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Our Hope for the Next Millennium
by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
As we begin the third millennium of Christianity, there is wisdom in our looking into the future, into two futures: our personal future and the future of the Church, as the Mystical Body of Christ. Why look to the future? Because we need to strengthen our resolves by deepening our trust in God: in His continued grace to see us through this life into a heavenly eternity and in His continued Providence to see the Church that Christ founded; that she will endure until the end of time, and beyond time as the City on High, the New Jerusalem, when God will have called all of His elect and make His everlasting home with them.
Suppose we look on both aspects of this virtue of hopeor the assured desire that we shall obtain some future good thingfor ourselves and for the Church we love as the Spouse of Christ.
Hope for Ourselves
It is good for us, once in awhile, to renew our trust in God and strengthen our hope in His continued love for us.
We know our past and our tendency is to dwell on all that has gone wrong, on our sins and failings, on our defects and failures. But even this past is not as black or as dark as we are tempted to consider it.
Think of all that, with Gods help, we have been able to achieve, and beneath the achievement, all we have been able to be. We are alive and, we trust, in the friendship of God. We trust is more important than it appears on the surface. Without trust, there can be no hope. We hope to obtain things, yes, but only because we trust Someone to give us those things. And those who have hope and trust also have the byproduct of confidence.
We have for so many years borne the heat of the day and struggled, sometimes against unequal odds, to remain firm in our faith.
Our lives are built on hope. A hopeless life is a despairing life. And how we know that it is just a matter of time when the person will die, and we now in our country, often by his own hands or with the help of another so-called compassionate person.
The trouble is that unless we are careful, we shall depend on the wrong people to keep their promises, and on the wrong objects to fulfill our hopes. There are no unbelievers in the world, literally none, except in mental institutions.
But we must learn whom to trust. It seems that some people will never learn. No one but God deserves to be trusted absolutely, and it is only absolute trust that can give us absolute confidence. Why? Because only God really knows the future, which faith tells us is in His hands. He does not wait for the future to happen, He makes it happen. Only He knows what we need and is best for us, far better than we know. Because it may be that the things that we want (this is a very safe statement) are not the things we need.
Lets be very plain here. It is not hope alone that will give us peace, and how we want that peace of soul! Or trust alone that will give us security, which is confidence. It must be either hope and trust in God or we shall be infallibly unhappy.
In fact, I would almost give a simple formula for unhappiness: trust in creatures. They will never fail to disappoint you. Even the most promising of human beings, beginning, shall I mention the fact, with ourselves, are fickle, they are changeable, they are unstable. In a word, they are unpredictable. You just cannot bank; you cannot depend on people. Really, securely, confidently, not even, I repeat, how that one person who you would think would be the last one to disappoint us. And you would also think that by now having so often been disappointed we would have enough sense to have learned our lesson. It seems that some people will never learn.
Our very hopes can be our very dreams. God knows. Again, why is only confidence in God sure not to disappoint us? Because only God is really able to do what needs to be done and change what needs to be changed. And give us in the world of the future what we in the world need. Knowing what we need, we know, is not enough, someone in this universe must be able to meet that need.
No one person, no one nation of persons, no world of people have the ability to satisfy what we need. And finally because only God really loves us so much that He is willing to take care of us down to the smallest detail. There are no trifles with God. Where we are concerned, nothing is unimportant. Only He is so good enough, though we have so often done wrong to Him, and this may be one reason why some people dont trust God more. They are afraid of God. Lord, they tell Him, I want to trust you, but I have so often done wrong against you. Do you still really love me? And then we recall those words of Peter.
Remember when the Lord asked him? And the reasons that Jesus asked Peter what He did is that He knew. It is behind the lines of John. He knew that Peter was scared. Peter wondered whether he would still rely on his Master, whom he had betrayed. So He asked Peter, Do you love me? And He kept repeating the same question, which really meant, Peter, do you trust me? That is the question that He asks us. And the answer should be unequivocal: Yes, Lord, I know I have been a scoundrel. I have done evil in your eyes and except for your mercy right now, I would be in hell. But I know that You love me, thank God, more than I have loved you.
May I recommend a practical way of keeping ourselves confident and trustful in God? This is to daily, during our examination of conscience, not only look at our failings and infidelities, but also at the good things that with Gods grace we have been able to do. These include acts of patience, kindness, prudence and foresight and special graces that came our way with which we cooperated. We need this periodic and, I would say, daily strengthening of our hope in Gods providential care for us by recalling in the recent pastsay a few hourshow we have been blessed by the Lord.
Hope For The Church
As we turn to our practice of confidence in God regarding the Church, I hardly have to remind you of how much there is to discourage even the most hardy believer. All we have to do is recall some of those anguished statements of both the late Pope Paul VI and the present Holy Father to make us aware of what trials the Church is going through. Much of the world is either under Communist domination or is deeply infected with Marxist philosophy. Family instability in countries like America has reached epidemic proportions: More than fifty divorces to a hundred marriages each year now in the United States. In one country after another, abortion has been legalized. Massive loss of vocations to the priesthood and religious life has occurred in many countries. In countries like ours, one after another of Catholic institutions of learning either disappearing for lack of vocations, or losing their Catholic identity through conformity to a secular culture. Millions of American Catholics have been, in effect, lost to Church membership in the past thirty years.
All of these figures and reports can be disheartening. But they should not be. What, then, are our grounds for hope for the Church into the future? The election and continued guidance of the present pope to the See of Peter is a sign of hope. The strong faith of our people that has in large measure stood firm through these troublesome times. The Churchs past history in weathering the storms that beset her and becoming stronger than ever as a consequence.
Pope John Paul II
Secular and other commentators on the election of Pope John Paul II in October 1978 observed that the cardinal electors not only did the unexpected, but the unthinkable in electing the first Slav Pope in history and the first Pope from a Communist nationand one whose erudition and sanctity were already outstanding long before his election.
The Holy Father has enkindled the hopes and aspirations of people in every country and of every religious persuasion. His words of encouragement have performed wonders. One incident among many: the provincial of a badly-polarized religious community of women was influenced by his presence in Washington to start a chain reaction in favor of strong, sound religious life among her international community. That has great promise for other institutes as well. Wherever the Pope appears, whenever he speaks, to whatever group he addresses himself, always his words are those of trust and confidence and reassurance and hope. Indeed, from the first day of his pontificate he has uttered the words, Be not afraid. This, too, is part of his office as Vicar of Christ: to preserve us in our faith, and to strengthen us in our hopefor the Church that we love.
Faith 0f Faithful
There are, moreover, many signs of confidence, seeing how so many of the faithful have risen to the occasion and risen above their trials through which the Church has been passing and is very likely to pass into the twenty-first century.
I am especially impressed by the humble patience with which so many of the people of God have accepted the dramatic changes in the Churchs liturgy. Where those changes have turned instead into liturgical abuses, people have sought out those parishes and priests who celebrate the Divine Liturgy the way it was intended. Having the faithful find creative ways of attending Mass is not new in the Churchs history, either. The parents of the young St. John Vianney would take the boy to hear Mass in a barn because those who made the French Revolution had outlawed prayer and were willing to kill any priest caught saying Mass. It was here where the future Cure of Ars obtained the desire to enter the priesthood.
I see now thousands of mothers and fathers teaching the faith to their children in the absence or removal of instruction programs in so many parts of the world. I hear about the heroic courage of millions of the faithful being persecuted for the faith in Russia, China and East Timor, even dying for the faith, in order to preserve it in their own lives and in the lives of those under their care. There are two priests in Sudan who, by the time this article is published, are likely to have been crucified by the state because they are Catholic.
For these faithful Catholics, and for us, Christ is their hope, as the Holy Father so eloquently stated during his homily one Christmas in St. Peters Basilica. In context, the Pope had been commenting on the strange lack of hospitality that prevented Mary and Joseph from finding lodging in Bethlehem and that required that Christ be born in a cave stable outside the city. The words I shall quote are at the conclusion of his homily, including the closing prayer:
Let us also think of those who on this night are not allowed to take part in the liturgy of Gods birth and who have no priest to celebrate Mass. And let us give a thought also to those whose souls and consciences are tormented no less than their faith.
The stable at Bethlehem is the first place for solidarity with man: for one mans solidarity with another and for all mens with all men, especially with those for whom there is no room at the inn (cf. Lk 2:7), whose personal rights are refused recognition.
The newborn Infant is wailing. Who hears the babys wail? But heaven speaks for Him, and it is heaven that explains it with these words: Glory to God in the highest heaven, and peace to men who enjoy His favor (Lk 2:14).
Touched by the fact of the birth of Jesus, we must hear this cry from heaven.
That cry must reach all the ends of the earth, all men must hear it anew.
A Son is given to us. Christ is born to us. Amen.
Suffering in ourselves we are expected to bear and unite them with the sufferings of our Lord. Suffering in others may be caused by human sin. Let us ask ourselves what we can do even must do by our love to lessen the burden of human pain.
The Churchs Past History
We come to the third and last reason for trusting in the Churchs future,
namely her now nearly twenty centuries of history. When has the Church been
without trials and difficulties? The answer is: Never. It all began on Calvary,
when the Churchs Founder was unjustly condemned to death by the state and crucified
between two thieves. And it has been going on ever since.
Then one heresy after another plagued the Church: Gnosticism, Pelagianism, Arianism, Manichaeism, Iconoclasm. Then later on, the Church struggled with Berengarianism, Wycliffism, Hussitism and Conciliarism. Since the sixteenth century, Calvinism and Jansenism, and in our own day, Rationalism, Materialism and Secularism confront the Church. Much of these heresies claim that there is no absolute Truth, that truth is what you make it. Because of this, elements of many of the heresies of the early Church are rearing their ugly heads again. The Church has of course been tried, but she has also been purified by the experience.
During the times of purification, the faithful have had to not only live martyrs lives, but be willing to live martyrs deaths. Having the strength, if the opportunity arises, to die a martyrs death all depends on whether we have lived a martyrs life, especially in this modern age. I have my own deep convictions on the historic importance of the teaching of Pope John Paul II, especially for todays Catholic faithful living in the world. The most important part of this teaching is for the faithful to embrace the opportunity to pay the price of proclaiming Christ.
Paying the Price
I not only expect you to payand pay dearlyfor making the Savior known in the modern world, but actually to embrace the prospect of suffering for the Name of Christ. It is no secret that, if Christ Himself was rejected by many of His contemporaries in Palestine, we should expect to fare no better in present-day America. This, in fact, is the hardest lesson we have to learn in life: truth has never been popular with the masses and least of all when this Truth, in the Person of Christ, makes heavy demands upon our charity and chastity and cheerful acceptance of the Cross.
What, then, is the price you can expect to pay for proclaiming the Christ you believe in by your conduct, your speech and the efforts you make to bring others to the Heart of Christ? You can expect to be ignored and to find yourself more than once isolated from the crowd. It would be unfair on my part not to forewarn you that this is bound to occur. I know too many Catholics who have told me how lonely they sometimes feel at holding onto certain truths of the faith, or at remaining faithful to religious practices that others have either never known or have long ago given up. Peer pressure in our conformist United States can be very strong. You can expect to be criticized for your old-fashioned and outmoded way of thinking, or put down as scholastic or medieval or preconciliar. What may be hardest to take is that this criticism may come from persons that you dearly love; those perhaps to whom you owe a heavy debt of gratitude. It was not without reason that Christ foretold that our worst enemies would be those from our own household.
Time was when we used to read those passages in the Gospels and, if not dismiss them, at least not consider them too practical. Ah, how the times have changed! What I wish to emphasize, however, is more than the obvious: any firm Catholic in our day, in our country, in our secular climate can expect apathy, as well as the criticism that he is out of contact with the real world. That is not all. It is not enough to say that truth, certainly Christs truth, is not popular. It is unwanted. And those who insist on proclaiming it by their language and lives will be opposed. Here surely we have a paradox. All the while, we have been saying how much the modern world needs Christ, and how clearly John Paul II is telling us to bring Christ to a world that is starving for the bread of truth that only He can give; yet, needing Christ is not the same as wanting Christ. The people that need to be told that abortion is murder, and that contraception is lust, and that the gay movement is not gay at all, but pathetically sad, do not want to hear this language. The world needs Christ in the Person of His Vicar on earth. It needs the strong hand of the Churchs authority to insist on the moral law and its faithful observance. At the same time, it resents the intrusion of this authority on its liberty and will crush anyone who dares to stand in the way. People may at first humor you for saying these things and living them, but if you persist in your convictions, they will turn you off. If you still persist, they will turn against you. And, if you still persist, they will turn loose all the forces of propaganda and publicity and the power of the state to silence you and, if necessary, put you legally out of the way.
But I am not finished yet. This price that we are asked to pay for our proclamation of Christ in word and in deed is not only the price of the endurance of pain. Nor is it simply the patient acceptance of criticism and rejection, or perhaps of open persecution. What we are also asked is to sacrifice what we personally like and have a natural right to enjoy. In order to confess Christ before men as He would have us do, we are invited to give up many things to which we are naturally, and legitimately, inclined. We naturally want to have money, and time, and leisure, and comfort, and convenience and the freedom to just be ourselves. We naturally want ease, and the praise of others, and honor, and recognition and all the good things of life, as they are called. And, provided they are justly acquired, no one should begrudge us these things. But as the beauty of Christ takes possession of our hearts, we become different men and women. Our personality is literally changed. We take on the quality of martyrs ready, if need be, to die for Christ. And we acquire a capacity for sacrifice that smiles at logic and rises above the desire for pleasure in this world in order to bring as many souls as possible to the Heart of the Savior whom we love.
Martyrdom and sacrifice are not familiar terms in the vocabulary of modern man. But they are precious words on the lips of those who, like our Holy Father, have discovered the secret of true joy in this world. It is the joy that comes to those who are convinced that Jesus is God; who are concerned that so many are deprived of this knowledge of Christ; who are compelled by their faith to share Christ with everyone, even those who may not be willing to listen; and above all, who are committed to proclaim the Masterno matter what it might cost themselves.
Father Hardon is the Executive Editor of The Catholic Faith magazine.
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