by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann
On Nov. 30, 2007, Pope Benedict XVI promulgated his second encyclical letter: “Spe Salvi — On Christian Hope.” During these first weeks of the Easter season, the great season of Christian hope, I want to reflect with you on some of the main themes of the Holy Father’s recent encyclical letter.
A few weeks ago, in a homily to a gathering of young people in Rome at the Church of St. Lawrence, observing the 25th anniversary of an international youth center, a place where young Catholic evangelists are trained, Pope Benedict invited the young adults gathered that night to: “Imagine that medicine was able to come up with a prescription for immortality.” The Holy Father drew out the implications of such a wonder medicine: “We would find ourselves in an old world, a world full of the aged, a world that would have no space for the young, for the renewal of life.” Pope Benedict reflected: “This cannot be the type of immortality to which we aspire; this is not the possibility of drinking at the fountain of youth that we all desire.”
In “Spe Salvi,” Pope Benedict makes a similar point. Drawing on the example of Christian parents, who, motivated by their desire for eternal life for their child, present an infant for baptism, the Holy Father poses the blunt question: “Do we really want this — to live eternally?” The Holy Father ponders: “Perhaps many people reject faith today simply because they do not find the prospect of eternal life attractive. What they desire is not eternal life at all, but this present life, for which faith in eternal life seems something of an impediment. To continue living forever — endlessly — appears more like a curse than a gift. Death, admittedly, one would wish to postpone as long as possible. But to live always, without end — this, all things considered, can only be monotonous and ultimately unbearable” (no. 10).
The pope, in his reflection on the virtue of hope, notes that those of us who have grown up as Christians can become dulled to the meaning of what we possess — a hope that is based on a real encounter with Jesus Christ. The Holy Father contrasts the experience of cradle Catholics with the example of a relatively modern saint, St. Josephine Bakhita, who was born in 1869 in Darfur, Sudan.
In his encyclical the Holy Father provides a brief summary of St. Josephine’s life: “At the age of nine, she was kidnapped by slave-traders, beaten till she bled, and sold five times in the slave-markets of Sudan. Eventually she found herself working as a slave for the mother and the wife of a general, and there she was flogged every day till she bled; as a result of this she bore 144 scars throughout her life. Finally, in 1882, she was bought by an Italian merchant for the Italian consul Callisto Legnani” who was forced to return to Italy because of political instability in the Sudan. It was with the Legnani family, “after terrifying masters who had owned her up to that point, Josephine came to know a totally different kind of master.
“Up to that time she had only known masters who despised and maltreated her, or at best considered her a useful slave. Now, however, she heard that there is a paron [master] above all masters, the Lord of all lords, and that this Lord is good, goodness in person. She came to know that this Lord even knew her, that he had created her — that he actually loved her. She too was loved, and by none other than the supreme paron [master], before whom all other masters are themselves no more than lowly servants. She was known and loved and she was awaited. What is more, this master had himself accepted the destiny of being flogged and now he was awaiting for her ‘at the Father’s right hand.’
“Now she had hope — no longer simply the modest hope of finding masters who would be less cruel, but the great hope: ‘I am definitely loved and whatever happens to me — I am awaited by this Love. And so my life is good.’
“Through the knowledge of this hope she was redeemed, no longer a slave, but a free child of God. She understood what [St.] Paul meant when he reminded the Ephesians that previously they were without hope and without God in the world — without hope because without God.
“Hence, when she was about to be taken back to Sudan, Bakhita refused; she did not wish to be separated from her paron [master]. On January 9, 1890, she was baptized and confirmed and received her first Holy Communion from the hands of the Patriarch of Venice. On Dec. 8, 1896, in Verona, she took her vows in the Congregation of the Canossian Sisters and from that time onwards, besides her work in the sacristy and in the porter’s lodge at the convent, she made several journeys round Italy in order to promote the missions: the liberation that she had received through her encounter with the God of Jesus Christ, she felt she had to extend, it had to be handed on to others, to the greatest possible number of people. The hope born in her which had redeemed her she could not keep to herself; this hope had to reach many, to reach everybody” (no. 3)
The hope that has been given to us through the waters of baptism is not about eternal life in this world. It is not about a magic pill that could extend our life interminably on earth. Nor is our hope anchored in a social revolution that will right all of the injustices in the world.
It is a hope based on an encounter with the risen Jesus, who has loved us and awaits us. And because of his love, our life is good, our life is blest. Our hope is based on our experience of being loved by Jesus, uniquely and personally, as was St. Josephine Bakhita. The abundant life that Jesus has given us, through the waters of baptism, is not an endless succession of days in this world, but it is being immersed forever in something happier, more satisfying and more joyful than the happiest, the most satisfying and the most joyous moment we have known in this world.
This is a hope capable of sustaining us through all of the ups and downs of life in this world.