11/30/2007, 00.00
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Pope: certainty of faith is the foundation of Christian hope

by Franco Pisano
In his second encyclical Benedict XVI affirms that the current “faith” in scientific progress and contesting of God’s existence based on the injustices of this world, are incapable of giving a true answer to man’s questions on the future. Hope is learned and exercised in “places” of prayer, action, sufferance and waiting for God’s Judgement.

Vatican City (AsiaNews) – “The heaven’s are not empty” and “life does not end in nothingness”: faith in God’s existence is the origin of Christian hope, it gives meaning to our existence – the existence of each person and everyone together – and it allows us to look beyond fear towards the last Judgement. A judgement which may bring damnation or salvation, but which also sets out a time of “waiting”, Purgatory.  Hope gives meaning to the history of mankind, not today’s “faith” in scientific progress.  Hope gives meaning to our waiting for justice, which cannot be found in man alone, as the “great revolutions” have shown by bringing nothing but death and destruction.

It is entitled “Spe Salvi” (Saved in Hope) the second encyclical by Benedict XVI, signed and published today.  In the English version, 75 pages focus on the virtue of hope, following on from charity, to which his first encyclical was dedicated.  A theological “Opera” dense with references to the scriptures and theologians, but also to intellectuals such as Adorno, Marx and Dostoevsky.

“’Redemption’, salvation is not simply a given – writes the Pope in the introduction – Redemption is offered to us in the sense that we have been given hope, trustworthy hope, by virtue of which we can face our present: the present, even if arduous can be lives and accepted if it leads towards a goal, and if this goal is great enough to justify the effort of the journey” (n. 1). Christ, in fact, “was not engaged in a fight for political liberation like Barabbas or Bar-Kochba. Jesus who himself, died on the Cross, brought something totally different: an encounter with the living God and thus an encounter with hope stronger than the sufferings of slavery, a hope which therefore transformed life and the world from within”.

Today however, it is believed that mankind’s “redemption” comes from progress, and from “faith in progress”: “the current crisis in faith is above all a crisis of Christian hope”.  And “two categories become increasingly central to the idea of progress: reason and freedom.  Progress is primarily associated with the growing nomination of reason and this reason is obviously considered to be a force of good and a forced for good.  Progress is the overcoming of all forms of dependency – it is progress towards perfect freedom.  Likewise freedom is seen purely as a promise, in which man becomes more and more fully himself.  In both concepts – freedom and reason – there is a political aspect.  The kingdom of reason, in fact, is expected as the new condition of freedom” (n. 18).

But in reality, the concretisation of these two ideals, in particular the French revolution and the Marxist revolution have shown the limitations of this form of hope.  Marxism in particular, left “a desolate destruction”.  Marx “forgot that man always remains man. He forgot man and he forgot man’s freedom.  He forgot that freedom also remains freedom for evil.  He thought that once 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 favourable economic environment”. (n. 21). Because, “if technical progress is not matched by a corresponding progress with man’s ethical formation in man’s inner growth (cfr Eph 3,16; 2 Cor 4,16), then it is not progress at all, but a threat for man and for the world” (n. 22). The truth is that “it is not science that redeems man”, it can “destroy man and the world”, “man is redeemed by love” (n. 26).

The fact is that “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”. “When these hopes are fulfilled however, in becomes clear that they were not, in reality, the whole.  It becomes evident that man has a need of a hope that goes further.  It becomes clear that only the infinite will suffice for him, something that will always be more than he can ever attain”. (n. 30).

The answer lies in the “the great hope that encompasses the whole of reality and which can bestow on 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. (n. 31).

There are, writes the Pope, “settings” or “places” for learning and practising hope.  Apart from prayer, there is action, suffering and waiting for the Judgement of God.  Regarding suffering: “certainly we must do whatever we can 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 the obligations both in justice and in love and they are included among the fundamental requirements of Christian life and every truly human life”. (n. 36). We cannot however eliminate it.  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.   It is not by sidestepping or fleeing from suffering that we are healed, but rather by our capacity for accepting it, maturing through it and finding meaning through union with Christ, who suffered with infinite love”. (n. 37). This is why, “the true measure of humanity is essentially determined in relationship to suffering and to the sufferer.  This holds true both for the individual and for society.  A society unable to accept its suffering members and incapable of helping to share their suffering and to bear it inwardly through “com-passion” is a cruel and inhuman society” (n. 38).

In the end there is Judgement.  Faith in Christ always looked towards “the hour of justice that the Lord has repeatedly proclaimed” and which “from earliest tines has influenced Christians in their daily living as a criterion by which to order their present life” (n. 41). “In the modern era, the idea of the Last Judgement has faded into the background: Christian faith has been individualised and primarily orientated towards the salvation of the believer’s own soul while reflection on world history us largely dominated by the idea of progress”. (n. 42). And the fundamental content of awaiting the final judgement has also been changed, tank to the atheism of the XIX and XX centuries which is “in its origins and in its aims – a type of moralism: a protest against the injustices of the world and of world history”.   A world marked by so much injustice, innocent suffering and cynicism of power, “cannot be the work of a just God. A God with responsibility for such a world would not be a just God much less a God.  It is for the sake of morality that this God has to be contested”. But, “if in the face if this world’s suffering, protest against God is understandable, the claim that humanity can and must do what no God actually does or is able to do is both presumptuous and intrinsically false. It is no accident that this idea has led to the greatest forms of cruelty and violations of justice; rather it is grounded in the intrinsic falsity of the claim.  A world which has to create its own justice is a world without hope.  No one and nothing can answer for centuries of suffering.  No one and nothing can guarantee that the cynicism of power – whatever beguiling ideological mask it adopts – will cease to dominate the world” (n. 42).

“To protest against God in the name of justice is not helpful.  A world without God is a world without hope. (cfr Eph 2,12). Only God can create justice.  And faith gives us the certainty that he does so.  The image of the last judgement is not primarily an image of terror; for us it may be even the decisive image of hope”. “God is justice and creates justice.  This is our consolation and our hope.  And in his justice there is also grace”. (n. 44). This grace however “is not a sponge which wipes everything away, so that whatever someone has done on earth ends up being equal in value”. (n. 44).The answer lies in the Gospel parable of the rich man, in which however “Jesus does not refer to the final destiny after the last Judgement”, but “to an intermediate state between death and resurrection, a state which the final sentence is yet to be pronounced” (n. 44). In it souls “are already being punished or are experiencing a provisional form of bliss.  There is also the idea that this state can involve purification and healing which mature the soul for communion with God.  The early Church took up these concepts, and in the Western Church they gradually developed into the Doctrine of Purgatory”.

In this way “the inter-relation between justice and grace also becomes clear: the way we live our lives is not immaterial, but our defilement does not stain us for ever if we have at least continued to reach out towards Christ, towards truth and towards love“.( n. 47).  It is in the name of love, in the end, that “the souls of the departed can receive ‘solace and refreshment’ through the Eucharist, prayer and Almsgiving.  The belief that love can reach into the afterlife, that reciprocal giving and receiving is possible, in which our affection for one another continues beyo9nd the limits of death – this has been the fundamental conviction of Christianity throughout the ages and remains a source of comfort today”. (n. 48).

The encyclical ends with a prayer “Mary star of hope”: “with your “yes”; the hope of the ages became reality, entering this world and its history”.


 For the full text of the encyclical, click here: http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/encyclicals/documents/hf_ben-xvi_enc_20071130_spe-salvi_en.html

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