Life in the time of coronavirus is hard.The battle that the human race now wages against this pandemic is beyond anything known in our lifetime. Many people have described it as apocalyptic, and while that is mostly an exaggeration, it is understandable why people feel like they are witnessing the end of the world. No one knows what the world will look like when all this ends, but it will look different. And as the crisis continues week after week with no end in sight, that unpredictability is causing many people to become hopeless.
In a strange way, our loss of hope may be a good thing. If we are no longer able to place our ultimate hope in science or politics or the general notion of human progress, perhaps we will finally be forced to reckon with a truth that Pope Benedict XVI captured succinctly in his 2007 encyclical Spe Salvi: “Man needs God, otherwise he remains without hope.”
As Bishop Dan Martins described well in his recent post on hope, human beings cannot live without hope. We need to look forward to something. Our lives are marked by suffering and difficulties, yet we push forward by attaching ourselves to some greater fulfillment that may be just over the horizon. We are starving now, but tomorrow there will be enough for a feast. Our children drive us nuts sometimes, but we will be satisfied when we see them grown and successful. Some of our hopes are realistic, while others may be pure fantasy, but so long as we are able to hold onto them, they keep us driven.
So what happens when those hopes are dashed? Panic sets in, followed by anxiety and depression, all of which have been spiking in western society for years now.
It would be wrong to say that the pandemic has taken our hope from us. The pandemic has only clarified what we have known in our guts for some time. Ever since the Enlightenment, we have been trying to build a world that does not need God to satisfy the longings of our hearts. We have achieved so many things in the pursuit of that end: vast economic expansion, incredible technological advances, the ability to regulate our sexuality and to prolong our lives. Yet none of these things have given us what we really wanted, a sense of deeper purpose and meaning. We have become blind to the bigger picture, the end towards which all life is directed. In its absence, we have clung to smaller, lesser hopes as a way of distracting ourselves, but the pandemic is crushing those lesser hopes one by one, forcing us to come face to face with the emptiness of our lives.
Hope is one of the three great theological virtues identified by St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 13, along with faith and love. As such, it is not something we can simply develop in ourselves. Hope only ever comes as a gift. All of our hopes for this life only start to make sense when we see them as markers along the path that leads us to Jesus. He is what real hope looks like, because it is only when we find ourselves in relationship with him that we start to experience the kind of fullness of life that is spoken of in Scripture as “eternal life” and “the coming of the Kingdom of God.”
Again in Spe Salvi, Benedict demonstrates that hope which is grounded in faith in Jesus Christ is the only kind of hope that survives the crucible of a trying time like the one we live in:
It is important to know that I can always continue to hope, even if in my own life, or the historical period in which I am living, there seems to be nothing left to hope for. Only the great certitude of hope that my own life and history in general, despite all failures, are held firm by the indestructible power of Love, and that this gives them their meaning and importance, only this kind of hope can then give the courage to act and to persevere. (no. 35)
There is a reason why the Catholic faith has often thrived in places where there has been great poverty and oppression. It is not, as some elitists would like to believe, because poor people are just too stupid to know that God is a fairytale and that true joy can only come in the form of unfettered wealth and the satisfaction of hedonistic desires. Rather the opposite is true. The hopelessness of poverty and oppression make it glaringly obvious that there never was anything lasting to be gained through money, power, and the endless pursuit of personal pleasure.
This moment that we are all living through has the potential to be a great clarifying agent. If that turns out to be the case, then it will be a gift, despite all its horrors. The suffering and loss we face right now is intense. We will all have to work hard to come together to meet the challenges ahead. Yet we need not face any of it without hope. God so loved us, even in our suffering, that he took on human flesh and suffered with us so that we might find our way back to him. Now more than ever, as we lose one thing after another, may we rediscover that all we have ever needed has been with us all along.
Fr. Jonathan Mitchican is chaplain at St. John XXIII College Preparatory School in Katy, Texas.