At the same time, some of these voices evince a sense of creeping despair about the present state of affairs. Certainly there are causes for serious concern: the sexual abuse crisis that rocked the church in the United States, the dramatic decline in vocations to the priesthood and religious life and the shuttering of parishes and schools in almost every American diocese. All these have caused immense sadness among the faithful. Perhaps not surprisingly, a note of doom and gloom has increasingly crept into conversations about the future of the church, especially in the United States.
But the tendency to think the worst about the future must be resisted at all costs. Throughout the church’s history, some of its greatest saints have spoken of the need for hope and the absolute impossibility of Christian despair. In his Spiritual Exercises St. Ignatius Loyola reminds the retreatant that it is characteristic of the Spirit of God to build up, to console and to give hope even in the darkest and most confusing of times. Conversely, what St. Ignatius calls the enemy is known to cause gnawing anxiety, to sadden and to set up obstacles. The thoughtful Christian, counsels St. Ignatius, seeks not only to understand the workings of this enemy, but also to work against the temptation to follow the path leading to despair.
Discouragement may be a natural human emotion in the face of difficulties, but despair is rightly seen by the great spiritual writers as the antithesis of the Christian message. In 1961 Thomas Merton wrote in his book New Seeds of Contemplation that despair is, ultimately, a form of pride that chooses misery instead of accepting the mysterious designs of God’s plans and acknowledging that we are not capable of fulfilling our destinies by ourselves. Despair places our own limited perspective above God’s.
The next year, Pope John XXIII addressed the question of widespread discouragement, in both the secular and religious spheres, in his opening address to the Second Vatican Council. In the daily exercise of our pastoral office, he told the council fathers, we sometimes have to listen, much to our regret, to voices of persons who, though burning with zeal, are not endowed with too much sense of discretion or measure. In these modern times they can see nothing but prevarication and ruin.
John considers this line of thought and rejects it: We feel we must disagree with those prophets of gloom, who are always forecasting disaster.... He asks Christians to trust firmly in God and issues a call that is difficult to accept. Nevertheless, it lies at the heart of our faith: Divine Providence is leading us to a new order of human relations, which by men’s own efforts and even beyond their very expectations, are directed towards the fulfillment of God’s superior and inscrutable designs.
And everything, said John, even human differences, leads to the greater good of the church.
But the message of Christian hope is based on more than simple reliance on quotations from even the holiest of men and women. For the Christian believes not so much in quotations, or in elegant turns of phrase or in theological propositions, as in a person: Jesus Christ, the ultimate message of hope.
We had hoped, the disciples on the way to Emmaus tell the man they do not recognize as the risen Christ. We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel, they say in the Gospel of Luke. Are there any sadder words in the New Testament? The disciples have placed their trust in the one they thought would deliver them from bondage, the one they thought was their Lord, the one they thought was the answer. Now their great project seems to have come to an abrupt and painful end.
But the risen Christ is already with them. On the road to Emmaus, he consoles his friends not only with an explanation of the past but also with hope for their futurea future in which he has promised to be with them.
Even in confusing times, the Christian trusts that, as St. Paul says, All things work together for good for those who love God. And in this thought we take counsel from holy men and women in our midst, from the saints and martyrs in centuries past, from ecumenical councils throughout the ages and, most importantly, from the one who promises to be with us until the end of time.