A Pope of Hope and Love

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3/31/2008

“When God reveals Himself and calls him, man cannot fully respond to the divine love by his own powers. He must hope that God will give him the capacity to love Him in return and to act in conformity with the commandments of charity. Hope is the confident expectation of divine blessing and the beatific vision of God….”

This teaching from paragraph 2090 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church allows us to see immediately why Pope Benedict XVI’s first encyclical would be about the nature of love and charity, and his second about faith and hope. In Deus Caritas Est (God is Love) and Spe Salvi (On Christian Hope), Benedict has presented the Church with teachings on the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity — the foundations of a Christian moral life.

'A New Reality' Back to Top

Nearly four decades before becoming pope, Father Joseph Ratzinger said the following during a retreat he preached to university students in Germany: “What really torments us today, what bothers us much more (than even the theoretical question of whether God exists) is the inefficacy of Christianity: After 2,000 years of Christian history, we can see nothing that might be a new reality in the world; rather, we find it sunk in the same old horrors, the same despair and the same hopes as ever. And in our own lives, too, we inevitably experience time and again how Christian reality is powerless against all the other forces that influence us and make demands on us.”

The future pope presented clearly and concisely the concerns of those students struggling with the ultimate questions of God and Christian revelation. These are concerns that Benedict and every priest in Western society confront on a daily basis and that the pope has sought to answer directly in his encyclicals.

These concerns are further complicated by the increasing weight of secularization pressing down upon Western society. We experience this especially during the great Christian celebrations of Christmas and Easter, when Christian symbols are excluded from public display.

However, a more subtle and powerful pressure is constantly at work in the shift of meaning we give to language. The recovery of an authentic Christian meaning to our language is one of the fundamental objectives of Benedict’s papacy. His encyclicals make a great effort to explain why, for example, Christian hope differs from simple optimism or the secular idea of progress, and why Christian charity differs from government welfare or other social services.

Secularization affects not only the presence of Nativity scenes at Christmas and the words “under God” in the U.S. Pledge of Allegiance. It also drains meaning from Christian life by secularizing the way Christians think and how they live. In this way, secularization diminishes the ways in which Christians are capable of presenting through their lives “a new reality in the world.”

Saying Yes to God Back to Top

“We are not allowed neutrality when faced with the question of God,” Cardinal Ratzinger once said while giving a retreat. “We can only say yes or no, and this with all the consequences extending right down to the smallest details of life.” What then does it mean to say yes to the God who is love? What are the consequences of this yes down to the smallest details of our life? This is the fundamental question posed by Deus Caritas Est. It can only be answered if we understand at the outset that the revelation of divine love does not contradict the highest human aspirations, but lifts them beyond what man can do for himself unaided.

In Deus Caritas Est, we read: “Love of God and love of neighbor are thus inseparable, they form a single commandment. But both live from the love of God who has loved us first. No longer is it a question, then, of a ‘commandment’ imposed from without and calling for the impossible, but rather of a freely bestowed experience of love from within, a love that by its very nature must then be shared with others. Love grows through love. Love is ‘divine’ because it comes from God and unites us to God; through this unifying process it makes us a ‘we’ which transcends our divisions and makes us one, until in the end God is ‘all in all’” (18).

Similarly, what does it mean when we say that we are saved by our hope in Christ? As Benedict wrote in Spe Salvi, “man needs God; otherwise he remains without hope.” We cannot be saved “simply from outside,” such as by government or science, but only by unconditional, absolute love. “Man’s great, true hope that holds firm in spite of all disappointments can only be God — God who has loved us and who continues to love us ‘to the end,’ until all ‘is accomplished’” (see 23-31).

Read together, Deus Caritas Est and Spe Salvi present a profound meditation on the foundation of Christian life, which leads the believer to make his own the prayer at the end of Deus Caritas Est: “Show us Jesus. Lead us to him. Teach us to know and love him, so that we too can become capable of true love and be fountains of living water in the midst of a thirsting world” (42).

Carl A. Anderson, supreme knight of the Knights of Columbus, is founding vice president of the Washington, D.C. session of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family.

(Photo courtesy L'Osservatore Romano)