Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Epic Hope

I once wrote a reflection on the over-use of the word ‘epic.’ When I apply this term to the life and teaching of John Paul the Great, however, I do so in absolute confidence. There is really no other way to describe the hope of a smiling actor from impoverished Poland when he rose up against such towering forces of evil. Amidst the burning death of the holocaust, Karol Wojtyla wrote plays that burned with a brighter hope that outlasted the fires of Auschwitz. It was that same hope that brought color to his priesthood during the dreary years of Stalinist Poland. When he became Pope John Paul II, its luminosity acted as his spotlight on the world-stage. And though they've never been televised or presented from pulpit or balcony, these encyclicals of JP II bring the drama of this hope to the largest audience, to generations yet unborn. That the unborn found one of their greatest advocates in the great Pope, no one would doubt. The fact of the matter is that he acknowledged their plight and considered it part and parcel of the scourge of contemporary culture: what JP II called the 'culture of death.' To fight this death, he constantly exhorted us to ‘be not afraid!,” "For the mission of the Church is always oriented and directed with unfailing hope towards the future." (Salvorum Apostoli, 31)

His use of such dramatic language shows that he had none of the blind optimism of the students and idealists: he was too much the professor. He had none of the platforms or campaign promises of the politicians: he was too pious a priest. Finally, and most powerfully, his warnings contain none of the dire pessimism of (false) prophets and preachers: he was too secure in sanctity to give up on humanity. "There is no justification then for despair or pessimism or inertia...(individual responsibility) is what is demanded by the present moment and above all by the very dignity of the human person, the indestructible image of God the Creator, which is identical in each one of us." (Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, 47) This hope stands like light against a shadow precisely because JP II realized just how dark is the shadow that remains over our world. "In general, taking into account the various factors, one cannot deny that the present situation of the world, from the point of view of development, offers a rather negative impression...There are many millions who are deprived of hope due to the fact that, in many parts of the world, their situation has noticeably worsened. Before these tragedies of total indigence and need, in which so many of our brothers and sisters are living, it is the Lord Jesus himself who comes to question us (cf. Mt 25:31-46).” (Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, 13)

I said last time that JP II seems caught up in the drama of the relationship between God and man. It is in the midst of this drama that he finds our source for hope. Any realistic look at the "wages of sin" reveals, not simply fallen creatures, but a frustrated creation and a sorrowful Creator. "The Sacred Book speaks to us of a Father who feels compassion for man, as though sharing his pain. In a word, this inscrutable and indescribable fatherly "pain" will bring about above all the wonderful economy of redemptive love in Jesus Christ, so that through the mysterium pietatis love can reveal itself in the history of man as stronger than sin. So that the "gift" may prevail!" (Dominum et Vivificatem, 39) In other words, redemption is at the service of gift. Hope is at the service of love! 

His own life had taught JP II that is was not enough that Hitler be defeated, that abortion be repealed, that the poor be fed and that sins be repented of. The greatness of all of these epic and edifying goals can only be measured in relation to our conversion toward God. Often we may think of hope and love as autonomous actions (I converted to Christ, so now I can love my family), but JP II saw conversion and love as part of the same movement. "Conversion is the most concrete expression of the working of love and of the presence of mercy in the human world. The true and proper meaning of mercy does not consist only in looking, however penetratingly and compassionately, at moral, physical or material evil: mercy is manifested in its true and proper aspect when it restores to value, promotes and draws good from all the forms of evil existing in the world and in man." (Dives in Misericordia, 6) It is this "restoration of value" that JP II saw as the true goal of Christianity. Don't become confused by the ethical connotation of the word 'value': JP II is not talking about a 'return to family values' or a spread of 'Christian values.' He means that human beings should find life as valuable and fulfilling, love as strong and solid as silver or gold, and a God with an infinite value and meaning.

When life fails to attain to this value, contemporary man finds himself adrift in a world of selfishness and cut off from his fellow creatures (i.e. separated from other humans, the environment, the community, the angels and saints, etc.) Yet, even here, in the midst of all the distractions of our noisy, overpaid and oversexed culture, JP II saw the glimmerings of hope. "From the depth of anguish, fear and escapist phenomena like drugs, typical of the contemporary world, the idea is slowly emerging that the good to which we are all called and the happiness to which we aspire cannot be obtained without an effort and commitment on the part of all, nobody excluded, and the consequent renouncing of personal selfishness." (Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, 26) Emerging from these depths of pain and loneliness, man is given the opportunity to probe even greater depths. "Faced with the mystery of sin, we have to search 'the depths of God' to their very depth. It is not enough to search the human conscience, the intimate mystery of man, but we have to penetrate the inner mystery of God, those 'depths of God' that are summarized thus: to the Father-in the Son- through the Holy Spirit." (Dominum et Vivificatem, 32) According to JP II, this is "the deep that calls to deep, in the roar of many waters" from Psalm 42. In the very depths of God is where the sufferings of humanity crosses over from shame to joy in the almost-instantaneous embrace of conversion. In JP II's thought, this conversion results in a "Mature humanity" that has “full use of the gift of freedom received from the Creator when he called to existence the man made 'in his image, after his likeness.' This gift finds its full realization in the unreserved giving of the whole of one's human person, in a spirit of the love of a spouse, to Christ." (Redemptor Hominis, 21) Thus, hope finds its fulfillment in more than just 'religious love' or 'spiritual love' but in a real human love, a ‘spousal love,’ which has been transformed into a Divine love. Further exploration of JP II's use of this spousal mystery is so broad a topic that I must leave it until my next reflection.

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