Those of us who admire Pope John Paul II like to emphasize the magnificent “witness to hope” he has given as the Supreme Pontiff. Indeed, Witness to Hope is the title of the definitive biography of the pope authored by George Weigel.
How does one live the supernatural virtue of hope today? We would respond, “Look at the Holy Father.”
Some critics of the pope, especially those of a more traditionalist bent, don't want to accept this premise. They can't credibly say that the Holy Father manifests an absence or even a deficiency of hope, so instead they have to say that the pope's hope is a counterfeit a naive optimism that presumes too heavily on man's ability to choose the good and which ignores the reality of the Church's condition.
In my opinion, the Holy Father heroically lives the virtue of hope by being “relentlessly constructive,” which is the mean between the extremes of being relentlessly optimistic (the critics' straw man) and relentlessly critical. A survivor of Nazism and Communism, the pope does not discount the range of challenges that confronts modern man. After all, he's the one who coined phrases such as “crisis of faith” and “culture of death” to describe contemporary realities.
At the same time, Pope John Paul II exudes a “joy in action” that gives no quarter to useless bitterness and pessimism. He profoundly understands that allowing ourselves to be overcome by problems we see in the Church and world can undermine our spiritual lives. Further, when we communicate such bitterness and pessimism to others, we also run the risk of committing the serious sin of scandal by driving people away from the Church (see Catechism, no. 2284). But even if we don't scandalize those around us, we can't honestly think we're going to attract people to the faith if we're consumed by negativity.
So how do we live this middle way, this relentlessly constructive approach that is neither naive nor excessively critical?
First, in addressing issues in the Church, we can and must oppose sin, but we do not oppose persons. That's easier said than done, both in practice and in perception. The pope's personalist philosophy celebrates the human person and allows him to see the immense, God-given good in others, notwithstanding their sins and failures. That's Christian realism, not naiveté. On this side of the divide, there's always the possibility of conversion for which I, for one, am eternally grateful.
Second, we must be resourceful for the kingdom. As our Lord notes in the parable of the dishonest steward, “the children of this world are more prudent in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light” (Lk 16:8). Rather than bemoan the state of the Church, we can always be more proactive and solution-oriented in our response to difficulties around us. There are many scriptural encouragments on this point, such as the call to drown evil with good (Rom 12:21) and to never grow tired of doing the right thing (2 Thes 3:13). We obviously don't have it in our power to right all the wrongs in the Church and in the world, but doing what we can with God's grace does make a difference both with respect to the situation and, even more, with respect to our own spiritual well-being.
Third, our hope must be supernatural. If our goal is to find or create a perfect family, a perfect parish, a perfect diocese, or a perfect Church, we're going to be disappointed at least as long as they let sinners like me in! We may not want to admit it, but we tend to put our hope in our own ability to “fix” things and to achieve results in this life. Sure, we talk a good game. We say we've prayed about a situation and have entrusted the matter to the Lord. But do we really trust Him?
And while natural hope runs its course, supernatural hope finds meaning even in suffering, disappointments, and setbacks, because our hope is redemptive and necessarily includes the cross.
Lastly, a supernatural, resourceful hope is serene. I think this is what enables the Holy Father to remain self-possessed amidst his incredible responsibilities. This can only be the fruit of a deep prayer life. The prayer of my organization, Catholics United for the Faith, contains this petition: “Give us the grace to know what services, small or great, You ask of us, and let the Holy Spirit teach us to perform them in obedience, patience, and charity, leaving entirely to You what fruits they may bear.”
In other words, we try to do the right thing with the right motive, but then we peacefully entrust the matter to our merciful Lord. This is what Bl. Teresa of Calcutta was getting at when she reminded her listeners that the Lord calls us to be faithful, not successful. Living this call day in and day out with a spirit of zeal and joy is the challenge set before each one of us. To the extent we respond to this invitation, we too are witnesses to hope.
Leon J. Suprenant, Jr. is the president of Catholics United for the Faith (CUF) and Emmaus Road Publishing and the editor-in-chief of Lay Witness magazine, all based in Steubenville, Ohio. He is a contributor to Catholic for a Reason III: Scripture and the Mystery of the Mass and an adviser to CE’s Catholic Scripture Study. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org .
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