The Theological Virtue of Hope
Martin Morris sfo
Presented at Canberra, ACT, Australia on July 24th, 1998
I think that if I were to ask each of you to define Hope I would probably get a different answer from each one. Hope is many things to many people but tonight we are asked to consider particularly the theological virtue of Hope.
What do we mean by a theological virtue? The Catholic Catechism identifies three such virtues, viz., Faith, Hope and Charity. It goes on to say that they are the foundation of all Christian moral activity and so they inform and give life to all the moral virtues, those which govern our conduct such as prudence, justice and fortitude. Thus, the theological virtues are a pledge of the presence and action of the Holy Spirit in our human faculties.
Tonight we consider the second of them. Hope is that virtue by which we desire Heaven and eternal life as our happiness, placing our trust in Christ's promises, relying not on our own efforts but upon the help of the Holy Spirit.
Hope responds to our God-given human aspirations to happiness. It takes up the human hopes that inspire human activities and purifies them for Heaven. It keeps us from discouragement, sustains us when we feel abandoned and opens our hearts to expect Heaven. Perhaps most importantly (in my view) it preserves humans from selfishness and leads to the happiness that flows from Charity. We all hope of course to get to Heaven, meaning to see God. Thomas Rausch, S.J., says that Heaven is not a place but rather it means to be fully in God's presence. Hope, according to Bernard Haring, CSsR., is God's gift to us; it is not something we generate for ourselves. He goes on to say that we must always be grateful to God for that gift. I was not able to find any direct quotations from St. Francis about Hope but Haring stresses that Hope is a matter of self-dedication, of consecration, of the giving of one's self and that seems to me to be a very Franciscan attitude.
I have found Haring very useful in fleshing-out the bald though very correct statements of the Catholic Catechism. Haring points to the Holy Spirit as being at the very heart of the theology of Hope. It is not only an individualistic virtue; it is essentially a communal one. Haring says that each person's life is one of co-responsibility with others in our response to Christ's call (surely another Franciscan attitude). He quotes from Ephesians, "There is one body, one Spirit, as there is also one Hope held out in God's call to you."
How does Hope relate to Faith and Charity?
Haring considers Hope to be the dynamic force of growing love and faith. It links the two together. He points to Mary Magdalen as one of the great signs of Hope through Jesus. All of Jesus' encounters with humans were pledges of Hope. Through Jesus, the pilgrim Church is a sacrament of Hope, though not automatically in all her members. Hope is Faith and Charity on pilgrimage.
Pope John Paul II in his Apostolic Letter, "The Third Millennium" says that the basic attitude of Hope offers two perspectives, viz.,
He quotes Romans 8:22-24, "We await our adoption as heirs, the redemption of our bodies, for in this hope we are saved." Rausch, picking on the second point, says "The resurrection of the body remains the most basic theological statement of Christian Hope." He describes the three theological virtues as being eschatological virtues, that is, they are futuristic - in Faith, Hope and Charity we look forward to what is to come, namely, eternal life with God. I must admit to some reservation regarding Rausch's point that the resurrection of the body is the most basic reason for Hope. Surely our souls are more important than our bodies and it is our souls that we are most concerned to get into Heaven. I don't doubt the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead for one moment but my understanding is that our bodies will hopefully follow our souls into Heaven after the Last Judgement.
Why do we hope?
The Catholic Catechism suggests some good reasons. Hope responds to the God-given human aspirations to happiness, that is to say, it meets a human need. Hope takes up the human hopes that inspire human activities and purifies them for Heaven. It keeps us from discouragement, sustains us when we feel abandoned and opens up our human hearts in expectation of Heaven. It preserves us from selfishness and leads to the happiness that flows from Charity.
It goes on to say that Christian Hope is based on Jesus Beatitudes which raise our hopes towards Heaven and show us the path we must follow through our trials to get there. Through the merits of Jesus and His Passion, God keeps us in Hope, described as the anchor of the soul and a weapon to protect us in our struggle for salvation. We therefore Hope in the glory of Heaven promised by God to those who love Him and do His will. In every circumstance we should hope with the grace of God to persevere to the end and enter Heaven.
Because we cannot fully respond to God's love by our own efforts, we need the virtue of Hope to sustain those efforts.
The Pope in the Letter quoted earlier says Christians (NB. all Christians) should prepare for the Jubilee by renewing their Hope in the definitive coming of the Kingdom of God, preparing for it daily in their hearts, in the Christian community to which they belong, in their particular social context and in world history itself. He goes on to talk of the signs of Hope in the secular world and notes approvingly the advances in science, particularly medicine, and the efforts to establish peace and justice.
How can we increase Hope individually and collectively?
First, by the celebration of the Sacraments. Baptism inducts us into a community of Hope. Eucharist is an expression of joy and Hope in Jesus. In Reconciliation we are restored to the fullness of Hope by being once more at peace with God and our neighbours. Marriage is a visible sign of the Hope a couple have in each other and in God. Confirmation is a sign of Hope through God who calls us to full maturity as His daughters and sons. Holy Orders is an efficacious sign of Hope to the extent that the priest, like Jesus, is a synthesis of love of God with love neighbour. The priest listens to God and then serves his neighbour by proclaiming God's word.
Prayer generally is a source of Hope; be it the prayer of sorrow, petition, thanks or (most importantly) praise. The "Our Father" taught us by Jesus Himself is arguably the highest prayerful expression of Hope. It expresses what Haring calls "the salvific tension between already and not yet. We acknowledge what we are and where we are now and express our prayerful Hope that God will grant our spiritual and temporal needs. Haring makes the further point that prayer is a source of Hope only when it links religion with life.
We should always remember that Hope is communal as well as personal. Salvation through the process of Hope begets endurance in solidarity with our fellow Christians. Those who appreciate fully how Hope has saved them will take up the burdens of their communities both religious and secular. Christian Hope is a talent or gift of God entrusted to His followers so that they can become signs of Hope in the world. We must be active in Hope, working to renew society and preaching the Gospel. Is that not what our Franciscan vocation calls us to do? Our Hope must not be a dreamy one, just praying that the world will change but a dynamic Hope with an active commitment to improve the world here and now with a view to its salvation.
We must beware of letting our Hope become a selfish one: "I am too busy getting to Heaven to help others get there". There is a danger that a misunderstanding of Hope may lead us into complacency.
Another danger is that we may lose Hope because of personal suffering or the sight of it in others. Haring says that it is not so much the suffering itself as the apparent senselessness of it, which constitutes the danger to Hope. Prayer and the Sacraments is the best remedy. Reflection on the sufferings of Jesus should also help. Sin is of course the greatest danger bringing with it despair, frustration and self-centered regret that preclude Hope.
Indeed, the Catholic Catechism sets out the sins against Hope. They are despair and presumption.
Despair theologically is ceasing to hope for personal salvation, or for God's help in attaining it, or for forgiveness of sins.
Presumption is to either (a) presume upon our capacities (I don't need God) or the opposite, to presume upon God's power and mercy, hoping unjustifiably for forgiveness and mercy without taking the necessary steps to obtain either.
Hope is unquestionably integral to a Christian life and to the attainment of its final goal, Heaven. It is also integral to the other virtues particularly Faith and Charity. Haring calls it the hub on the wheel of virtues. It is God's gift to us which we must use profitably both for our own salvation and that of the world and our neighbours. We should constantly pray for its increase within each of us and amongst God's people here on earth.
Catechism of the Catholic Church (especially paragraphs 1813, 1817-21, 2086, 2090-1 & 2567.
Pope John Paul II: The Third Millennium.
Haring, Bernard, CSsR.: Hope is the Remedy .
Rausch, Thomas P, S.J.: Catholicism at the Dawn of the Third Millennium, The Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minn, USA
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