Speranza: A Reflection on Hope
Mar 2, 2021
Marco Stango, Ph.D.
If we pause for a second and think about the way we live today, about how the Western person lives nowadays, it would seem plausible to say that the virtue of hope is absent from the scenario. We should stand outside of grocery stores, schools, and maybe even churches to hand out flyers containing the words, “Hope wanted” (I leave to you to determine what identifying image should be printed on the flyer). Even though not exactly like the Nietzschean madman at the market who affirmed "God is dead, and we have killed him," we would nevertheless be induced to think that in our world hope, if not truly dead, has at least been kidnapped and held captive.
I already hear an objection. "Why do you take it out on hope? Are you suggesting that faith and charity are kept in greater consideration?" Maybe not, but, please let me tell what I see. Let’s take faith – faith in God, of course. Does God exist? "Certainly, He does!" some will say with the unshakeable certainty of faith and with perfect knowledge of the Mass schedule that, depending on the initial of your last name, determines when you can go to Mass (this is the practice of faith in Covid times). Someone else will add, "I pray to Him every morning and every night" – or even better, if he sometimes reads St. Paul, he will know that the right answer is, "I pray to Him always, without ceasing!" And even those who do not pray to God as they should or those who pray to God but do not believe in the Church - the disillusioned of the Church (I have many dear friends who refer to themselves as "disillusioned of the Church) - or those who are not even at ease with pronouncing the word ‘God’, etc. In short, even these acknowledge, in spite of everything, even in an extremely implicit and confused way, that the answer to their need for happiness must exist - an answer that is infinitely different from those things such as power, sex, money, success that, despite promising happiness insistently, always end up frustrating our innermost aspiration.
A dear nonbelieving friend of mine once told me, "If the faith in God is what you say – believing in the existence of the Mystery as the response to the deepest questions of my heart – then I believe in God too. But please stop with this idea of going to Church." Alas, one cannot win them all. In any case, James Baldwin already put it best when he wrote:
“Richard: You know I don’t believe in God, Grandmama.
Mother: You don’t know what you talking about. Ain’t no way possible for you not to believe in God. It ain’t up to you.
Richard: Who’s it up to then?
Mother: It’s up to the life in you – the life in you. That knows where it comes from, that believes in God.”
But maybe the case of charity is less clear. Do I love my wife, my parents, my neighbor, myself? (Romano Guardini used to remind us rightly that loving oneself is difficult - not at all something easy or automatic, and not at all something to be fought). I already feel on me the cynical eyes of some harbinger of doom who insinuates that no, I am not able to love. And yet, against all cynicism, if you ask me seriously, I have to respond that yes, I love my wife for real and I am faithful to her, in spite of being aware of my many deficiencies and of her, well…let’s call them ‘eccentricities,’ and in spite of my eye being sometimes less chaste than it should be (note the devious cunning of written language: the eye, not I … ).
I remember a hilarious and profound episode that occurred to a married couple of friends. She is Catholic, he isn’t. But, he accompanies her to Sunday Mass, maybe more out of courtesy than interest. She prays and participates actively; he follows what is said and done, and listens, carefully (more attentively than what I often do, as it will be made clear in a second). One Sunday the liturgy was the Gospel of Matthew: "Everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart." After hearing these words, he turned toward her and said, "Hey, is what the priest just said true?" and she responded, "Yes, of course it’s true!" "Ah, in this case, I have already committed adultery five or six times since we entered the church this morning." And yet – and this is the moral of the story – he loves her, he loves her truly!
I hope you’ll also grant me that, besides my wife, I also love my parents. I love them more now than when I was a kid or a teenager (one of my professors in college used to say that the words ‘father’ and ‘mother’ are words for adults. I can’t stop meditating on this comment.) And what should we say of the love for one’s neighbor? Let’s say this: I don’t know if we truly love our neighbor, but if there were a child alone in the street crying and screaming that he wants his mom, I would argue that ninety-nine percent of human beings would stop and try to help him (the same professor in college used to repeat that "There is a lot of good. People are capable of good, we need to recognize this." And let me add this, that when we do not help our neighbor, the hole left by this lack of charity is filled not necessarily by hatred, but more often by fear and laziness. Consider this: the road that takes us away from heaven is usually not that of a terrible evil – blind hatred, horror, violence etc. – but that of fear and laziness which, alas, just like hatred, horror and violence, prevent us from seizing the opportunity to do and receive the good). If Jesus is right when he assures us that "whatever you did for one of these least brothers of Mine, you did for Me" (Matthew 25:40), then it means that, for better or worse, we do have a little love for Him.
What about hope? Who is capable of hope today? What signs do we have? Isn’t maybe hope, as I was saying, the great absentee? "But wait a minute," some will say, "You claim that despite everything there are faith and charity, but then you say that there are no examples of hope? What do you do then with the hope in a better world, in progress, in a new government, in the betterment of society, in the new opportunities brought by technology?" There! That’s exactly the point. We all live today, for better or worse – including Christians obviously – within a culture that induces us to place our hope not in God, but in our "I" – an I that betters itself, that does not discriminate, that makes projects, and above all that technologizes the world and life and eliminates from them its most unpleasant aspects. Much has been said and written on the "end of the grand narratives" and similarly many have declared that our epoch is not anymore an epoch of "ideologies." However, when we say this we tend to forget, I believe, that our epoch still finds in the idea of progress the source of its energy, a progress that is first of all technological, which has now turned the world into a globalized reality. From what do we expect to receive the fulfillment of all our aspirations, our salvation? In what do we put our trust? We believe that the most striking feature of our epoch is scientific-technological progress, to the point that when the globalized world has been severely and dramatically hit by an unforeseen pandemic, our reaction has not been just surprise but that specific discomfort that comes from the perception of a contradiction, the perception of something as impossible: "Wait, we have all this science and technology and we also have the virus? How is this possible?" (The many signs outside houses reminding us that "Science is real" read to me like a sort of hopeless mantra). We are still dealing with deep-seated discomfort. All this is the result of a great historical change which starting with the Modern age has determined that rejection of Christian culture also known as secularism. As Fabrice Hadjadj notices, secularization has not only produced a rejection of cult, but also a radical transformation of culture; it has determined not only the denial of the Eternal, but also the refusal of a certain way to understand time and history.
The hope of a Christian is of divine origin; the hope of the globalized world is placed entirely in the power of our technological hands. Christian hope is not born out of the promise of an abstract ideal of human self-redemption, but out of a present fact, the encounter with Christ alive and at work in His Church. Hope is the certainty of our belonging to someone else, Christ, together with the persuasion that Christ, center of the cosmos and history, will bring to completion in us the work He has started (Philippians 1:6). It is this hope that, as Charles Péguy reminds us, is necessary to the other two sisters – faith and charity – to be what they are. When today I was discussing with my boss some of the ideas that eventually ended up in this piece, he commented in his typically direct style: "I would simply say that hope is a Person." So, let’s sum it up in this way: our hope is Christ resurrected and alive among us.
And why should we be interested at all in this hope, this mysterious hope in God, rather than in the hardy hope of the technologized globalized world? I would respond with another question: who deep inside his heart would not desire precisely this hope? Who does not desire to discover that the mystery at the origin of all reality is a loving Father and Friend, capable and solicitous? Our heart desires infinitely more than the biblical and proverbial plate of lentils – even when the plate of lentils is something supremely serious and desirable such as greater social justice or a vaccine to save millions of lives. Our heart desires the birthright, it desires to hope in a God who is Father.
I’d like to conclude with the story of an Italian priest - a missionary in Brazil, Fr. Pigi Bernareggi, who has recently died. Born from a wealthy family from Milano and still in his twenties, one day Pigi found himself committed to becoming a priest in Brazil without having given any thought to either the priesthood or Brazil and instead betting everything, everything, on the encounter with Christ, on the hope in Him. During a moment of silence and prayer on vacation with friends in Italy, the priest through whom Pigi had rediscovered his faith, Fr. Luigi Giussani, broke the silence and asked him, "Listen, ever thought about becoming priest in Brazil? Think about that." Utterly stunned, he slept on it, or better yet, did not sleep and thought about it all night. The following morning during breakfast he sat next to Fr. Giussani, who asked him, "So, have you thought about it? What then?" and Pigi replied: "Yes, I have thought about it, and I have nothing against it." Fr. Pigi died in January after an incredibly adventurous and fruitful life as a diocesan priest in Belo Horizonte.
Let’s pray that, like Pigi, we also learn to say "Yes" to the Church, to Christ, to hope in Him; to say, with gladness and gratitude, "I have nothing against it."