This is the second half of an article called “What does ‘hope’ really mean?” by Bishop Peter Cullinane. A good starting point [for deeply appreciating what hope really is] is the New Testament Scriptures. The disciples on the road to Emmaus told the stranger who had joined them what they “had hoped” Jesus of Nazareth might have done, until an unjust death had overtaken even him.
The stranger explained that a much more wonderful hope had emerged because of Jesus’ Resurrection, but that his Resurrection presupposed Good Friday. It didn’t come about merely in spite of Good Friday, it came through what happened on Good Friday. That was the hard lesson they hadn’t yet learned.
Jesus himself had hoped — that there might have been some other way of fulfilling his mission that didn’t involve his suffering. According to the Letter to the Hebrews, “aloud and in silent tears he prayed to the one who had the power to save him out of death . . .”, and his “prayer was heard”! (Heb. 5:7-9) Note: not saved “from” death but “out of” death.
From what was said on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-27), and in Jesus’ prayer in the garden (Mark 14:32-36), you’ll notice that hope is not any kind of assurance that things will turn out right. Rather, it is deep down knowing that all will be well even if they don’t. That is hope, and that is what makes it possible to say “not mine but your will be done”, because we already know the outcome will be wonderful, whatever happens.
Given that understanding of hope, an important question arises concerning how we ourselves are affected by failure and weakness, whether it’s our own or that of others. Are we upset because we had premised our well-being on things turning out right — and so we were sad/lonely/frustrated because they didn’t? Would our peace of mind have been more secure if our well-being had been premised on deep down knowing that all will be well even if they didn’t?
How not to be paralysed
This brings us back to the matter of how not to become paralysed by failure and set back. On a personal level, the example of St Peter can help us: imagine the desolation he must have experienced over his shameful failure. What prevented him from turning in on himself was the experience of being entrusted, by the very one he had denied knowing, with a mission. Receiving this trust in spite of his unworthiness must have been for him a transforming revelation of how great God’s love for him was. Knowing how greatly we are loved is what changes ourselves and liberates us for bringing about change. Pope Francis suggests that we need to know both Peter disheartened and Peter transformed, and open our eyes to what is implied by the call to mission that we too have received. “God is present in every life even if it has been a disaster.” (Pope Francis)
At the level of the whole Church, the same law of God’s power at work in human frailty applies: “A Church with wounds can understand the wounds of the world and make them her own, suffering with them.” (Pope Francis). Thirty years ago, when the Catholic Church was beginning to feel the pinch of insufficient vocations to priesthood, Cardinal Godfried Danneels had this to say: “Not for the first time in the history of the Church, God has forced his people into exile one way or another. The most famous exile in the Bible is that of the rivers of Babylon where the Jews had been deported . . . . It was a sort of iconic exile in which we can read what any kind of exile entails and implies. It represented a time of God’s extreme benevolence and tenderness toward his people. I am convinced that God looks upon us with that same tenderness even as we debate the whole problem of vocations.”
The first thing the Jews said, according to the prophet Daniel, was; “Lord, we have no temples, no kings, no holy city, no synagogue, no schools, no offerings, no sacrifices, no priests, no rabbis . . . . All we have is a humble and contrite heart.” I am sure that 40 years ago, we were totally convinced, although no one ever said it, of our ability to arrange, organise the Church to our liking by our efforts alone. And if they had asked us we would obviously have replied: “No, it is the work of the Lord.” But, in a way, that was just the theory. Deep down, we were saying: “We have many priests, many workers, a certain degree of influence, a certain degree of power, prestige, means . . . . We had allowed ourselves to think we were able to construct the Church. Now we are learning slowly and wearily that we are not capable at all . . . .
“Now we are learning to live in a state of dependency, learning progressively and with difficulty to forgo the myth of spiritual and ecclesiastical self-sufficiency. We are learning anew what theology had already taught us as totally abstract theory, situated somewhere in the history of the fourth and fifth centuries, at the time of St Augustine’s debate on grace. We were Pelagians after all.
“Exile is also the time of God’s tenderness. The most beautiful passages of Isaiah on the maternity of God were written in exile. Israel, at the height of its power and with Jerusalem never so glorious, proved unable to understand that God is teaching us to walk, just as a mother teaches her child to take its first steps. God was only conceivable as a valiant warrior at the head of his army but certainly not as a mother . . . .
“We have arrived at this moment which may well be hard but we need not think of as all misfortune. For we have arrived at the time of humility, of dependence, of omnipotent grace, of God’s tenderness, of the patience of giving birth, of suffering . . . .”
To all this I say: abiding and resting in this “time of humility, of dependence, of omnipotent grace, of God’s tenderness, of the patience of giving birth, of suffering”, is how we allow God to do what only God can do. It is not an invitation to fatalistic resignation, nor a condoning of wrong situations. Rather, it is the way we are formed for discerning the ways of God, and acting accordingly.
Finally, the principle of new life through dying applies also to the Church as an institution. The following far-reaching comment is by Hans Urs von Balthasar: “. . . (The) Church will suffer the loss of its shape as it undergoes a death, and all the more so, the more purely it lives from its source and is consequently less concerned with preserving its shape. In fact, it will not concern itself with affirming its shape but with promoting the world’s salvation; as for the shape in which God will raise it from its death to serve the world, it will entrust that to the Holy Spirit. (The Three Forms of Hope, quoted in Weigel’s Soul of the World, William B Eerdmans Publishing Co, Grand Rapids, Michegan, 1996, 41).
Bishop Peter Cullinane is a Bishop Emeritus of Palmerston North diocese. This is the second part of a talk titled “What does hope really mean?” given at Johnsonville in Wellington on April 12 at a meeting of parishioners convened by Kitty McKinley of Challenge 2000.