Tuesday, May 10, 2011


Pope Benedict XVI's second encyclical letter is titled "Spe Salvi" or "Saved in Hope". It is a beautiful and profound piece. I had purchased a copy sometime ago, but never read it fully. I picked it up today because of a reference to it in an article I was reading.

It begins...
“SPE SALVI facti sumus”—in hope we were saved, says Saint Paul to the Romans, and likewise to us (Rom 8:24).
"In hope we are saved" is the topic of the rest of this wonderful gift from the Pope to the Church and the world. His writing is very profound and at times even mystical. It can be challenging to decipher his thoughts, but the rewards in following him along a journey through the historical teachings of the Church, and the philosophical elements that are embodied in those teachings are well worth the cost of wrestling with the myriad of facts and ideas that he presents.

After reading one of the Pope's many writings on Christianity, the writings of his Protestant contemporaries seem so trivial and pedestrian in comparison. Pope Benedict is like a deep well of knowledge of the Christian faith. Or even I dare say, like a vast and deep reservoir of knowledge of Church history and teachings. And that is combined with a profound analysis and the divine inspiration coming from the Holy Spirit which is so essential to understanding the true meaning of Scripture and the writings of the Saints.

From his German cultural background he has inherited a deep love and understanding of various schools of philosophy. This can be a benefit for understanding Christian teaching, but it can also be a handicap because divine revelation teaches us so much more than philosophy which is after all just the product of human thought.

In one section, the Holy Father asks the question "Eternal life -- what is it?" And then attempts to give an answer. He begins with "the classical form of the dialogue with which the rite of Baptism expressed the reception of an infant into the community of believers"...
“What do you ask of the Church?” Answer: “Faith”. “And what does faith give you?” “Eternal life”.
"Faith" is what the parents of the child ask of the Church. What more could any Christian parent ask for than that their child be given the grace of "faith"? "Faith" is that essential element of Christianity which is so elusive for those who have not received this gift of the Holy Spirit. How does one convert from the pathetic form of life of the unbeliever to the joyful state of one who truly believes in God and his Love and Mercy?

From faith flows "eternal life". But Pope Benedict wants us to realize that we need to be fully aware of the true meaning of the words "eternal life". He warns us that this is a concept which we can never fully understand while we are attached to our earthly bodies. He suggests that what we really mean by "eternal life" is a longing for true happiness, but that the form of this happiness is a mystery. And we call that mystery "eternal life" just in order to give it a name so that we can speak about it...
This unknown “thing” is the true “hope” which drives us.... The term “eternal life” is intended to give a name to this known “unknown”. Inevitably it is an inadequate term that creates confusion. “Eternal”, in fact, suggests to us the idea of something interminable, and this frightens us; “life” makes us think of the life that we know and love and do not want to lose, even though very often it brings more toil than satisfaction...
Ultimately, the Pope is teaching us here something about the nature of Heaven. A little earlier in this encyclical he says that modern man has a problem with "eternal life", because it seems to confront him with a choice. Should he sacrifice the pleasures of his present life in exchange for an "eternal life" in the hereafter?
But then the question arises: do we really want this—to live eternally? Perhaps many people reject the 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.
The solution of the modern world to this dilemma is to reject God completely. Life becomes a pursuit of worldly pleasures. But then life loses its meaning and purpose. A human being is reduced to a collection of atoms and molecules and the dignity of man is lost. We try to fill this vacuum with gadgets and toys and vacations and thrill seeking, but at the end of the day it is all empty and meaningless.

Pope Benedict in the conclusion of this section of the encyclical letter attempts to give us a taste of what "eternal life" would really be like. He asks us to...
... imagine ourselves outside the temporality that imprisons us and in some way to sense that eternity is ... something more like the supreme moment of satisfaction, in which totality embraces us and we embrace totality .... It would be like plunging into the ocean of infinite love, a moment in which time ... no longer exists. We can only attempt to grasp the idea that such a moment is life in the full sense, a plunging ever anew into the vastness of being, in which we are simply overwhelmed with joy.
Following this mystical vision of Heaven, the Pope quotes from Jesus at the Last Supper ...
"I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you" (John 16:22).
Clearly, Pope Benedict believes that Jesus is speaking here not just of his appearance after the Resurrection to the Apostles, but also to his welcoming them into the "eternal life" of Heaven.

And this is the ultimate source of "hope" for Christians. It is this promise from God of "eternal life". This then is the purpose and goal of a Christian life which is rooted in faith in God's infinite love and mercy. In the words of Pope Benedict...
God is the foundation of hope: not any god, but the God who has a human face and who has loved us to the end, each one of us and humanity in its entirety. His Kingdom is not an imaginary hereafter, situated in a future that will never arrive; his Kingdom is present wherever he is loved and wherever his love reaches us. His love alone gives us the possibility of soberly persevering day by day, without ceasing to be spurred on by hope, in a world which by its very nature is imperfect. His love is at the same time our guarantee of the existence of what we only vaguely sense and which nevertheless, in our deepest self, we await: a life that is “truly” life.

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