The Holy Father’s latest encyclical, Spe Salvi, was published on Friday, the Feast of Saint Andrew. Releasing it as he did just before Advent, the Pope Benedict seems to be consciously presenting us with an Advent theme. This is appropriate enough, for Advent is the season of hope par excellence. Some comments on this latest offering of the Holy Father will follow. First, I would like to draw the readers’ attention to the opening part of the Encyclical, wherein the Holy Father discusses Christian hope against the backdrop of the pagan world into which the Church was launched:
“We see how decisively the self-understanding of the early Christians was shaped by their having received the gift of a trustworthy hope, when we compare the Christian life with life prior to faith, or with the situation of the followers of other religions. Paul reminds the Ephesians that before their encounter with Christ they were “without hope and without God in the world” (Eph 2:12). Of course he knew they had had gods, he knew they had had a religion, but their gods had proved questionable, and no hope emerged from their contradictory myths. Notwithstanding their gods, they were “without God” and consequently found themselves in a dark world, facing a dark future. In nihil ab nihilo quam cito recidimus (How quickly we fall back from nothing to nothing): so says an epitaph of that period. In this phrase we see in no uncertain terms the point Paul was making. In the same vein he says to the Thessalonians: you must not “grieve as others do who have no hope” (1 Th 4:13). Here too we see as a distinguishing mark of Christians the fact that they have a future: it is not that they know the details of what awaits them, but they know in general terms that their life will not end in emptiness. Only when the future is certain as a positive reality does it become possible to live the present as well. So now we can say: Christianity was not only “good news”—the communication of a hitherto unknown content. In our language we would say: the Christian message was not only “informative” but “performative”. That means: the Gospel is not merely a communication of things that can be known—it is one that makes things happen and is life-changing. The dark door of time, of the future, has been thrown open. The one who has hope lives differently; the one who hopes has been granted the gift of a new life.” (No. 2)
Compare this passage to a similar, if more hard hitting excerpt from one of our favorite spiritual masters, Abbot Guéranger:
“Let us consider the wretched condition of the human race, at the time of Christ’s coming into the world. The diminution of truths (cf. Ps. 11:2) is emphatically expressed by the little light which the earth enjoys at this season of the year. The ancient traditions are gradually becoming extinct; the Creator is not acknowledged, even in the very work of His hands; everything has been made God, except the God who made all things. This frightful pantheism produces the vilest immorality, both in society at large, and in individuals. There are no rights acknowledged, save that of might. Lust, avarice, and theft, are honoured by men in the gods of their altars. There is no such thing as family, for divorce and infanticide are legalized; mankind is degraded by a general system of slavery; nations are being exterminated by endless wars. The human race is in the last extreme of misery; and unless the hand that created it reform it, it must needs sink a prey to crime and bloodshed. There are indeed some few just men still left upon the earth, and they struggle against the torrent of universal degradation; but they cannot save the world; the world despises them, and God will not accept their merits as a palliation of the hideous leprosy which covers the earth. All flesh has corrupted its way, and is more guilty than even in the days of the deluge: and yet, a second destruction of the universe would but manifest anew the justice of God; it is time that a deluge of His divine mercy should flood the universe, and that He who made man, should come down and heal him. Come then, O eternal Son of God! give life again to this dead body; heal all its wounds; purify it; let grace superabound, where sin before abounded; and having converted the world to Thy holy law, Thou wilt have proved to all ages that Thou, who camest, wast in very truth the Word of the Father; for as none but a God could create the world, so none but the same omnipotent God could save it from satan and sin, and restore it to justice and holiness.” (The Liturgical Year for December 3.)
Spe Salvi: Some Observations
The Holy Father’s new encyclical, a work of great subtlety and refinement, demands our attention. Its dignified style is worthy of the high office whence it emanates, and, while many of its contrary parts are made in a gentle manner, the truth is there to be seen. These profound meditations on Christian hope constitute both an encouragement to the faithful and a calm, paternal apologia to a world otherwise without hope.
Here is a list of some of the features of the encyclical which recommend it:
- A deep and meditative use of Holy Scripture, with copious scriptural references. The passages are not dissected as by a critical scholar, but presented by one who believes in them and evidently prays over them.
- Numerous patristic references, including references to St. Augustine, St. Ambrose, and St. Gregory Nazianzen.
- Some important points illustrated by their application in the lives of saints. St. Augustine and St. Josephine Bakhita especially are proposed.
- Denies that man is a mere product of evolution.
- References to history and archeology, including the testimony of sarcophagi and epitaphs.
- Subtle, but firm critique of Prot interpretation of “substance of things hoped for.”
- Promotion of religious life.
- In citing the interrogations at the beginning of the Baptismal Rite, the Holy Father appears to be using the traditional Roman Rite, not the new. He writes of “the classical form of the dialogue with which the rite of Baptism expressed the reception of an infant into the community of believers and the infant’s rebirth in Christ…: ‘What do you ask of the Church?’ Answer: ‘Faith’. ‘And what does faith give you?’ ‘Eternal life’.” This corresponds to the traditional rite, but not the new rite in English, at least not the one approved for use in the United States (the only one I could consult).
- A serious critique of modernity: Francis Bacon (science and praxis), the French Revolution, Kant, Marx, Lenin, and the neo-Marxists of the Frankfurt School are all subject to a firm, if calm, criticism.
- The familiar theme of faith and reason is brought in once again.
- Profoundly supernatural thoughts on suffering, with a critique of hedonism. Very refreshingly, the Holy Father promotes the traditional practice of “offering up” our daily crosses.
- Apologetics, including a defense of the doctrine of Purgatory, a firm critique of Lutheran sola gratia in defense of the role of free-will acts in our salvation.
- A beautiful tribute to Mary, the “Star of the Sea” at the end. This tribute turns into a long prayer to Our Lady.