Benedict's second encyclical calls for a rediscovery of hope in Christ

Benedict's second encyclical calls for a rediscovery of hope in Christ

Michael Gilchrist

At noon on 30 November 2007, in Rome, the Holy See released Benedict XVI's second encyclical, Spe Salvi, which proclaims the need for hope in modern society and the necessity for Christians to recover its true meaning. It followed his first encyclical, Deus Caritatis Est, God is love.

The encyclical's title, the Pope explains, derives from St Paul's words to the Romans (8:24), 'Spe salvi facti sumus' - 'in hope we have been saved'.

Following the encyclical's release, Benedict took several opportunities at public gatherings in Rome to explain its message.

In his homily at Vespers on 1 December, he referred to St Paul's reminder to the Ephesians that 'before embracing faith in Christ they had no hope and were 'without God in the world'.' This view, he said, 'seems more valid than ever because of the paganism of our own day', particularly 'the contemporary nihilism which corrodes hope in man's heart, causing him to think that emptiness reigns within him and around him: emptiness before birth, emptiness after death. The truth is that without God, hope fades.'

Man, Benedict continued, 'is the only creature who is free to say yes or no to eternity, in other words to God. Human beings can extinguish hope in themselves, eliminating God from their lives. [Yet] God knows man's heart. He knows that those who refuse Him have not known His true face, and for this reason He never ceases to knock at our door like a humble pilgrim seeking welcome. This is why the Lord grants new time to humanity: so that everyone may come to know Him.'

New Testament

On 3 December, before reciting the midday Angelus with those gathered in St Peter's Square, Benedict referred to other aspects of his encyclical.

He noted that in the New Testament 'the word hope is closely connected with the word faith.' Hope 'is a gift that changes the life of those who receive it, as the experience of so many saints demonstrates.'

He then posed the question: 'In what does this hope consist that is so great and so trustworthy as to make us say that in it we have salvation?

'In substance it consists in the knowledge of God, in the discovery of his heart as a good and merciful Father.

'With his death on the cross and his resurrection, Jesus has revealed to us his countenance, the coun- tenance of a God so great in love as to communicate to us an indestructible hope, a hope that not even death can crack, because the life of those who entrust themselves to this Father always opens onto the perspective of eternal beatitude.'

Encounter with God

The 76-page encyclical itself draws upon the rich treasure of Benedict's learning, with references from the lives of the saints and the Church Fathers.

Christian hope, he explains, is different. Referring to the New Testament's times, he writes, 'Christianity did not bring a message of social revolution like that of the ill-fated Spartacus, whose struggle led to so much bloodshed. Jesus was not Spartacus, he was not engaged in a fight for political liberation.

'Jesus ... brought something totally different: an encounter with the Lord of all lords, an encounter with the living God and thus an encounter with a hope stronger than the sufferings of slavery, a hope which therefore transformed life and the world from within.

'It is not the elemental spirits of the universe which ultimately govern the world and mankind, but a personal God governs the stars, that is, the universe; it is not the laws of matter and of evolution that have the final say, but reason, will, love - a Person.'

This changes man's world because 'the inexorable power of material elements no longer has the last word; we are not slaves of the universe and of its laws, we are free.' Christians have hope because Jesus 'tells us who man truly is, and what a man must do in order to be truly human.'

Among the many subjects dealt with in Spe Salvi is the modern 'ideology of progress' and its accompanying concepts of freedom and reason. These, Benedict writes, 'were tacitly interpreted as being in conflict with the shackles of faith and of the Church' and during the 18th century society 'held fast to its faith in progress as the new form of human hope.'

Following the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution, 'Karl Marx took up the rallying call, and applied his incisive language and intellect to the task of launching this major new and, as he thought, definitive step in history towards salvation'.

However, with time, 'Marx's fundamental error also became evident ... He thought that once the economy had been put right, everything would automatically be put right. His real error is materialism: man, in fact, is not merely the product of economic conditions, and it is not possible to redeem him purely from the outside by creating a favourable economic environment.'

Picking up another theme of the encyclical, Benedict observes that the 'development of modern science has confined faith and hope more and more to the private and individual sphere'. But while 'science contributes much to the good of humanity ... it is not able to redeem humanity. Man is redeemed by love, which renders social life good and beautiful.

'Because of this, the great hope ... is guaranteed by God, by God who is love, who has visited us in Jesus and given his life to us, and in Jesus he will return at the end of time. It is in Christ that we hope and it is him that we await!'

There are many other themes in Spe Salvi, including the roles of suffering and final judgment. As with Benedict's other writings, both as Pope and Cardinal, the encyclical provides deep insights into the central truths of Christianity which will repay careful study.

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