Our hope is ultimately only in Our Lord, Jesus Christ, the second Person of the Holy Trinity, the One through whom all things were made. Those who serve him faithfully come to embody this hope, and share it with the world, which is why it is good to see efforts like Trail Life USA start to bear fruit. Many other small—and not so small—efforts have been blessed and are bearing fruit precisely to the extent that they remain faithful and speak the truth boldly and in love.
That is why, even considering the huge advances of the Culture of Death inside and outside the Church, I do not despair. I can’t. Neither can you. It isn’t up to us, as it involves an intentional abandonment of the virtue of hope, and even of faith. It is the sin of Judas, who, struck with the gravity of his betrayal of Christ, could not avail himself of God’s mercy and ended up taking his own life. New Advent’s Catholic Encyclopedia has an excellent and brief entry on despair, including a striking reminder of some of its potential consequences should one fall into its embrace:
The sin of despair may sometimes, although not necessarily, contain the added malice of heresy in so far as it implies an assent to a proposition which is against faith, e.g. that God has no mind to supply us with what is needful for salvation.
Despair is different than downheartedness or sadness, both of which are very human emotions and legitimate responses to a host of personal or social problems. There is something wrong with the person who is not sad at hearing of the suffering or death of a loved one; or of hearing yet another Catholic politician embrace evil and lead others into scandal. Anger is another legitimate response to such problems.
But just as we cannot let legitimate anger harden into hatred, we cannot let sadness harden into despair.
I don’t think I will ever tire of pointing people to Pope Benedict’s great encyclical, Spe Salvi. Again and again I return to it to meditate on some of the most beautiful and profound Magisterial writing on hope that the Church has ever produced.
Pope Benedict built his letter to all of us on the fact that true hope is inseparable from—indeed, is the same as—faith:
“Hope”, in fact, is a key word in Biblical faith—so much so that in several passages the words “faith” and “hope” seem interchangeable. Thus the Letter to the Hebrews closely links the “fullness of faith” (10:22) to “the confession of our hope without wavering” (10:23). Likewise, when the First Letter of Peter exhorts Christians to be always ready to give an answer concerning the logos—the meaning and the reason—of their hope (cf. 3:15), “hope” is equivalent to “faith”.
As the Holy Father recalled, the reason that such saints as Augustine and Josephine Bakhita radiated a joyful hope wasn’t because they did not understand evil. From their own experiences, they knew the evil of humanity too well. We look at the redemptive arc of their lives with gratitude and consolation in our hard times, but we can’t forget that at many points as they were living their own lives, they did not see earthly reasons for hope. They responded with fidelity and gave themselves in radical love to Our Lord, and saw more clearly than most of us the fruits of His gift of salvation to us.
I’ve said in this column many times that I when I travel the most common question I hear—from laity, seminarians, and priests alike—is How do we endure when society is collapsing before our eyes, and when it seems at times that the Church is standing by indifferently? I understand the doubts, and share the disappointments. I get this.
The answer is always in our faith in Christ Jesus, who died and rose for our sins, and who offers salvation to all who love and follow Him. Remember that we are also the Church! Even if we see her problems, we cannot let the problems define her, or us.
Where is your faith? That is where your hope is! We don’t have to deny the reality of the problems to acknowledge the reality that Our Lord is bigger than any of them. He doesn’t withhold his mercy because we’ve sinned, he makes it available to all who would receive it—that is all who turn to Him with a contrite heart, seek forgiveness, and resolve to amend their lives. Thank God for the gifts of the Sacraments of Confession and the Holy Eucharist. He gives us all we need at any time—His love is overflowing. To despair is to lose faith and hope in the love and mercy of God our Father.
We have an active role to play in this. We don’t just say “yes” to God’s love and mercy and stay stuck in our ways. We let His love transform our lives. Our receiving of His gifts of faith, hope, and love takes the form of our efforts, strengthened by Christ in His Word and the Eucharist, to share this hope with the world. It is an act that we participate in with God Himself, with the Church militant and triumphant. As Pope Benedict says, real hope has a “performative” character:
In our language we would say: the Christian message was not only “informative” but “performative”. That means: the Gospel is not merely a communication of things that can be known—it is one that makes things happen and is life-changing. 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.
Amen! If you look around and cannot muster this kind of hope, don’t despair. Make room in your life today to return to the sacraments, to deepen your prayer life. Ask God for the virtues of faith, hope, and love. These are virtues that inform action, not emotions that passive was over us. Get your prayer life in order today and get to work. Ask for the gifts you don’t already have, and receive these gifts by letting them transform your life to one of joyful action and witness to the Love that moves heaven and earth.
This is what hope looks like. Give everyone who sees you the gift of seeing a life lived in true hope, the gift of God, in trust of his complete goodness. Rejoice when you see faithful Christians giving witness to this hope as well, for Our Lord is alive in all who love and follow Him.