The following article appeared on Catholic Exchange on Wednesday, July 31, 2019. I am grateful to CE for publishing my work!
Burt Bacharach sings a wonderful little song telling us that “love, sweet love” is what the world needs now. While the world certainly does need more love, more charity, at every moment, we must also realize that the modern world is in need of authentic hope more than anything else. By and large, western culture (and individuals within it) has lost hope and has succumbed to cynicism, skepticism, and nihilism, which are antithetical to this theological virtue.
Josef Pieper, in his great book, On Hope, not only defines this essential theological virtue, but also gives us quite a bit about its characteristics and contours. Pieper writes that “hope is a steadfast turning toward the true fulfillment of man’s nature.” The true fulfillment of our nature is found by becoming truly alive in God’s grace. Remember St. Ignatius of Antioch’s famous adage: “The glory of God is man fully alive….” We become fully alive by connecting more fully to Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Word of God, through the scriptures and especially through the sacraments of the Church. In those realities, we have hope that we will become truly alive.
Yet that true fulfillment doesn’t just happen; it doesn’t arrive in our lives completely mature at one moment. We must act in some way. Pieper tells us that we must turn toward that true fulfillment of hope. In the biblical and moral understanding, turning is conversion. This is precisely why the Church defines conversion as she does: “A radical reorientation of the whole life away from sin and evil, and toward God” (Catechism Glossary). So, to find our true fulfillment and fulfill our hope, we must be converted, we must turn more fully toward Jesus Christ.
Still, there is one other important word to consider in Pieper’s statement. He writes that hope is a “steadfast” turning. Steadfast implies that it is ongoing, unwavering. This should remind us that our relationship with the Lord, our moral life, involves ongoing conversion. Each and every day, we must be converted more fully to God’s grace than the day before. That is how we live out the hope that is in us.
So we see clearly that hope requires conversion, but we must also recognize that conversion requires hope. Hope is the virtue by which we “desire and expect from God both eternal life and the grace we need to attain it” (Glossary of the Catechism of the Catholic Church). We will not allow God’s grace to reorient our lives if we do not believe that something greater is possible. We will only allow ourselves to be turned by God’s grace to the fullness of our nature if we believe that it is possible, and if we believe that it is greater than the life we live here and now. Again, Pieper instructs us: “only the hope for God-given salvation, for eternal life, sets man right from within.” To be set right means that we need to be converted, and that we need to remain connected to the hope and grace that only God provides. The Christian life of discipleship must be marked frequently, even daily, by both of these realities. Otherwise we’re not really living as Christians are called to live.
There is one final important point that we learn from Pieper on this subject. We learn where our greatest hope lies. He writes “the ‘greatest hope’ can be fulfilled only on condition of being initiated into the mysteries.” Pieper means ongoing initiation into the life of grace through the sacraments of the Church. The sacraments are the source of our hope, and our conversion.
The fact that conversion and hope are both intimately related to the sacramental life is clear when we look at the biblical record along with the Church’s teaching about individual sacraments. We see this first with Baptism. On the day of Pentecost, after Peter preaches a kerygmatic sermon, the crowd asks him what they must do in response. He tells them, “Repent and be baptized.” The Greek word that is translated as “repent” is metanoesate, a form of metanoeó, which means a turning of the mind. It is the same word that has been translated as “conversion” into English as well. Baptism is the sacrament that both expresses conversion, turning away from sin and evil, and brings about the conversion that it signifies.
The Sacrament of Reconciliation is also intimately tied to conversion and hope. In fact, one of the names the Church gives to Reconciliation is “the sacrament of conversion” (CCC 1423). One of the most beautiful statements about this sacrament wraps up this section of the Catechism. In Reconciliation, “Conversion touches the past and the future and is nourished by hope in God’s mercy” (CCC 1490). Conversion and hope meet, they lead us to seek forgiveness for our sins, and they give us ongoing strength to remain in right relationship with God.
Then, of course, there is the Eucharist, which the Church calls the “Pledge of the Glory to Come” (CCC 1402). No sacrament is more intimately related to conversion and hope than the Most Blessed Sacrament. By receiving the Bread of Heaven, we are conformed to Jesus, we are given strength to turn away from sin, and we are given a foretaste of Heaven, our final homeland. Here we see that our greatest, our ultimate hope lies in participating in the sacramental life of the Church!
Still, we are fallen human beings and we are prone to lose hope and turn back to lesser things. In order not to fall back to those lesser things, conversion and hope are both habits and realities that must be exercised frequently. We must ask for the grace of conversion, and we must work diligently to grow in hope.
Here, I am reminded of a passage of the letter to the Hebrews: “Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful” (Hebrews 10:23). Hope allows us to remain firm and constant in our quest for joy, peace, and beatitude, even in spite of our own shortcomings. We are confident that He is working effectively, even when we are imperfect. So, we turn toward the Lord by His grace, we hold fast to Him, and we strive through this world in hope, trying to become the people He intends us to be. Turning and striving in hope will allow us to arrive at the heavenly gates and receive the eternal reward we desire.