after the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council. The questions were asked of the child for whom the godparents speak. After asking the child’s name, the priest asked what the child was seeking. The godparents responded: "Faith." The priest then asked them what faith gives to the child. The response was: "Eternal life" (Salvi Spe, n. 10).

As the dialogue expressed, parents bring their child to the Church for the Sacrament of Baptism because they desire for the child the gift of the faith, which includes the whole richness of our life of the Church and, ultimately, eternal life in Heaven. The Catholic faith is indeed the "substance" of all the hopes which parents have for their children. Parents have many hopes for their children: health, education, happiness in their vocation in life and various other forms of success. But, most of all and above all, they hope that their child will attain eternal happiness with God in Heaven.

The desire of eternal life

The Holy Father then asks: "(D)o we really want this — to live eternally?" He wonders whether many people today reject the faith precisely because they desire "this present life, for which faith in eternal life seems something of an impediment." In a worldly way of thinking, we certainly do not want to die, but, on the other hand, the thought of living as we now do without any end to it would seem to be "monotonous and ultimately unbearable." To illustrate his point, Pope Benedict XVI quotes the homily which St. Ambrose gave at the funeral of his brother Satyrus:

"Death was not part of nature; it became part of nature. God did not decree death from the beginning; He prescribed it as a remedy. Human life, because of sin ... began to experience the burden of wretchedness in unremitting labor and unbearable sorrow. There had to be a limit to its evils; death had to restore what life had forfeited.

Without the assistance of grace, immortality is more of a burden than a blessing" (Spe Salvi, n. 10).

St. Ambrose’s words point to the paradox of our attitude regarding living and dying. How are to understand the truth about our desire to live?

We understand that what we truly desire is happiness without end. We know that simply living without enjoying the blessing of happiness is not really living for us, and yet we do not see fully what in our happiness is to consist. We pray for happiness, as St. Augustine of Hippo wrote in a letter on prayer, not knowing clearly what it is but knowing clearly that we are made for it and desire it in our deepest being. The Holy Father concludes: "This unknown ‘thing’ is the true ‘hope’ which drives us, and at the same time the fact that it is unknown is the cause of all forms of despair and also of all efforts, whether positive or destructive, directed towards worldly authenticity and human authenticity" (Spe Salvi, n. 12).

Eternal life itself

The name we give to the unknown "thing" that is the object of our hope is "eternal life." But what is eternal life?

Clearly, by its very nature, it eludes our ability to define precisely and completely. We rightly and properly, however, attempt to describe it. In attempting to describe eternal life, we must begin by understanding that it is not simply the endless continuation of life as we now know it.

While our present life may give us some glimpses of what eternal life is, it necessarily is something far beyond what we experience in the here and now. Pope Benedict XVI observes:

"‘Eternal,’" in fact, suggests to us the idea of something interminable, and this frightens us; ‘life’ makes us think of the life 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" (Spe Salvi, n. 12).

It is the nature of the life hereafter which makes its eternity not something to be dreaded but rather something infinitely and inexhaustibly attractive.

The Holy Father provides us with a most helpful description of eternal life: "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." Pope Benedict XVI writes that eternal life is "like plunging into the ocean of infinite love, a moment in which time — the before and after — no longer exists." In these various attempts to describe eternal life, we understand that it is the fullness of joy and peace.

In His farewell discourse to the Apostles, our Lord described eternal life in these words: "So you have sorrow now, but I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you" (John 16:22).

Referring to article 1025 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Pope Benedict XVI concludes: "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" (Spe Salvi, n. 12).

Conclusion

As we continue our reading of the Holy Father’s second encyclical letter, "On Christian Hope," let us reflect upon the way in which hope of eternal life gives shape to our daily living. In a particular way, let us consider our desire of eternal life and what we understand by eternal life.

In reflecting upon the meaning of eternal life and how it gives hope to our daily living, let us consider especially how it will be the fullness of communion with Christ, which we now enjoy partially. Our Lord assures us that He will see us again and that, when we are with Him finally, our joy will be complete, and no one will be able to steal our joy from us. When we understand eternal life in terms of our personal relationship with our Lord Jesus Christ, then we understand why it is our great desire and what we most desire for those whom we love.

‘Be not afraid!’

Hope in eternal life

Having discussed in depth the essential relationship between the theological virtues of faith and hope in the Christian life in his encyclical "Spe Salvi (On Christian Hope)," Pope Benedict XVI asks: "(I)s the Christian faith also for us today a life-changing and life-sustaining hope?" In other words, when we talk about faith and hope, we are not only speaking about the past but about the "here and now," about our own "living and dying." In the words of the Holy Father, faith and hope are not merely past "information" for us, but they are "performative," that is, they give meaning and direction to our lives in the present (Spe Salvi, n. 10).

In answering the question, Pope Benedict XVI begins by examining the initial dialogue between the priest administering the Sacrament of Baptism and the parents who were presenting their child for Baptism, according to the Rite of Baptism before the liturgical reforms after the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council. The questions were asked of the child for whom the godparents speak. After asking the child’s name, the priest asked what the child was seeking. The godparents responded: "Faith." The priest then asked them what faith gives to the child. The response was: "Eternal life" (Salvi Spe, n. 10).

As the dialogue expressed, parents bring their child to the Church for the Sacrament of Baptism because they desire for the child the gift of the faith, which includes the whole richness of our life of the Church and, ultimately, eternal life in Heaven. The Catholic faith is indeed the "substance" of all the hopes which parents have for their children. Parents have many hopes for their children: health, education, happiness in their vocation in life and various other forms of success. But, most of all and above all, they hope that their child will attain eternal happiness with God in Heaven.

The desire of eternal life

The Holy Father then asks: "(D)o we really want this — to live eternally?" He wonders whether many people today reject the faith precisely because they desire "this present life, for which faith in eternal life seems something of an impediment." In a worldly way of thinking, we certainly do not want to die, but, on the other hand, the thought of living as we now do without any end to it would seem to be "monotonous and ultimately unbearable." To illustrate his point, Pope Benedict XVI quotes the homily which St. Ambrose gave at the funeral of his brother Satyrus:

"Death was not part of nature; it became part of nature. God did not decree death from the beginning; He prescribed it as a remedy. Human life, because of sin ... began to experience the burden of wretchedness in unremitting labor and unbearable sorrow. There had to be a limit to its evils; death had to restore what life had forfeited.

Without the assistance of grace, immortality is more of a burden than a blessing" (Spe Salvi, n. 10).

St. Ambrose’s words point to the paradox of our attitude regarding living and dying. How are to understand the truth about our desire to live?

We understand that what we truly desire is happiness without end. We know that simply living without enjoying the blessing of happiness is not really living for us, and yet we do not see fully what in our happiness is to consist. We pray for happiness, as St. Augustine of Hippo wrote in a letter on prayer, not knowing clearly what it is but knowing clearly that we are made for it and desire it in our deepest being. The Holy Father concludes: "This unknown ‘thing’ is the true ‘hope’ which drives us, and at the same time the fact that it is unknown is the cause of all forms of despair and also of all efforts, whether positive or destructive, directed towards worldly authenticity and human authenticity" (Spe Salvi, n. 12).

Eternal life itself

The name we give to the unknown "thing" that is the object of our hope is "eternal life." But what is eternal life?

Clearly, by its very nature, it eludes our ability to define precisely and completely. We rightly and properly, however, attempt to describe it. In attempting to describe eternal life, we must begin by understanding that it is not simply the endless continuation of life as we now know it.

While our present life may give us some glimpses of what eternal life is, it necessarily is something far beyond what we experience in the here and now. Pope Benedict XVI observes:

"‘Eternal,’" in fact, suggests to us the idea of something interminable, and this frightens us; ‘life’ makes us think of the life 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" (Spe Salvi, n. 12).

It is the nature of the life hereafter which makes its eternity not something to be dreaded but rather something infinitely and inexhaustibly attractive.

The Holy Father provides us with a most helpful description of eternal life: "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." Pope Benedict XVI writes that eternal life is "like plunging into the ocean of infinite love, a moment in which time — the before and after — no longer exists." In these various attempts to describe eternal life, we understand that it is the fullness of joy and peace.

In His farewell discourse to the Apostles, our Lord described eternal life in these words: "So you have sorrow now, but I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you" (John 16:22).

Referring to article 1025 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Pope Benedict XVI concludes: "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" (Spe Salvi, n. 12).

Conclusion

As we continue our reading of the Holy Father’s second encyclical letter, "On Christian Hope," let us reflect upon the way in which hope of eternal life gives shape to our daily living. In a particular way, let us consider our desire of eternal life and what we understand by eternal life.

In reflecting upon the meaning of eternal life and how it gives hope to our daily living, let us consider especially how it will be the fullness of communion with Christ, which we now enjoy partially. Our Lord assures us that He will see us again and that, when we are with Him finally, our joy will be complete, and no one will be able to steal our joy from us. When we understand eternal life in terms of our personal relationship with our Lord Jesus Christ, then we understand why it is our great desire and what we most desire for those whom we love.

‘Be not afraid!’

Faith and Hope

Chapter 11 of the Letter to the Hebrews defines the virtue of faith in direct relationship to the virtue of hope: "Faith is the substance of things hoped for; the proof of things not seen" (Hebrews 11:1). Commenting on the definition given in the sacred text, St. Thomas Aquinas described faith as "a stable disposition of the spirit, through which eternal life takes root in us and reason is led to consent to what it does not see." In other words, through faith, the eternal life for which we hope is already present to us "in embryo" (Spe Salvi, n. 7). By faith, we carry within us the divine life, and we begin to see already now, in a limited way, the fullness of life in God, which is to come.

The Holy Father, in his encyclical "Spe Salvi (On Christian Hope)" notes the erroneous interpretation of the sacred text by Martin Luther. For Martin Luther, "substance" in the definition does not refer to an objective reality within us but to an "interior attitude," and "proof" becomes a personal "disposition" or "conviction." Luther’s interpretation has had a wide influence, even to our time.

It is reflected, for example, in the Revised Standard Version translation of the definition, which reads: "Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen." One notes how the translation makes the two keys words completely subjective, when the Greek words describe objective realities. As Pope Benedict XVI observes, Luther’s interpretation is not faithful to "the meaning of the text":

"Faith is not merely a personal reaching out towards things to come that are still totally absent: it gives us something. It gives us even now something of the reality we are waiting for, and this present reality constitutes for us ‘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’" (Spe Salvi, n. 7).

Faith transforms the present because it already brings the future to bear really, that is, substantially, in our daily living. Although there is no heaven on earth, through faith we begin to experience partially the reality of the lasting joy and peace which will be ours fully in Heaven.

The substance of faith and material security
The Holy Father next directs our attention to another verse in the Letter to the Hebrews, regarding "hope-filled faith," which confirms the Church’s understanding of the definition of faith as the "substance of things hoped for" (Hebrews 11:1). In the second text, the sacred writer addresses Christians who have suffered persecution: "For you had compassion on the prisoners, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one" (Hebrews 10:34). The material substance of their lives, "life’s normal source of security," was taken away from the persecuted Christians, but they remained serene.

Why? Because they had discovered a "source of security," a foundation for their lives, which endured in the face of material loss and deprivation, a security which no one could take away from them (Spe Salvi, n. 8).

For us as Christians, our faith puts into proper perspective "the reliability of material income." Material goods do not lose their importance for Christians, but we have "a new freedom" in their regard. Faith permits Christians, for instance, to give them up completely by embracing martyrdom, in order to be free of the slavery of some ideology and, thus, to bring a necessary transformation to society and the world. It also permits us as Christians to renounce our material possessions by entering a religious community in which we give up everything for love of Christ and His Church. Regarding those who renounce themselves in this way, Pope Benedict XVI declares:

"In their case, the new ‘substance’ has proved to be a genuine ‘substance’ from the hope of these people who have been touched by Christ, hope has arisen for others who were living in darkness and without hope. In their case, it has been demonstrated that this new life truly possesses and is ‘substance’ that calls forth life for others. For us who contemplate these figures, their way of acting and living is de facto a ‘proof’ that the things to come, the promise of Christ, are not only a reality that we await, but a real presence: He is truly the ‘philosopher’ and the ‘shepherd’ who shows us what life is and where it is to be found" (Spe Salvi, n. 8).

The Holy Father refers to the images of Christ in early Christian burial art, which he had already discussed in the encyclical letter (Spe Salvi, n. 6). The ancient burial images of Christ as the true philosopher and the true shepherd point to the reality of eternal life to which He securely leads us throughout our earthly pilgrimage.

Patience and timidity

Pope Benedict XVI concludes his presentation on the two notions of substance in the Letter to the Hebrews, that is, material substance which is passing and the substance of faith which is enduring by examining two words which describe our possible response to the substance of faith.

The first word is patience: "You need patience to do God’s will and receive what He has promised" (Hebrews 10:36).

Christians practice patience in temptations and trials because they know that God is faithful to His promises. In the words of the Holy Father, patience "indicates a lived hope, a life based on the certainty of hope." In Christ, God "has already communicated to us the ‘substance’ of things to come, and thus the expectation of God acquires a new certainty" (Spe Salvi, n. 9). In other words, Christ dwelling with us in the Church gives to us, already now, a view and foretaste of the fullness of life, which will be ours, with Him, in Heaven. We, therefore, are patient before whatever temptations and trials we may confront on our earthly pilgrimage to eternal life.

The second word is timidity or "shrinking back": "We are not among those who draw back and perish, but among those who have faith and live" (Hebrews 10:39). The Christian who responds to the substance of faith with timidity is afraid "to speak openly and frankly a truth that may be dangerous." In other words, when the truth of the faith requires us to stand strong in the face of worldly influences and pressures, the Christian cannot "shrink back." In fact, as the Letter to the Hebrews teaches us, such timidity leads to the compromise of the truth, that is, to sin which is our destruction. Pope Benedict XVI recalls a passage from the Second Letter to Timothy, in which St. Paul describes the proper habit of being of Christians, which is opposed to timidity or "shrinking back": "God did not give us a spirit of timidity but a spirit of power and love and self-control" (2 Timothy 1:7).

Conclusion

As we continue our reading of the Holy Father’s second encyclical letter, "On Christian Hope," let us reflect upon the substance upon which our hope rests. Let us rest our hope securely upon faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. Let us look more deeply into our faith to discover the truth that already on our earthly journey we experience partially the divine life which we know fully in the life which is to come.

Reflecting upon the material substance which offers us a passing security and the faith which offers us lasting security, let us pray for the virtue of patience. Let us put aside the timidity which leads us to compromise the truth and practice the patience which leads us into all truth.

'Be not afraid!"

Hope in the lives of the first Christians

In his recently published encyclical, "Spe Salvi (On Christian Hope)," Pope Benedict XVI continues to ask whether faith can transform our lives, that is, can give us the knowledge that we are saved in hope, by examining the experience of the first Christians. Like St. Josephine Bakhita, many of the first Christians experienced cruel treatment and even slavery, but their Christian faith did not lead them to acts of social or political revolution. By way of contrast with response of the early Christians, the Holy Father recalls the story of the pagan Spartacus, whose revolutionary activities resulted in "so much bloodshed." He recalls, too, Barabbas, in prison at the time of the Passion and Death of Jesus, who led a political uprising (cf. Spe Salvi, n. 4).

The early Christians responded in a completely different way to ill treatment and enslavement. They responded in the way of their Lord and Master, Jesus Christ. In the face of suffering and death, they sought to transform society by transforming their own souls. Their "totally different" response had its source in their daily encounter with Christ, "an encounter with a hope stronger than the sufferings of slavery, a hope which therefore transformed life and the world from within" (Spe Salvi, n. 4).

Spiritual, not political, revolution

St. Paul’s Letter to Philemon illustrates the spiritually revolutionary response of Christians before the reality of slavery. By the letter in question, St. Paul, who was himself in prison, sent back Onesimus, a "runaway slave," to his master Philemon. What is revolutionary about St. Paul’s action? He did not demand that Philemon free Onesimus but rather that he receive him back "no longer as a slave but more than a slave, as a beloved brother" (Philemon 16). Pope Benedict XVI describes the revolutionary situation worked by Christ alive in His Church, in the members of His Mystical Body: "Those who, as far as their civil status is concerned, stand in relation to one another as masters and slaves, inasmuch as they are members of the one Church have becomes brothers and sisters — this is how Christians addressed one another" (Spe Salvi, n. 4). No matter what was happening with the external structure of slavery, Christ was transforming the hearts of masters and slaves and, thereby, transforming their relationship with each other and, thereby, transforming society "from within."

The spiritual revolution worked by Christ in His Church makes it clear that, even though the "trustworthy hope" of Christians resides in the future, that is, in the eternal life of Heaven, Baptism makes them members of "a new society which is the goal of their common pilgrimage and which is anticipated in the course of that pilgrimage" (Spe Salvi, n. 4). In other words, Christians understand that, while they have no "permanent homeland" on earth, the days of their earthly pilgrimage are to anticipate the days without end in Heaven. The "new society," the Body of Christ, exists already now and will reach the fullness of its life, when our Lord and Master returns in glory at the end of time.

The reality of the "new society" must be visible in the present, if it is to reach its future destiny.

Hope for all early Christians

Pope Benedict next reminds us that the early Christians came from all of the "social strata" of society. Certainly, as St. Paul makes clear, "many of the early Christians belonged to the lower social strata, and precisely for this reason were open to the experience of new hope, as we saw in the example of (St. Josephine) Bakhita" (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:26-31). It, however, must be remembered that "from the beginning there were also conversions in the aristocratic and cultured circles," for, they like those of the lower social strata, also experienced the distance or absence of God in their pagan religion. According to the pagan religion, God was only known in "cosmic forces" to which one cannot, through prayer, draw near and relate in a personal manner. St. Paul makes it clear that we, in Christ, are no longer simply creatures under the totally indifferent and impersonal dominion of "the elemental spirits of the world" (Colossians 2:8).

The Holy Father recalls the teaching of St. Gregory Nazianzen regarding the Magi’s following of the Christmas Star. St. Gregory sees in the Star guiding the Magi the submission of the "elemental forces" to Christ, so that they, too, serve Him and lead us to knowledge and love of Him, to a personal relationship with Him.

Pope Benedict XVI comments: "This scene, in fact, overturns the world view of that time, which in a different way has become fashionable once again today." What does the Holy Father mean? Today, many have begun to believe that it is the "laws of matter and of evolution" which ultimately govern us and our world. But it is God who has created all things and who orders all things according to His eternal truth and love, and who, therefore, has, in the words of our Holy Father, "the final say." God has created us in His own image and likeness, with intelligence and free will. We are not the slaves of the "laws of matter and of evolution"; we are free. "Life is not a simple product of laws and the randomness of matter, but within everything and at the same thing above everything, there is a personal will, there is a Spirit who in Jesus has revealed Himself as Love" (Spe Salvi, n. 5).

Christ the Philosopher and the Shepherd

In the decoration of their places of burial, the early Christians expressed their faith and hope. Death, as is clear, raises the ultimate question about the meaning of life. The early Christians responded to the question by depicting Christ in two ways, as the Philosopher and as the Shepherd.

As Pope Benedict XVI comments, we tend to view philosophy as one of the more challenging academic disciplines. At the time of early Christianity, however, philosophy was seen as a fundamental teaching on "the art of being authentically human — the art of living and dying." The people sought out the philosopher who could teach them the true way of living, for there were also false philosophers, "charlatans who made money through their words, while having nothing to say about real life" (Spe Salvi, n. 6).

Christ is depicted as the true Philosopher in early Christian burial art. He is "holding the Gospel in one hand and the philosopher’s staff in the other." The message is clear: Christ conquers death with his philosopher’s staff in his one hand because he holds the Gospel in his other hand. "The Gospel brings the truth that itinerant philosophers had searched for in vain." Pope Benedict XVI comments that, in the image of Christ as the true philosopher, "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." In our Lord’s own words, He is the Way, the Truth and the Life (John 14:6). Christ "shows us the way beyond death; only someone able to do this is a true teacher of life" (Spe Salvi, n. 6).

Christ is also depicted as the Shepherd on the funerary art of the early Christians. In Roman art, the image of the shepherd expressed "the dream of a tranquil and simple life, for which the people, amid the confusion of the big cities, felt a certain longing." For the Christians, the image of the shepherd evoked Psalm 23 (22), in which the Lord is praised as the shepherd "who even knows the path that passes through the valley of death."

Christ, indeed, has walked that path before us, and He accompanies each of us on the way to the passage from this life to the life which is to come, and on the way of the passage itself. He has conquered death by His Dying, and He gives us the "trustworthy hope" that we, with Him, can find the way through death to eternal life.

"The realization that there is One Who even in death accompanies me, and with his ‘rod and staff comforts me’, so that "I fear no evil’ (cf. Psalm 23[22]:4) — this was the new ‘hope’ that arose over the life of believers" (Spe Salvi, n. 6).

Conclusion

As we continue our reading of the Holy Father’s second encyclical letter, "On Christian Hope," let us renew our fraternity with all our brothers and sisters in the "new society" of the Church. Let us ask ourselves whether we live the life of the "new society" in the present, hoping for the fulfillment of that life in Heaven and, therefore, giving hope to all of our brothers and sisters.

Let us also reflect upon our relationship with the world and look more deeply into that relationship, in order that we may recognize Jesus Christ, King of Heaven and Earth, Who rules all things with the Love which pours forth from His glorious pierced Heart. Let us turn to Christ, the true Philosopher Who teaches us how to live each day and how to die. Let us turn to Christ, the Shepherd Who accompanies throughout the days of our earthly pilgrimage, healing and refreshing us, and Who, at the end of our earthly pilgrimage, leads us through the "valley of the shadow of death" to "dwell in the house of the Lord forever" (Psalm 23:4, 6).

‘Be not afraid!’

Pope Benedict XVI’s second encyclical letter

On Nov. 30, 2007, the Feast of St. Andrew the Apostle, Pope Benedict XVI signed his second encyclical letter, that is, his second pastoral letter to all the faithful of the world. The title of the encyclical letter, according to the Church’s long practice, is its opening words, "Spe Salvi (Saved in Hope)," taken from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans (8:24). Its subject matter is Christian hope, the second of the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity. The Holy Father’s first encyclical letter, "Deus Caritas Est (God is Love)," addressed the theological virtue of charity and was signed on Christmas Day 2005.

In the verse of the Letter to the Romans, with which the encyclical letter begins, St. Paul is addressing the reality of our life in Christ. We have been saved in Christ. We have received the grace of eternal life, the sevenfold gift of the Holy Spirit, through the Sacrament of Baptism. But salvation is brought to flower in us through the day-to-day conversion to Christ, overcoming sin and doing the Father’s will in all things. Using the image of the mother who must undergo the pains of labor in order to bring the child in her womb to the light of day, St. Paul declares: "We know that the whole creation has been groaning with labor pains together until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies" (Romans 8:22-23). Our life in Christ, which must endure many temptations and trials, because we remain on earth, is, therefore, lived in the sure hope of the fulfillment of the grace of salvation at work in us from the moment of our baptism. St. Paul declares:
"For in this hope, we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience" (Romans 8:24-25).

Hope teaches us to bear patiently the suffering of daily conversion to Christ in the sure hope that eternal salvation will be ours.

Salvation not a given but a secure goal
Pope Benedict XVI begins his encyclical letter "On Christian Hope" by observing that salvation "is not simply a given." Our life, rather, is directed to a secure goal, eternal life, which we do not yet see. In other words, the gift of Christ’s life dwelling within us sets us on the way to eternal life, giving us already a share in eternal life on earth; but the pilgrimage of life must be traveled with fidelity in order to reach the goal, the fullness of eternal life.

Christ, dwelling within us through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, gives us "trustworthy hope, by virtue of which we can face our present: the present, even if it is arduous, can be lived and accepted if it leads toward a goal, if we can be sure of this goal and if this goal is great enough to justify the effort of the journey" (Spe Salvi, n. 1). Christ abides with us in the Church, accompanying us along the pilgrimage of our life on earth in patient waiting for our passover from this life to the life which is to come and for His Final Coming at the end of time, when He will restore us, body and soul, and all creation to the perfection with which and for which God created the world and has called us into being as His beloved sons and daughters.

Having described our life in Christ as lived in hope, Pope Benedict XVI immediately asks the question: "(W)hat sort of hope could ever justify the statement that, on the basis of that hope and simply because it exists, we are redeemed?" (n. 1). In other words, how is it possible to say with certainty that we are saved in hope?

Faith and hope

In order to answer the question about the hope in which we are saved, the Holy Father leads us to reflect on what the inspired Word of God, the Holy Scriptures, tell us about hope. He observes that hope is "a key word in biblical faith" to the degree that the virtues of faith and of hope seem almost interchangeable. Making reference to both the Letter to the Hebrews (10:22) and the First Letter of Peter (3:15), the Holy Father shows how it is our faith that is the reason of our hope. Our faith makes sense of our hope.

Prior to the coming of Christ and His foundation of the Church, God’s people lacked hope. In writing to the first Christians at Ephesus, St. Paul reminded them that "before their encounter with Christ they were ‘without hope and without God in the world’ (Ephesians 2:12)" (Spe Salvi, n. 2). Before their conversion to Christ, the Ephesians believed in their pagan gods and practiced a certain religion; but their gods lacked divine substance, and their religion was marked by debilitating contradictions. As a result, they were left in a world of darkness. They were without hope.

With the coming of Christ, man is given a secure future and, even though he does not yet see it, he is confident in it because of Christ’s Death and Resurrection. Pope Benedict XVI describes the Gospel as not only "informative," that is, containing the Good News of our eternal salvation, but also "performative," that is, transforming our lives in their very substance, offering us a very share in Christ’s life which is without end.

"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" (Spe Salvi, n. 2).

We hope because God is with us

Pope Benedict XVI next asks what is the substance of our hope which is redeeming, which gives us a new life, and he returns to the text of St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians for the answer. St. Paul reminds the Ephesians that they were living without hope because they were "without God in the world" (Ephesians 2:12).

The substance of our hope is the real encounter with and communion with God in Jesus Christ, which is ours in the Church. As the Holy Father remarks, we who have grown up with the Christian faith "have almost ceased to notice that we possess the hope that ensues from a real encounter with this God" (Spe Salvi, n. 3).

To illustrate his point about the substance of our hope, Pope Benedict XVI recalls the life of St. Josephine Bakhita (c.1869-1947) of the Sudan in Africa, whom Pope John Paul II canonized on Oct. 1, 2000. Sold into slavery at age 9, St. Josephine endured a most cruel life, suffering frequent and even daily beatings. Her life was without hope, without future. Eventually, she was sold to an Italian master and brought to Italy. In her new homeland, she learned about our Lord and God, the Master (Paron, in the Venetian dialect she was learning) of all masters, Who is all good, "goodness in person." She learned that our Lord had created her, that He loved her and, for love of her, submitted Himself to a cruel passion and death, and that He was waiting for her at His place in glory with the Father.

St. Josephine Bakhita’s life now had a future; she was filled with hope. She wrote: "I am definitively loved and whatever happens to me — I am awaited by this Love. And so my life is good." Regarding the transformation of the life of St. Josephine, Pope Benedict XVI states: "Through the knowledge of this hope she was ‘redeemed’, no longer a slave, but a free child of God" (Spe Salvi, n. 3).

Eventually, on Jan. 8, 1890, St. Josephine Bakhita was baptized, confirmed and received her First Holy Communion from the cardinal patriarch of Venice. On the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception in 1896, she was professed as a member of the Daughters of Charity of Canossa (popularly known as the Canossian Sisters), to whom her Italian master had confided her education. In addition to the duties which she fulfilled in the convent, "she made several journeys around Italy in order to promote the missions: the liberation she had received through her encounter with the God of Jesus Christ, she felt she had to extend, it had to be handed on to others, to the greatest possible number of people" (Spe Salvi, n. 3). The life of St. Josephine Bakhita reminds us that the theological virtue of hope impels us, urges us, to extend hope to all our brothers and sisters, especially those who, for whatever reason, may be without hope.

Conclusion

As we begin our reading of the Holy Father’s second encyclical letter, "On Christian Hope," let us reflect on the difference which faith in our Lord Jesus Christ makes in our lives. Our faith which is not only "informative" but also "performative" or transformative gives us a future, fills us with hope. Our lives are progressing toward a secure goal, eternal life with Christ in the Kingdom of Heaven.

Let us also reflect upon the example of St. Josephine Bakhita. Let us pray, through her intercession, that we may come to an ever newer appreciation of the gift of hope and an ever greater energy in giving the gift of hope to others, especially to those, in our time, who are without hope.

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