In the days leading up to this Easter, Pope Francis has frequently reminded us of the necessity of Christian hope. Hope is vital to the Christian life. Pope Benedict wrote about hope at length in his encyclical Spe Salvi, and a large portion of the document was dedicated to the relationship between hope and suffering. Due to this pandemic, it only seemed logical that Francis would pick up that thread in an Easter Mass celebrated inside a mostly empty St. Peter’s Basilica. But as always, Francis found a way, even in a short Easter Vigil homily, to drive the point home in an extremely practical way. Francis made it clear that he believes, hope is life. In his homily, Pope Francis reminded us that hope sustains us and, through the gift of hope, God calls us to give life to others.
The first point Francis makes is that hope is opposed to fear. This fear is not “fear of the Lord,” which is a gift of the Holy Spirit. This is the fear experienced by those who are in pain, who are uncertain about their futures, or who are anxious about what is to come. This fear is filled with questions that no one can answer. But hope provides an answer! Since this hope is born of the Risen Lord, we find that it is God that we seek. Even in our pain and suffering, we discover a God who suffered immensely for our sake and who conquered even death. All suffering and pain — while not ceasing to be suffering and pain — is joined to Christ’s suffering, death, and Resurrection. We have been redeemed!
The second point Francis makes in his homily was likely addressed primarily to his Italian audience, so it’s important to understand its context. Italians have rallied together under the banner “andra’ tutto bene” which translates, “Everything will be alright.” The slogan has gone viral in Italy. In its own way, this is a message of hope and a call to perseverance in the midst of one of the pandemic’s worst-hit countries. In Rome especially, the lockdown has been severe. There, the mayor has shamed people on social media for dining in restaurants or getting coffee. “Non abbassare la guardia” is the new cry from the local government (“Don’t let your guard down”).
Despite the spontaneous message that rose up from the people, Francis warns us that even the “boldest hope can dissipate.” A hope that is based solely on the goodwill between men cannot last. Eventually, people will tire of the lockdown and become bitter toward authorities. But the pope reminds us, “Jesus’ hope is different.” To hope is to remember, which is to the great paradox of Easter Sunday. Christian hope is not merely something that could happen in the future, as a sort of aspiration or desire. Christian hope is born precisely as the remembrance of an historical event. Jesus rose from the dead! And this event, as certain as any other event in history, gives us confidence in our own resurrection. We hope because we remember, and this hope never dissipates.
In Scripture, Paul says that God has put a “down payment” or a “pledge” in our hearts, as a guarantee of what is to come (2 Cor 1:22). Similarly, in the Letter to the Hebrews, faith is described as the “substance” of things hoped for (Heb 11:11). Jesus’ own suffering, death and resurrection is the historical reality, accessible to us through faith, that gives us a reason to hope toward the future.
And this leads to the pope’s next point: hope gives us courage. As Pope Benedict wrote in his encyclical, hope is not merely “informative” but is “performative” (Spe Salvi 2). With the virtue of hope, we gain the ability to persevere even through the darkest nights because we are assured of what is on the other side. This hope sustains us in our trials and gives us the courage to fight on.
Francis continues by saying that the gift of hope also requires a response from us. He says, “Everyone is in need of reassurance, and if we, who have touched ‘the Word of life’ (1 Jn 1:1) do not give it, who will?” In every aspect of our life, we are in a position to give hope to others. To give hope to mothers and fathers and end the evil of abortion. To give hope to nations and world leaders. For peace and an end to war and the weapons trade. These are the examples that Francis provides, which–as a side note–just shows how difficult it is to “peg” any political ideology on this pope (at least by American standards). He is for life and for human flourishing, in all respects. It is not by sheer power, but only hope that can transform our lives.
Pope Francis’ Easter Vigil homily was a beautiful reminder of what is essential through this pandemic, and at the same time it provided welcome encouragement. We know that we will all be kept apart for a while longer, but the hope of the Resurrection gives us the courage to continue on, always thinking of how we can extend hope to others during this pandemic.
On behalf of all the contributors to Where Peter Is, I wish you a blessed and holy Easter!