“Spe Salvi—by hope we were saved,” with these words Pope Benedict XVI begins his second encyclical, which was released today. He asserts in the second half of his teaching that what is needed today, in a world often considered hopeless, is a self-critique of modern society, along with the rediscovery and living of Christian hope.
Beginning in number 22 of “Spe Salvi”, Pope Benedict challenges both modernity and Christianity to a self-critique. Modernity must enter into a “dialogue with Christianity and its concept of hope. In this dialogue Christians too, in the context of their knowledge and experience, must learn anew in what their hope truly consists, what they have to offer to the world and what they cannot offer. Flowing into this self-critique of the modern age there also has to be a self-critique of modern Christianity, which must constantly renew its self-understanding setting out from its roots,” the Pope writes.
The first step that he takes in this analysis is to say that “we must ask ourselves: what does “progress” really mean; what does it promise and what does it not promise?”
Once this is done, the Holy Father explains, “the ambiguity of progress becomes evident.” “Without doubt, it offers new possibilities for good, but it also opens up appalling possibilities for evil—possibilities that formerly did not exist.”
“Yes indeed, reason is God's great gift to man,” the Pope stresses, “and the victory of reason over unreason is also a goal of the Christian life.”
Benedict XVI’s conclusion is that “very simply: man needs God, otherwise he remains without hope.”
In this part of the encyclical, the Holy Father analyzes the ways that the condition of mankind affects society and what saves man from this state.
He begins by saying, “[t]he right state of human affairs, the moral well-being of the world can never be guaranteed simply through structures alone, however good they are.”
The pontiff’s second point is that there will never be a perfect government. “Since man always remains free and since his freedom is always fragile, the kingdom of good will never be definitively established in this world. Anyone who promises the better world that is guaranteed to last for ever is making a false promise; he is overlooking human freedom,” insists the Pope.
He summarizes his point by saying, “In other words: good structures help, but of themselves they are not enough. Man can never be redeemed simply from outside.”
The Christian Response
After showing that government cannot save man, Pope Benedict engages the other modern belief in salvation by science. “Science can contribute greatly to making the world and mankind more human. Yet it can also destroy mankind and the world unless it is steered by forces that lie outside it,” insists Benedict.
However, modern Christianity has not adequately responded to this need. The Holy Father writes that “we must also acknowledge that modern Christianity, faced with the successes of science in progressively structuring the world, has to a large extent restricted its attention to the individual and his salvation. In so doing it has limited the horizon of its hope and has failed to recognize sufficiently the greatness of its task—even if it has continued to achieve great things in the formation of man and in care for the weak and the suffering.”
Above all, “It is not science that redeems man: man is redeemed by love,” he insists. “In this sense, it is true that anyone who does not know God, even though he may entertain all kinds of hopes, is ultimately without hope,” the Pope reasons.
Continuing his analysis, he raises the question: “are we not in this way falling back once again into an individualistic understanding of salvation, into hope for myself alone, which is not true hope since it forgets and overlooks others? Benedict XVI answers, “Indeed we are not!”
Contrary to being individualistic, “[b]eing in communion with Jesus Christ draws us into his “being for all”; it makes it our own way of being. He commits us to live for others, but only through communion with him does it become possible truly to be there for others, for the whole,” the Holy Father explains.
In man’s day to day experience, he lives through “many greater or lesser hopes, different in kind according to the different periods of his life. Young people can have the hope of a great and fully satisfying love; the hope of a certain position in their profession, or of some success that will prove decisive for the rest of their lives,” relates the Pope.
Drawing on these experiences, “Spe Salvi” looks at their normal results. “When these hopes are fulfilled, however, it becomes clear that they were not, in reality, the whole. It becomes evident that man has need of a hope that goes further. It becomes clear that only something infinite will suffice for him, something that will always be more than he can ever attain,” writes Benedict.
“Thus, the Pope reflects, “Biblical hope in the Kingdom of God has been displaced by hope in the kingdom of man, the hope of a better world which would be the real ‘Kingdom of God’.”
Summarizing his dialogue Pope Benedict writes, “[l]et us say once again: we need the greater and lesser hopes that keep us going day by day. But these are not enough without the great hope, which must surpass everything else. This great hope can only be God, who encompasses the whole of reality and who can bestow upon us what we, by ourselves, cannot attain.”
How to Grow in Hope
Eager to teach people how to live in hope, the Holy Father spends this section of his encyclical on “settings for learning and practicing hope”.
The “first essential setting for learning hope is prayer,” instructs the Pope. Prayer is “a school of hope” about which one can say, “when no one listens to me any more, God still listens to me,” “Spe Salvi” explains.
Contrary to what some might say, praying “is not to step outside history and withdraw to our own private corner of happiness. When we pray properly we undergo a process of inner purification which opens us up to God and thus to our fellow human beings as well,” he relates.
“For prayer to develop this power of purification”—Benedict tells his readers—“it must on the one hand be something very personal, an encounter between my intimate self and God, the living God. On the other hand, it must be constantly guided and enlightened by the great prayers of the Church and of the saints”.
Action and Suffering
Benedict XVI’s second place for learning hope is in “action and suffering”. “All serious and upright human conduct is hope in action,” he says.
“Yet our daily efforts in pursuing our own lives and in working for the world's future either tire us or turn into fanaticism, unless we are enlightened by the radiance of the great hope that cannot be destroyed,” cautions the Pope.
“Like action, suffering is a part of our human existence.”
What heals man, the Holy Father teaches, is not “sidestepping or fleeing from suffering …but rather by our capacity for accepting it, maturing through it and finding meaning through union with Christ, who suffered with infinite love.”
Critiquing modern society, Benedict XVI emphasizes that 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.”
“In the end, even the ‘yes’ to love is a source of suffering, because love always requires expropriations of my ‘I’, in which I allow myself to be pruned and wounded,” he insightfully explains.
Furthermore, Christian suffering means suffering “with the other and for others; to suffer for the sake of truth and justice; to suffer out of love and in order to become a person who truly loves—these are fundamental elements of humanity, and to abandon them would destroy man himself.”
“Let us say it once again: the capacity to suffer for the sake of the truth is the measure of humanity,” the pontiff reiterates.
Another facet of the Christian encounter with suffering that the Pope recommends is a “devotion—perhaps less practised today but quite widespread not long ago—that included the idea of ‘offering up’ the minor daily hardships that continually strike at us like irritating ‘jabs’, thereby giving them a meaning.”
“Maybe we should consider whether it might be judicious to revive this practice ourselves,” he proposes.
The Final Judgment
“In the modern era,” the Holy Father explains, “the idea of the Last Judgment has faded into the background: Christian faith has been individualized and primarily oriented towards the salvation of the believer's own soul, while reflection on world history is largely dominated by the idea of progress.”
Yet, “for the great majority of people—we may suppose—there remains in the depths of their being an ultimate interior openness to truth, to love, to God,” the Pope reflects.
Meditating on the Last Judgment, Benedict writes, “[w]hat happens to such individuals when they appear before the Judge? Will all the impurity they have amassed through life suddenly cease to matter?”
For some, their interior openness to the truth, in the concrete choices of life, “gets covered over by ever new compromises with evil—much filth covers purity, but the thirst for purity remains and it still constantly re-emerges from all that is base and remains present in the soul,” he says.
Continuing his meditation, the Holy Father writes, that our “encounter with him is the decisive act of judgment. Before his gaze all falsehood melts away. This encounter with him, as it burns us, transforms and frees us, allowing us to become truly ourselves. All that we build during our lives can prove to be mere straw, pure bluster, and it collapses. Yet in the pain of this encounter, when the impurity and sickness of our lives become evident to us, there lies salvation.”
Pope Benedict XVI goes on to exhort people to live with others in mind saying, “[o]ur lives are involved with one another, through innumerable interactions they are linked together. No one lives alone. No one sins alone. No one is saved alone. The lives of others continually spill over into mine: in what I think, say, do and achieve.”
He concludes his reflection by way of a question: “what can I do in order that others may be saved and that for them too the star of hope may rise?”
To read the entire encyclical go to: http://www.catholicnewsagency.com/document.php?n=165