"In hope we were saved"

Pope Benedict's Second Encyclical

 Pope Benedict XVI Spe Salvi Catholics for the Common Good formation

Science, reason, and progress fulfill many expectations, but they do not give "eternal life." Pope Joseph Ratzinger brings Christians and the world back before the judgment of God. And he proposes as examples two of the most humble and unknown saints.

Comments by Sandro Magister

ROMA, November 30, 2007-- The encyclical on hope "Spe Salvi," which Benedict XVI signed and published today, the feast of Saint Andrew and just two days before the beginning of Advent, was motivated by these factors described in paragraph 22:

"A self-critique of modernity is needed in 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."

In this twofold "self-criticism" of modern culture and Christianity, the pope continues, "reason and faith need one another in order to fulfil their true nature and their mission."

* * *

These few lines clearly show how strongly the encyclical is marked by Joseph Ratzinger as philosopher, theologian, and pope.

But it would be a mistake to expect to read in it nothing more than an erudite lecture. The style is vibrant, the exposition rich with imagery, and the narrative enlivened by a wide cast of characters.

The entire story of the world passes before the eyes of the reader, from its beginning to end. The final pages on Christ as judge, on hell, on purgatory, on paradise, are stunning for their mere presentation having disappeared almost completely from the preaching in the churches and even more for the way in which they are developed.

The text is required reading from start to finish, as is always the case for the writings of Benedict XVI, which never have just one key page or the easily isolated central passage.

But to demonstrate how "Spe Salvi" has a number of surprises in store for the reader, here are two selections taken from paragraphs 3 and 37.

They present as exemplars of Christian hope two saints who are not among the most famous.

The first is African, from Darfur, and the second a martyr from Vietnam.

Saint Josephine Bakhita

To come to know God -the true God- means to receive hope. We who have always lived with the Christian concept of God, and have grown accustomed to it, have almost ceased to notice that we possess the hope that ensues from a real encounter with this God. The example of a saint of our time can to some degree help us understand what it means to have a real encounter with this God for the first time.

I am thinking of the African Josephine Bakhita, canonized by Pope John Paul II. She was born around 1869- she herself did not know the precise date- in Darfur in Sudan. At the age of nine, she was kidnapped by slave-traders, beaten till she bled, and sold five times in the slave-markets of Sudan. Eventually she found herself working as a slave for the mother and the wife of a general, and there she was flogged every day till she bled; as a result of this she bore 144 scars throughout her life. Finally, in 1882, she was bought by an Italian merchant for the Italian consul Callisto Legnani, who returned to Italy as the Mahdists advanced.

Here, after the terrifying masters who had owned her up to that point, Bakhita came to know a totally different kind of master- in Venetian dialect, which she was now learning, she used the name "paron" for the living God, the God of Jesus Christ.

Up to that time she had known only masters who despised and maltreated her, or at best considered her a useful slave. Now, however, she heard that there is a paron above all masters, the Lord of all lords, and that this Lord is good, goodness in person.

She came to know that this Lord even knew her, that he had created her- that he actually loved her. She too was loved, and by none other than the supreme Paron, before whom all other masters are themselves no more than lowly servants. She was known and loved and she was awaited. What is more, this master had himself accepted the destiny of being flogged and now he was waiting for her at the Father's right hand. Now she had hope-  no longer simply the modest hope of finding masters who would be less cruel, but the great hope: I am definitively loved and whatever happens to me, I am awaited by this Love. And so my life is good.

Through the knowledge of this hope she was redeemed, no longer a slave, but a free child of God. She understood what Paul meant when he reminded the Ephesians that previously they were without hope and without God in the world without hope because without God.

Hence, when she was about to be taken back to Sudan, Bakhita refused; she did not wish to be separated again from her Paron. On 9 January 1890, she was baptized and confirmed and received her first Holy Communion from the hands of the Patriarch of Venice. On 8 December 1896, in Verona, she took her vows in the Congregation of the Canossian Sisters and from that time onwards, besides her work in the sacristy and in the porter's lodge at the convent, she made several journeys round Italy in order to promote the missions: the liberation that she had received through her encounter with the God of Jesus Christ, she felt she had to extend, it had to be handed on to others, to the greatest possible number of people. The hope born in her which had redeemed her she could not keep to herself; this hope had to reach many, to reach everybody.

Saint Paul Le-Bao-Tinh

We can try to limit suffering, to fight against it, but we cannot eliminate it. It is when we attempt to avoid suffering by withdrawing from anything that might involve hurt, when we try to spare ourselves the effort and pain of pursuing truth, love, and goodness, that we drift into a life of emptiness, in which there may be almost no pain, but the dark sensation of meaninglessness and abandonment is all the greater.

It is not by sidestepping or fleeing from suffering that we are healed, but rather by our capacity for accepting it, maturing through it and finding meaning through union with Christ, who suffered with infinite love.

In this context, I would like to quote a passage from a letter written by the Vietnamese martyr Paul Le-Bao-Tinh (1857) which illustrates this transformation of suffering through the power of hope springing from faith:

I, Paul, in chains for the name of Christ, wish to relate to you the trials besetting me daily, in order that you may be inflamed with love for God and join with me in his praises, for his mercy is for ever (Ps 136 [135]).

"The prison here is a true image of everlasting Hell: to cruel tortures of every kind, shackles, iron chains, manacles are added hatred, vengeance, calumnies, obscene speech, quarrels, evil acts, swearing, curses, as well as anguish and grief.

"But the God who once freed the three children from the fiery furnace is with me always; he has delivered me from these tribulations and made them sweet, for his mercy is for ever. In the midst of these torments, which usually terrify others, I am, by the grace of God, full of joy and gladness, because I am not alone -Christ is with me [...]. How am I to bear with the spectacle, as each day I see emperors, mandarins, and their retinue blaspheming your holy name, O Lord, who are enthroned above the Cherubim and Seraphim? (cf. Ps 80:1 [79:2]). Behold, the pagans have trodden your Cross underfoot! Where is your glory? As I see all this, I would, in the ardent love I have for you, prefer to be torn limb from limb and to die as a witness to your love.

"O Lord, show your power, save me, sustain me, that in my infirmity your power may be shown and may be glorified before the nations ... Beloved brothers, as you hear all these things may you give endless thanks in joy to God, from whom every good proceeds; bless the Lord with me, for his mercy is for ever ... I write these things to you in order that your faith and mine may be united. In the midst of this storm I cast my anchor towards the throne of God, the anchor that is the lively hope in my heart.

This is a letter from Hell. It lays bare all the horror of a concentration camp, where to the torments inflicted by tyrants upon their victims is added the outbreak of evil in the victims themselves, such that they in turn become further instruments of their persecutors' cruelty.

This is indeed a letter from Hell, but it also reveals the truth of the Psalm text: If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I sink to the nether world, you are present there ... If I say, 'Surely the darkness shall hide me, and night shall be my light' for you darkness itself is not dark, and night shines as the day; darkness and light are the same (Ps 139 [138]:8-12; cf. also Ps 23 [22]:4).

Christ descended into Hell and is therefore close to those cast into it, transforming their darkness into light. Suffering and torment is still terrible and well- nigh unbearable.

Yet the star of hope has risen the anchor of the heart reaches the very throne of God. Instead of evil being unleashed within man, the light shines victorious: suffering, without ceasing to be suffering, becomes, despite everything, a hymn of praise.
__________

The complete text of the encyclical, on the Vatican website: "Spe salvi"

Sandro Magister is a journalist and reporter for the weekly magazine L'espresso, for which he has written since 1974. He specializes in religious news, in particular on the Catholic Church and the Vatican.

Posted with permission from www.chiesa.



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