on All Souls’ Day: some thoughts on Christian hope

Carracci-PurgatoryA few thoughts from Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical letter Spe Salvi (On Christian Hope):

The belief that love can reach into the afterlife, that reciprocal giving and receiving is possible, in which our affection for one another continues beyond the limits of death—this has been a fundamental conviction of Christianity throughout the ages and it remains a source of comfort today. Who would not feel the need to convey to their departed loved ones a sign of kindness, a gesture of gratitude or even a request for pardon? Now a further question arises: if “Purgatory” is simply purification through fire in the encounter with the Lord, Judge and Savior, how can a third person intervene, even if he or she is particularly close to the other? When we ask such a question, we should recall that no man is an island, entire of itself. Our lives are involved with one another, through innumerable interactions they are linked together. No one lives alone. No one sins alone. No one is saved alone. The lives of others continually spill over into mine: in what I think, say, do and achieve. And conversely, my life spills over into that of others: for better and for worse. So my prayer for another is not something extraneous to that person, something external, not even after death. In the interconnectedness of Being, my gratitude to the other—my prayer for him—can play a small part in his purification. And for that there is no need to convert earthly time into God’s time: in the communion of souls simple terrestrial time is superseded. It is never too late to touch the heart of another, nor is it ever in vain. In this way we further clarify an important element of the Christian concept of hope. Our hope is always essentially also hope for others; only thus is it truly hope for me too (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1032). As Christians we should never limit ourselves to asking: how can I save myself? We should also ask: what can I do in order that others may be saved and that for them too the star of hope may rise? Then I will have done my utmost for my own personal salvation as well.

remembering papa

On the ninth anniversary of Pope John Paul II’s passing, I thought I’d share the story of the time I got to meet the Pope. Here’s a picture from the moment.

En route to a semester of seminary studies in Jerusalem back in 1996, I spent a week in Rome, and had the chance to see the Pope John Paul II twice… once at a Wednesday audience, and once at a Sunday Mass celebrated at Castel Gandolfo, his summer residence.

Meeting the Pope was without question one of the happiest moments of my life. He is the kindest, warmest person I have ever met, to say nothing of his intelligence, virtue and holiness. I have great respect for the man, even from a merely human point of view… and so to meet him, after reading so much of his work, was a real privilege.

The day before I met him, I thought long and hard about what I would say to him. I was wearing a clerical shirt with a Roman collar, so he would already know that I was a seminarian. I couldn’t think of anything for a while, and thought I might tell him my name, where I was from, and show him a picture of my family. But then I decided I needed to keep it simple, because I’d probably just trip over my tongue anyway.

During the Mass, just before I met him, he seemed very frail and weak. But when he walked around afterward, he didn’t seem weak at all. He passed by rather quickly; there was just enough time to make eye contact, and then to reach down to kiss his papal ring. Then he was on to the next person.

I thought I had lost my opportunity to say something to him. But I decided to speak up anyway, even though he had moved on. And so I said, not very loudly, “I love you, Papa.” He heard me, returned to me and took my hand again, looking at me in his gentle way. He then turned to my teacher, a priest on the seminary faculty, and asked: “Americano?” When my teacher confirmed this, the Pope looked back at me and said, “Good… good.”

I was so grateful for the chance to say these words to the Pope in person. Here he was—the philosopher, the poet, the actor, the pastor, the courageous shepherd, the contemplative, a true friend of God—standing before me, and I was able to express my affection for him. And it wasn’t simply my affection for him, but for the Church he serves, and for Christ from whom he received his commission of service. For me, it was more than a pious sentiment, it was a commitment… to Christ, to the Church, and to him as chief shepherd of the Church.

When my faith grows weak, or when temptation or doubt crowd in, I often bring this moment of commitment before the eyes of my heart. And I remember the way I was sincerely and affectionately received by this giant of our faith. To me, his whole visage proclaims the first words of Christ after the resurrection, and the first words of his papacy: Be not afraid.

beauty: merely in the eye of the beholder?

A common view of beauty is that it exists only in someone’s perception…. that it is merely a subjective response. Such a view assumes that there is no such thing as authentic subjectivity, a subjectivity which is a response to what actually is… to something beyond the self.

The idea that our response to beauty can instead be a shared experience among people… that truth, goodness and beauty are actual realities to be encountered by the human person… is a very rich notion, and something which I think lies at the very foundation of John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. JPII again and again suggests that we are capable of an authentic subjectivity — that is, that our experience can point us to what is actually true… it doesn’t have to leave us isolated in the likes/dislikes of our own sweating selves, but can instead be a real value-response to the True, Good, and Beautiful.

It seems that John Paul II was  influenced by the work of Dietrich von Hildebrand on questions of aesthetics… see Thomas Howard’s summary of von Hildebrand’s thought for more details. My hunch is that the late John Paul II’s understanding of beauty and value-response was influenced by this 20th century philosopher who was a personal friend of both JPII and Dr. Joseph Seifert of the International Academy of Philosophy in Lichtenstein.

I took a class from Dr. Seifert during a semester in Austria as part of my participation in Franciscan University’s semester-abroad program. In the class, entitled Metaphysics of the Human Person, Seifert developed the thesis that aesthetics is not a merely subjective endeavor. Some works of art are objectively more good/true/beautiful than others… good, true, and beautiful in themselves... whether it be music, something depicted in the plastic arts, etc. The year I studied under him, Seifert wrote an essay on The Objectivity of Beauty in Music and a Critique of Aesthetic Subjectivism, which naturally flowed into his class lectures.

I like to describe Seifert’s presentations as part lecture, part meditation, part contemplation. The whole approach was a bit irritating to those who just wanted to get the necessary notes and move on to the final exam… but I think that his delivery — which included generous pauses, rephrases and a few delighted forays into yet unexplored territory — reinforced his point that philosophy, the pursuit of wisdom, was an adventure of discovery, an openness to an actual encounter with Goodness, Beauty, Truth… rather than the projection of a system of meaning onto the universe. He wasn’t there to impose ideas, but to discover truths, with all of the wonder and delight of a child.

Easter means a history open to the future

From the Pope’s Urbi et Orbi message on Easter Sunday:

The Church is the people of the Exodus, because she constantly lives the Paschal Mystery and disseminates its renewing power in every time and place. In our days too, humanity needs an “exodus”, not just superficial adjustment, but a spiritual and moral conversion. It needs the salvation of the Gospel, so as to emerge from a profound crisis, one which requires deep change, beginning with consciences….

Dear brothers and sisters, Easter does not work magic. Just as the Israelites found the desert awaiting them on the far side of the Red Sea, so the Church, after the resurrection, always finds history filled with joy and hope, grief and anguish. And yet, this history is changed, it is marked by a new and eternal covenant, it is truly open to the future. For this reason, saved by hope, let us continue our pilgrimage, bearing in our hearts the song that is ancient and yet ever new: “Let us sing to the Lord: glorious his triumph!”