The Introduction to “Your Guide to Spe Salvi: Saved in Hope”

I suppose it’s unavoidable. When someone mentions hope, I do not think first of the virtue. I think of my daughter. Her name is Hope. I’ll tell you why.

At the time she was born, my wife and I had gone through a series of personal and professional failures and frustrations. We were feeling battered by life. Even our attempts to move beyond the frustrations into other, more promising directions were met with failure. And so when our daughter was born in the midst of this dour time, we didn’t have to think very hard about what to name her. We could use a little hope around the house, we told one another.

Hope is six years old now (that’s her on the left, with her sisters, Abigail, Cecilia, and Gianna), and wonderful. And while no one’s life is ever free of struggle, many things are much better than they were when she was born. We are in a different season of our lives and thankful for it.

What makes the difference?

But what if things had not improved? What if the downward trend had continued? What if the circumstances of our lives had grown still more painful, frustrating, and sad? Frustrated as we were, it’s easy to think of worse things that could have befallen us. Suppose, God forbid, they had.

I’d like to think my marriage would make it through even the most desperate situation. I believe it would. But then, I’ve never been that far down such a dark road, and other people, good people, have thrown away a lot more – even life itself – along that road.

What makes the difference in such circumstances? What is it that carries some folks through the darkness, even the most long and dismal darkness, on to the other side, all the while discerning meaning to life, meaning despite the pain, even meaning in the pain? What provides some people with the unshakable conviction that there is always something more, something better, something worth waiting for and struggling for – and more, the awareness of something and Someone awaiting them – which ultimately provides a sublime joy in the midst of it all? These are some of the questions to which Pope Benedict XVI provides answers in his encyclical letter Spe Salvi, on the virtue of Christian hope.

In presenting hope as the answer to these questions, the Pope is not using the word as it is most commonly used, like when a teen looks out her bedroom window on a snowy night and says, “I hope school is cancelled tomorrow.” That is natural hope.

That kind of hope is not capable of offering what the Pope describes in the brief introductory paragraph of his encyclical: “we have been given hope, 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 towards a goal, if we can be sure of this goal, and if this goal is great enough to justify the effort of the journey” (no. 1).

This is a supernatural hope. It’s the hope of the Psalmist who prayed, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…. Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me” (Psalm 23: 1, 4).

Benedict by the Numbers

Now some numbers.

Seven. That’s the number of philosophers from outside the Catholic tradition whose thinking Pope Benedict weaves into the text of Spe Salvi, the second encyclical of his pontificate. Few other encyclicals of Church history, if any, explicitly refer to the work of so many non-Catholic thinkers. The Pope is not afraid to draw upon and even point to what is good outside his own tradition.

Zero. That’s the number of times Pope Benedict’s encyclical cites the documents of the Second Vatican Council or the voluminous magisterium of his predecessor, Pope John Paul II. Every other encyclical published since the Council ended has has cited its teaching, usually many times. To take this as some kind of “conservative” rejection of the Council or the previous Pope, as some have tried to do, is disingenuous. Others have suggested its an expression of Benedict’s conviction that Vatican II is just one aspect of a long and rich history of Church teaching.  At the very least it suggests that the Pope has confidence in his own teaching of fundamental Christian doctrine and does not feel bound to presenting it in the way some expect.

Four. That’s the number of languages, other than English, that readers will encounter as they work through Spe Salvi. While the Pope addresses not only bishops and theologians with this letter, but all the lay faithful, there is not a hint of talking down to anyone. Instead, he seems to assume that we will be willing to carefully think their way through some pretty challenging explanations and illustrations.

That is what we propose to do.  And as we do, we’ll have the company of saints who have been revered for centuries – Paul, Mary, Bernard of Clairvaux, Thomas Aquinas, and Francis of Assisi are all here. But Benedict also introduces us to some who are new to the Church’s life and liturgy – Josephine Bakhita and Paul Le-Bao-Tinh, both canonized by John Paul II, deserve to be much more widely known than they are.

Did I mention Augustine?  He is here, too, most emphatically. St. Augustine of Hippo, the great Doctor of the Church from 4th century north Africa, whom the Pope has taken as a spiritual-intellectual godfather since he was a young priest, shows up nine times in this encyclical. Though he is presenting the ancient faith as it has been passed on through the centuries, Benedict has not hesitated to make this letter a very personal expression of the truths it contains.

To sum up, reading Spe Salvi will fascinate, challenge, and reward anyone willing to make the effort to read and think through it. This companion will allow readers to get more out of the letter – not dumbing it down in any way, but fleshing out its topics, providing a bit more background information, and offering a few helpful illustrations. Benedict will be our teacher, and he offers us the kind of teaching that, when it really sinks in, can change a life.

You can count on it.

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One Response to “The Introduction to “Your Guide to Spe Salvi: Saved in Hope””

  1. Nancy C. Brown Says:

    What a beautiful reflection, thank you.

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