The New Gravitational Force, The Anchor, April 17, 2009

Fr. Roger J. Landry
The Anchor
April 17, 2009

A year ago, Pope Benedict was in the midst of his apostolic pilgrimage to the United States to lead us in spiritual renewal on the theme of “Christ our Hope.” In his visits with Christians in Washington and New York, he spoke repeatedly and explicitly about how Jesus Christ, the face of God among us, incarnates true hope for all men and women to attain genuine human fulfillment as individuals and peoples. In his visits with interreligious leaders, President Bush and the United Nations Assembly, he focused more broadly on how mankind’s only hope for peace, justice and freedom would come through obedience to the law of God that Jesus brought to fulfillment in his commandment to love one another, which he said is the most defined expression of the “golden rule” knowable by reason.

It was clear in his choice of the theme for the pilgrimage — following upon the publication of his second encyclical five months earlier on the distinctive nature of Christian Hope (“Spe Salvi”) — that one of Benedict’s major pastoral concerns is that many in the United States and across the globe are living without hope because they are living “without God in the world” (Eph 2:12). In his frank talk to the U.S. bishops, he described the various “barriers” Americans need to overcome to experience the life-transforming hope that comes from Christ and his words.

He first mentioned the “subtle influence of secularism,” which leads to treating religion as a private matter and to separating the faith we profess on Sundays from the life we live throughout the week. “Only when their faith permeates every aspect of their lives,” he stressed, “do Christians become truly open to the transforming power of the Gospel.” He turned next to the obstacle posed by materialism, which seduces people to focus on the here-and-now at the cost of eternity. “Entranced” by the possibilities of science and technology, we can begin to believe we can fulfill our deepest needs through our own efforts. Lastly, he warned that we Americans often exaggerate the personal values of freedom and autonomy so much that we lose sight of our dependence on and responsibility for others, which quickly corrupts the person, the Church as well as society.

While it’s still too early to determine how the seeds of hope planted by Pope Benedict a year ago have been competing against these pernicious weeds, it’s clear by the emphasis he placed on hope in his Holy Week homilies, however, that the Holy Father feels that remedying the world’s crisis of hope remains one of his top priorities.

In his Easter message to the city of Rome and to the world, Pope Benedict focused the hope that comes from the Lord’s resurrection. Jesus’s rising from the dead is a highly relevant question for the world, as he said, “one of the questions that most preoccupies men and women is this: what is there after death?” Quoting St. Paul, he affirmed that if Christ has not been raised, then Christians, too, would join the dirge of despair, since our faith and life would be in vain (1 Cor 15:14,19). But he stressed the plausibility of the resurrection of Christ, saying the Christian certainty of the resurrection is based “not on simply human reasoning, but on a historical fact of faith.” The resurrection “is not a theory, but a historical reality… It is neither a myth nor a dream. It is not a vision or a utopia. It is not a fairy tale, but it is a singular and unrepeatable event.” He adds against discredited theologians who have posited that the resurrection was only a matter of “faith” and not “fact,” that “Jesus is risen not because his memory remains alive in the hearts of his disciples, but because he himself lives in us, and in him we can already savor the joy of eternal life.” He does not enter into a full apologetic of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, but he boldly issues a challenge to the secularized within the world and nominally within the Church to confront the evidence of the resurrection on the plane of history rather than fable.

The truth of the resurrection, he stressed, is the medicine for the plagues the world, the antidote to the obstacles of secularism, materialism and individualism that make it harder for people to hope.  “The proclamation of the Lord’s Resurrection lightens up the dark regions of the world in which we live. I am referring particularly to materialism and nihilism, to a vision of the world that is unable to move beyond what is scientifically verifiable, and retreats cheerlessly into a sense of emptiness that is thought to be the definitive destiny of human life. It is a fact that if Christ had not risen, the ‘emptiness’ would be set to prevail. If we take away Christ and his resurrection, there is no escape for man, and every one of his hopes remains an illusion. Yet today is the day when the proclamation of the Lord’s resurrection vigorously bursts forth, and it is the answer to the recurring question of the skeptics” about whether anything is really new. The novelty in Christianity, Benedict says, is that life truly and definitively triumphs over death, a truth that “changes the lives of those who accept it, as in the case of the saints.” The “sense of emptiness, which tends to intoxicate humanity, has been overcome by the light and the hope that emanate from the resurrection.” Without stating it, Pope Benedict implies that one can see that light and hope transparently shine in the figures like Blessed Mother Teresa, even in the midst of the poorest of the poor while experiencing the darkest of dark nights.

The Church’s mission in the midst of a world where “there still remain very many, in fact, too many signs” of death’s dominion, the Pope says, is to give witness to the resurrection and the firm hope that flows from it. Benedict obviously recognizes that some Catholics, looking at the present statistical situation of the Church in Europe and in certain parts of the United States and Canada, have begun to despair for the future of the Church,. He sought to reassure them in his Easter Vigil homily. He noted that the “situation of the disciples of Jesus Christ in every age [and] the situation of the Church in the history of this world” can be likened to a vision in the fifteenth chapter of the Book of Revelation. There we see the saints walking amidst a sea of glass mingled with fire singing God’s praises, much the Israelites walked through the Red Sea chanting God’s praises. Humanly speaking, the Pope says, both the Israelites and the Church should have been drowning, and yet, each sings the song of the saved. The Lord’s hand holds them above the waters. Even though there is the “force of gravity of death” trying to pull the Church under water, there is the “new gravitational force of God, of truth and of love” that is “stronger than that of hatred; the force of life is stronger than death” raising her up. The situation of the Church in every age is that she “always seems as if she ought to be sinking, and yet she is always saved. … The Lord’s saving hand holds us up, and thus we can already sing the song of the saved, the new song of the risen ones.”

One year after Pope Benedict’s visit to our country, he is reminding all of us not to be afraid, to grab hold of the risen Lord’s hand, and to begin to sing with him in joyful unison the ever new song of salvation.