6th Sunday of Easter
Live-Streamed and Televised Mass (Coronavirus Crisis)
Cathedral of Mary Our Queen
May 17, 2020
During this pandemic, we have encountered a fair share of dubious optimism. Even as we earnestly hope and pray for an end to the COVID-19 crisis, we are cautious when we hear rosy predictions of sudden medical breakthroughs. The same is true of the economy. We would like a quick recovery but are wary of overly optimistic predictions.
Recently, while talking with a friend, I expressed caution about such rosy predictions. In a good-natured way, he shot back, “Isn’t hope a virtue and aren’t you a priest?” “Yes,” said I, “but optimism and hope are not the same thing.” I thought of that exchange as I read St. Peter’s words in today’s second reading: “Always be ready [Peter wrote] to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope, but do it with gentleness and reverence . . . ” (1 Pet. 3:14-15). So, my friends, what is the difference between optimism and hope?
Optimism and Hope
First, let me be clear: I am not against optimism; in fact, I am an optimist. I tend to look on the bright side and like to be with people whose outlook is upbeat. Wasn’t it St. Teresa of Avila who said, “May God deliver me from gloomy saints”? That great saint did not equate gloominess with sanctity and neither should we!
But hard experience teaches us that mere optimism is often battered by reality, and is sometimes little more than wishful thinking. Optimism may be an admirable personality trait and an ingredient for success, but it often crumbles in the face of fear, disappointment, and adversity. As a rule, optimism seems to limit itself to the affairs of this world, not the next. So, it can take us a long way in life but stops well short of the fulfillment we seek. Just perhaps this pandemic has starkly illustrated the limits of mere optimism.
To be sure, optimism and hope are not always at odds; we might say they are “cousins”. Both share a positive outlook, both look to a brighter future, and both believe that good prevails over evil. But this is where the family resemblance between optimism and hope ends. For, unlike optimism, the virtue of hope is not a mere character trait. Rather, it is a gift, a seed, planted in our souls at Baptism by the Holy Spirit, a seed which, if nurtured, enables us to entrust the whole of our lives to Jesus Christ… and to do so, in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health, in peace and in persecution. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it, “Hope is the theological virtue by which we desire the kingdom of heaven and eternal life as our happiness, placing our trust in Christ’s promises and relying not on our own strength but on the help of the Holy Spirit” (№ 1817). I. Giving Reasons for Our Hope A. With that said, let us return to St. Peter’s admonition to us this Sunday morning. Note that Peter is not just exhorting us to hope in Christ or to be a people of hope. No, Peter is urging us to be prepared to explain to others why we hope in Christ: “Always be ready [he said] to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope, but do it with gentleness and reverence. . .” (1 Pet. 3:14-15). What, then, is Peter asking us to do and how do we do it?
First, what is the hope that others might ask us to explain? Peter himself describes our hope in an earlier passage, where he wrote: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who in his great mercy gave us a new birth to a living hope, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead . . .” (1 Peter 1:3). Our hope is in the Risen Christ, who has invited us to a completely new way of life, a way of life rooted in his victory over sin and death. Next Peter challenges us to give a reason for our hope, an accounting of it. Here Peter is telling us to be ready to explain, not only why we believe and hope, but also “to give a full verbal account of what we believe” (D. Keating, First and Second Peter, Jude, Grand Rapids, Mi.: Baker Academic, 2011, p. 85) If we are serious Catholic Christians, and are known to be such, we are likely to be asked what we believe in and why. So we need to know and love our faith well enough to share it with others. Few of us can claim to be professors of theology (Dcn. Bauerschmidt is an exception) but all of us should have a mature understanding of our Catholic faith. At the same time, we need to bear witness to our hope in the Risen Lord by living that new life of grace which he won for us by his death and resurrection.
Is this not what Jesus himself teaches us in today’s Gospel? “Jesus said to his disciples, ‘If you love me, you will keep my commandments’” (Jn. 14:15), and to those who do keep his commandments Jesus promises the Holy Spirit… the Holy Spirit who enables us to bear convincing witness to Christ who is our hope. Notice what Jesus is saying to you and me: The way we demonstrate our personal love for Jesus is to obey his commandments. And Jesus’ most basic commandment is this: “As I have you loved you, [he says] so you should also love one another” (Jn. 13:34; Cf. F. Martin and W. Wright, The Gospel of John, Grand Rapids, Mi.: Baker Academic, 2015, p. 248). When we love others the way that Jesus has loved us, with a love that is generous and pure, then we are giving compelling evidence that the Jesus’ risen life has truly taken root in our hearts. ‘Loving obedience, then, is the lifestyle [of those who love] God’ (Martin and Wright, op. cit., p. 249). Or, as Pope Benedict XVI said so memorably, “One who has hope lives differently” (Spe Salvi, № 2).
Another name for giving reasons for our hope is . . . evangelization . . . that word we hear so often but claim not to understand. Evangelization simply means spreading the Gospel by giving an account of our hope, by giving witness to the truth and love of Christ by our love for others and by our personal testimony to the truth and beauty of our faith. No wonder, then, that St. Peter urges us to bear witness to hope gently and reverently. Not only to disarm those who resist the Gospel or to find our way in a hostile world, but because the One to whom we bear witness is our Gentle Shepherd who “learned obedience from what he suffered” (Heb. 5:8).
Once we have entrusted our lives to Christ, then we will experience no fear or hesitation in bearing witness to our faith, even when we are likely to encounter hostility and rejection. This is precisely what is going on in the first reading from the Acts of the Apostles. That snapshot shows the early Church hard at work, spreading the faith, even though the Church was in the midst of a brutal persecution. That did not deter Philip from bringing the Gospel to Samaria or Peter and John from imparting the Holy Spirit to the Samaritans.
Optimism is indeed an admirable human quality. But if the Apostles had been merely optimistic and not witnesses of hope, the Christian faith would not have gotten much farther than Jerusalem or Galilee. The same is true for us who profess the faith of the Apostles. Let us be those disciples, those followers of Christ, who “restore to Christianity its true face as a religion of hope” (cf. Pope Benedict XVI, Homily Beatification of John Paul II, 1.V. 2011).
And may God bless us and keep us always in his love!