Lyrical and creative, Spe Salvi is the work of a brilliant mind

Ten years ago Benedict XVI issued one of the more curious encyclicals of recent times, Spe Salvi (Saved in Hope), about the theological virtue of hope. The nature of its appearance meant that it has been prematurely forgotten. It shouldn’t be.

It was curious because almost all major papal documents are projects that involve long preparation and many collaborators. Consider Veritatis Splendor of St John Paul II, some seven years in preparation. Or the mammoth works of Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium and Amoris Laetitia, the longest papal documents in history, so long that they are necessarily and evidently the work of several different drafters.

Spe Salvi was different. The Vatican drafters were at work on the social encyclical that would become Caritas in Veritate in 2009. Benedict was devoting his spare time, such as a pope has, to his three-volume life of Christ, the first of which appeared in May 2007. But when he returned from his summer sojourn – a holiday it evidently was not – at Castel Gandolfo in the autumn of 2007, Benedict surprised everyone with a complete, polished magisterial meditation on hope. It was then, confirmed by the second volume of Jesus of Nazareth published in 2011, that it became apparent that Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict was the most learned man alive.

Spe Salvi is uniquely the work of brilliant mind steeped in the Christian tradition, a pastoral heart who knows the aspirations and anxieties of his flock, and the soul animated by the simple piety of the faithful.

While Benedict ranges from ancient to modern philosophy on the nature of hope, it is the Sudanese slave turned Canossian Sister, St Josephine Bakhita – one of John Paul’s Jubilee year canonisations – that he proposes as a model of hope.

Benedict writes: “Now she had ‘hope’ – no longer simply the modest hope of finding masters who would be less cruel, but the great hope: ‘I am definitively loved and whatever happens to me – I am awaited by this Love. And so my life is good.’ Through the knowledge of this hope she was ‘redeemed’, no longer a slave, but a free child of God.”

Spe Salvi is lyrical in its treatment about how only love can free us from the prison of history as just one damn thing after another.

“To imagine ourselves outside the temporality that imprisons us, and in some way to sense that eternity is not an unending succession of days in the calendar, but something more like the supreme moment of satisfaction, in which totality embraces us and we embrace totality,” he writes. “It would be like plunging into the ocean of infinite love, a moment in which time – the before and after – no longer exists.”

Yet the creativity of Spe Salvi is not in its treatment of love but justice. Our hope for something more, something beyond this world and across the threshold of death, is not only a desire for a love beyond limits, but also a desire for a limit to evil, a desire for justice. Our hope demands the triumph of justice, which plainly does not prevail in this world.

“I am convinced that the question of justice constitutes the essential argument, or, in any case, the strongest argument in favour of faith in eternal life,” the Holy Father writes. “The purely individual need for a fulfilment that is denied to us in this life, for an everlasting love that we await, is certainly an important motive for believing that man was made for eternity; but only in connection with the impossibility that the injustice of history should be the final word does the necessity for Christ’s return and for new life become fully convincing.”

That God is love has been known since St John wrote it in his epistle. St James writes that mercy triumphs over justice.

Benedict, though, says that the strongest argument for eternal life is not that we might love forever, but that in eternity justice might be wrought for those who were denied it here.

“God is justice and creates justice,” Benedict writes. “This is our consolation and our hope. And in his justice there is also grace. This we know by turning our gaze to the crucified and risen Christ. Both these things – justice and grace – must be seen in their correct inner relationship. Grace does not cancel out justice. It does not make wrong into right. It is not a sponge which wipes everything away, so that whatever someone has done on earth ends up being of equal value.

Dostoevsky, for example, was right to protest against this kind of heaven and this kind of grace in his novel The Brothers Karamazov. Evildoers, in the end, do not sit at table at the eternal banquet beside their victims without distinction, as though nothing had happened.”

What do we hope for? For life, for love, for mercy. But first we hope for justice. In the justice of the Cross we find the hope in which we are saved.

Fr Raymond J de Souza is a priest of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario, and editor-in-chief of convivium.ca

This article first appeared in the January 27 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here