From the Vatican Radio archives (2009), a reflection by Chris Altieri:
Lately I’ve been thinking about hope: in particular, hope as a theological virtue. Given all of the sexual, financial and theological scandal in the Church in recent months, and all of the political scandal in the culture, many of the temptations I face today are temptations against hope. The recent popularity of the movie Joker, for example, impressed me as a troubling bellwether of a climate of despair. And in the Church, even in quarters in which the virtue of faith seems evident, often a corresponding hope is not manifest. Sins against charity are usually easy to spot, but sins against hope tend to be more subtle. The days are dark, and the temptations to let the light of hope be extinguished are legion.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines hope (and defects of hope) as follows:
2090 When God reveals Himself and calls him, man cannot fully respond to the divine love by his own powers. He must hope that God will give him the capacity to love Him in return and to act in conformity with the commandments of charity. Hope is the confident expectation of divine blessing and the beatific vision of God; it is also the fear of offending God’s love and of incurring punishment.
2091 The first commandment is also concerned with sins against hope, namely, despair and presumption:
By despair, man ceases to hope for his personal salvation from God, for help in attaining it or for the forgiveness of his sins. Despair is contrary to God’s goodness, to his justice – for the Lord is faithful to his promises – and to his mercy
2092 There are two kinds of presumption. Either man presumes upon his own capacities, (hoping to be able to save himself without help from on high), or he presumes upon God’s almighty power or his mercy (hoping to obtain his forgiveness without conversion and glory without merit).
In order to explore the topic of hope more deeply, in the coming weeks I’ll be returning to meditate on Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical Spe Salvi (“Saved in Hope”), which was released on November 30, 2007.
In 2008, I hosted three evenings of discussion of Spe Salvi. All three discussions were audio recorded and edited (roughly!) and are available as audio podcasts:
- Spe Salvi, paragraphs 1-12: Introduction; Faith is Hope; The concept of faith-based hope in the New Testament and the early Church; Eternal life – what is it?
- Spe Salvi, paragraphs 13-31: Is Christian hope individualistic?; The transformation of Christian faith-hope in the modern age; The true shape of Christian hope
- Spe Salvi, paragraphs 32-50: “Settings” for learning and practising hope: Prayer as a school of hope; Action and suffering as settings for learning hope; Judgment as a setting for learning and practicing hope; Mary, Star of Hope
I meant to write a post about my experiences with Archbishop Flynn last week, but instead chose to prioritize posting audio from some of his retreat conferences.
And as I began to think about him, I struggled with conflicting emotions, given the circumstances of recent years. I’m not writing today as a journalist but as a friend. I’m not here to point out his shortcomings, still less to explain them away.
Over the years, I told Flynn a number of things about the abuses happening in the seminary. He always listened, but he never offered a word of response and never promised to do anything. He allowed me to be vulnerable in this way, but would never reciprocate.
I remember his arrival in the Twin Cities vividly, because I was in my first year of seminary at the time.
As I became acquainted with him personally, and particularly as he served as my spiritual director for two years after I left the seminary, I became more familiar with the warmth of his personality; it was inseparable from his commitment to prayer. The words which G.K. Chesterton once attributed to Saint Francis of Assisi could have come from Archbishop Flynn:
Be not troubled in your thoughts, for you are dear to me, and even among the number who are most dear. You know that you are worthy of my friendship and society; therefore, come to me in confidence whenever you will, and from friendship, learn faith.
Saint Francis of Assisi, as quoted in G.K. Chesterton’s Life of Saint Francis, speaking to a friar struggling between humility and morbidity
His warmth of character and his sense of humor made me comfortable in his presence.
What is the meaning of comfort? How does it come about? Certainly not by reasoning and reckoning. Advice and argument are no comfort: they leave us cold. They leave man alone in his need and suffering. Nothing comes to him from them. But comfort is full of life; it has an immediacy and an intimacy that makes all things new. To comfort, you must love. You must be open and enter into the other’s heart. You must be observant; you must have the free and sensitive heart that finds the paths of life with quiet assurance; you must be able to discover the sore and withered places. You must have the subtlety and strength to penetrate the living center, to the deep source of life that has dried up. The heart must combine with this source of life, must summon it to life again so that it can flow through all the deserts and ruins within.
Monsignor Romano Guardini
He also had a great love for the priesthood, and for the celibate life as Christian witness. His presentation to the seminarians about celibacy was the best thing we received on the subject.
Defining celibacy only as giving up sex is just as unrealistic as seeing marriage [only] as giving up all other women. Neither marriage nor celibacy is liveable without a commitment of love so deep as to cause one to want to give up all else.
Bishop Harry Flynn, “Celibacy: A Way to Love”, Address to the 1990 World Synod of Bishops
He wrote me a good number of letters over the years. A few highlights from the correspondence we shared:
Every once in a while, it is good to step back from our intended paths and give some thought to what we are about…. I am convinced that the unhappiness that seems to pervade in so many hearts in today’s society is because people do not take time to listen to the Lord, and the Lord will always tell us how much he loves us, but he will always keep us on the right path. (May 13, 1996)
Keep searching for the will of God. Our Lord will let you know what His will for you is, and then have the courage to embrace it. (May 29, 1997)
I want to impress upon you once again the importance of prayer in your everyday life. Find some time when you can be alone with our Lord. Then ask Him what He wants to do with your life, and then learn to listen for the answer, and you will find it within your own heart…. Our Lord has a plan for you, and eventually that plan will be revealed to you, and you will have the courage to embrace it, and do it, whatever it might be. (December 23, 1997)
Now the archbishop has moved from one life to the next. From my point-of-view, the transition seems like the fulfillment of the kind of life he lived.
Life in its true sense is not something we have exclusively in or from ourselves: it is a relationship. And life in its totality is a relationship with him who is the source of life. If we are in relation with him who does not die, who is Life itself and Love itself, then we are in life. Then we ‘live.’
Pope Benedict XVI, Spe Salvi, paragraph 27
May you find the life you so often reminded us to seek, Archbishop Flynn. And may the angels lead you into Paradise.
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI has responded to criticism of his essay on the abuse crisis, saying many negative reactions have confirmed his central thesis that apostasy and alienation from the Faith are at the heart of the crisis – by not even mentioning God in their critique of his essay.
This strikes me as a very astute evaluation. Of course, in some quarters of the Church, his attempt to assess the situation in light of an abandonment of God is not being well received… see the combox over at America magazine, for example.
In Genesis 3, the serpent approached Eve and insinuated that an unhealthy mandate had been given by God. When Eve and Adam decided that the serpent had given the correct evaluation of the situation, everything crumbled into suspicion and fear. Once suspicion and fear were given reign, and the attempt was made to find happiness by declaring autonomy — the abandonment of dependence of God — Eve and Adam lost their true identity and everything went haywire.
Saint Paul made a similar point in the opening of his letter to the Romans:
Ever since the creation of the world, his invisible attributes of eternal power and divinity have been able to be understood and perceived in what he has made. As a result, they have no excuse; for although they knew God they did not accord him glory as God or give him thanks. Instead, they became vain in their reasoning, and their senseless minds were darkened. While claiming to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for the likeness of an image of mortal man or of birds or of four-legged animals or of snakes. Therefore, God handed them over to impurity through the lusts of their hearts for the mutual degradation of their bodies. They exchanged the truth of God for a lie and revered and worshiped the creature rather than the creator, who is blessed forever. Amen. Therefore, God handed them over to degrading passions.
Are we really unwilling and unable to understand our current situation in light of this primordial and perennial situation?
The Second Vatican Council articulated it well:
The truth is that only in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light. For Adam, the first man, was a figure of Him Who was to come, namely Christ the Lord. Christ, the final Adam, by the revelation of the mystery of the Father and His love, fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear. It is not surprising, then, that in Him all the aforementioned truths find their root and attain their crown.
…In light of the scale of the pedophilic misconduct, a word of Jesus has again come to attention which says … “whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea.” That’s from Mark 9:42. And Benedict says the phrase “the little ones” – in the language of Jesus – means the common believers who can be confounded in their faith by the intellectual arrogance of those who think they are clever…
Like, I don’t know, maybe… certain gadfly priests who flit around on social media and flit around giving talks and lectures and appear on, you know, late night television programs and confound the faith of believers because of their own intellectual arrogance and they subvert the teachings of the church… I don’t know; I’m just pulling ideas out of the air here. He’s referring to that kind of thing.
So here Jesus protects the deposit of the faith with an emphatic threat of punishment to those who do it harm. What he’s saying here, I should just say, is: bishops and priests, take note. Those who cause these little ones who believe in me to sin …. It would be better for him if a great millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea. He identifies the little ones from the Greek that’s used there as the common believer – the average person who doesn’t have a theological background. The modern use of the sentence is not in itself wrong but must not obscure the original meaning…