Column: Life is more important than winning a game — or even a championship

by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann

Pope Benedict, in his recent encyclical letter, “Spe Salvi — On Christian Hope,” recognizes that we all have many personal hopes that change with the various stages of life. For example, he notes: “Young people can have the hope of a great and fully satisfying love; the hope of a certain position in their profession, or some success that will prove decisive for the rest of their lives” (no. 30). Yet, when these hopes are fulfilled, we realize that they can be very fragile and are not able to fully satisfy the longing of our hearts.

On the evening of Monday, April 7, I was at St. Benedict’s Abbey church administering the sacrament of confirmation to the youth of our Atchison parishes. This was also the night of the NCAA men’s basketball championship game.

Even though I was very interested in seeing the game myself, I told the candidates for confirmation that what was happening to them that night was much more important than any basketball game.

Most everyone in Kansas, except really die-hard Kansas State fans, hoped for KU to win the national basketball championship. With two minutes left, we were hoping for the Jayhawks to pull off a miracle comeback by overcoming a nine- point deficit. With only a couple seconds left, we were hoping that Mario Chalmers could hit a three-point basket.

When the game went into overtime, we were hoping that KU would complete the miracle by winning the championship.

All of these hopes were realized. All of Kansas seemed to experience a real euphoria after the game. KU players, students, alumni and fans celebrated for days and will cherish the memory of this dramatic victory for many years.

Yet, life goes on. The students celebrating on Massachusetts Avenue in Lawrence a couple of weeks ago are now completing papers, attending classes and preparing for tests. The non-student fans are also back to contending with the everyday challenges of work and family. Even Mario Chalmers and the other Jayhawk players cannot simply spend the rest of their lives reliving their big victory. Life is about something more than winning a game or even a championship.

Perhaps more than winning an athletic game or any other human achievement, many people pin the hope of their ultimate happiness upon loving and being loved by the “right person.” In “Spe Salvi,” the Holy Father acknowledges this very natural human aspiration: “When someone has the experience of a great love in his life, this is a moment of redemption which gives a new meaning to his life. But soon he will also realize that the love bestowed upon him cannot by itself resolve the question of his life. It is a love that remains fragile. It can be destroyed by death. The human being needs unconditional love” (no. 26).

Pope Benedict contends that indeed love does hold the key to life’s meaning for human beings. However, the only love that can satisfy the longing of our hearts is an absolute, unconditional and everlasting love. This is precisely the love of God for us revealed in his son, Jesus Christ, and it is this love that Pope Benedict maintains is the ultimate hope of humanity: “Man’s great, true hope which holds firm in spite of all disappointments can only be God — God who has loved us and who continues to love us to the end, until all is accomplished” (no. 27).

Last week, we reflected upon Pope Benedict’s assessment that the modern concept of faith in progress is actually an illusory hope. While there is indeed incremental progress in the material sphere — the mastery that science helps us achieve over nature — the same cannot be said regarding what the Holy Father terms our “ethical awareness and moral decision-making.”

Moreover, Pope Benedict contends that good social structures, as important as they are, cannot guarantee the moral well-being of the world. In fact, if the creation of certain political or economic structures by one generation could guarantee the well-being of future generations, this would actually destroy authentic human freedom.

The Holy Father writes: “Since man always remains free and since his freedom is always fragile, the kingdom of good will never be definitively established in this world. Anyone who promises the better world that is guaranteed to last forever is making a false promise; he is overlooking human freedom. Freedom must constantly be won over for the cause of good. Free assent to the good never exists simply by itself. If there were structures which could irrevocably guarantee a determined — good — state of the world, man’s freedom would be denied, and hence they would not be good structures at all” (no. 24).

Pope Benedict contends that humanity is ultimately redeemed by love, not socio-economic structures. It is our experience of the unconditional and permanent love of God for us that has the power to transform our hearts. It is in the redeeming love of Jesus that we find the interior strength to make ethical and moral choices — not based upon personal pleasure, selfish interests or the acquisition of power over others, but rather grounded in our desire to share the gift that has been given freely to us. It is in our experience of God’s love for us that we discover authentic freedom, which is not to do whatever I want, but rather to choose to do the good and the noble.

Being filled with the Holy Spirit is an expression that describes our experience of an overwhelming sense of God’s love for us. This is what is offered to us through the grace of our confirmation and this is why the reception of this sacrament is indeed more important than any athletic contest. Thus, with even more enthusiasm than we say, “Go, Jayhawks,” we must pray, “Come Holy Spirit, come!”

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