Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, the former an optimist by nature, the latter a pessimist. Register file photos

Hooked on a feeling? Choose hope instead

  • October 6, 2022

If you are feeling discouraged about the state of the world and the Church these days, please remember that hope is one of the three theological virtues infused into you at your baptism. St. Paul tells us that “…these three remain: faith, hope and love, and the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:13); but perhaps the “hardest of these” can be hope.

Hope has nothing to do with being optimistic. Optimism is an attitude that doesn’t require anything  supernatural. You can be a pessimistic sort and still have hope, because hope simply means that you believe God can make good on His promises. It has been said that Pope John Paul II was an optimist by nature, and that Pope Benedict XVI was a pessimist by nature — but these are just personality traits. Both men looked at events around them, peered into the future and came up with their own takes, their own emphases, but certainly they were realists, each in his own way.

I’ve had an ambivalent relationship with hope in the past, but God clarified its meaning  for me after one of my near-death experiences. (No, none of these were out-of-body, heading-toward-the-light happenings, but rather a variety of mysterious physical illnesses and conditions throughout my life that took me to death’s door — but I bounced back each time. I’m like a cat: nine lives.)

While I was recovering from a particularly horrific bodily anomaly, I began asking God: “What did I just go through? What are Your ‘promises’? And what are Your promises to me?” At that very moment, I was sauntering through the children’s section of one of our Pauline book centres and saw some titles dealing with God’s promises. They were basically collections of quotes from the Bible. “I will be with you until the end of time.” “I will never abandon you.” “I will come back to take you with me.” “I will send the Holy Spirit.” I realized that all of us can take advantage of these promises made to everyone who is willing to believe and receive them. I also realized that God made promises specifically to me during my daily prayer times. I looked back on my own personal salvation history with God and recalled all His faithfulness to me.

My earliest experience of hope was during a difficult time in my novitiate when I felt like giving up. I cracked opened the Word of God and my eyes fell on this passage: “Hoping against hope, Abraham believed” (Romans 4:18). It was just what I needed. I didn’t feel hopeful at all, but feelings aren’t facts, and hope is not a feeling. Virtue is an act of the will (aided by grace). Sometimes we just have to “hope against hope.” I found the strength to carry on.

Many Catholics think that if they go to church every Sunday, it’s like an insurance policy for them and their families. Nothing bad will happen. They’re shocked when sickness or misfortune befalls them, and then they turn on God because they actually believe this superstitious bargaining is how God relates to us. There is nothing in the New Testament to support this assumption, and it is not at all the reason we “go to church.” This is a truly sad state of affairs, because it shows a complete lack of understanding of the Christian life, and life in general.

Humans, including Christians, are notoriously bad at seeing the big picture, grasping the end game, comprehending ultimate goals — that’s why we get bogged down in the present. There’s a secular saying that I think believers could easily appropriate: “In the end, everything will be OK. If it’s not OK, it’s not the end.” Why? Because God promises a glorious destiny to all those who love Him.

Since teenagehood, God has given me the gift of an extremely strong faith, and I now see hope as simply an extension of that. I don’t doubt for a minute that “God is able, more than able” to accomplish His purposes in His own perfect time (which can often feel like He’s taking His sweet time). But, love (charity)? That’s a whole ‘nother story, and the theological virtue I struggle with the most!

Whichever of the three is our biggest stumbling block, we need to reach out, ask for divine help, and “strengthen your drooping hands and your weak knees. Make straight paths for your feet, that what is lame may not be dislocated but healed” (Hebrews 12:12).

(Sr. Burns, fsp, is a Daughter of St. Paul. She holds a Masters in Media Literacy Education and studied screenwriting at UCLA. www.HellBurns.com. Twitter: @srhelenaburns)

Please support The Catholic Register

Unlike many media companies, The Catholic Register has never charged readers for access to the news and information on our website. We want to keep our award-winning journalism as widely available as possible. But we need your help.

For more than 125 years, The Register has been a trusted source of faith-based journalism. By making even a small donation you help ensure our future as an important voice in the Catholic Church. If you support the mission of Catholic journalism, please donate today. Thank you.