Faith, hope, and charity are the three theological virtues — the three virtues that direct us immediately and rightly to God Himself.1 We all know these three greatest virtues by heart, but it is likely that few of us have spent as much time focusing on hope as we have on the other two. There has always and rightly been a great focus on the virtues of faith and charity — the precious beginning and great culmination of the Christian spiritual life. Like the proverbial middle child, hope is sometimes a bit overlooked. But what if God were to offer us an unshakeable certainty of His love for us — a supernatural confidence in His action for our good, unaffected by the changing circumstances of each passing day? What peace of soul might we enjoy if we embraced such a gift? This is what the virtue of hope, given to each of us in our Baptism, offers us. Here we will take a closer look at the theological virtue of hope and see just how pivotal a virtue it is — especially for our time.2
Pope Benedict XVI and the Crisis of Hope
Pope Benedict XVI observed with a particular clarity of vision that we are living in an age that is plagued by a profound crisis in hope. It was in order to combat this crisis that he wrote the encyclical Spe Salvi (“Saved in Hope”). The Pope Emeritus points out that modern man, expelled from Paradise and falling deeper and deeper into sin, no longer hopes to be saved from this woeful condition by redemption in Christ. Rather, modern man places his hope in human ingenuity and advances in technology. Through these, he hopes to regain the dominion over creation that he once enjoyed in the Garden of Eden. This, in turn, will lead us to an earthly paradise and happiness. Therefore, Pope Benedict concludes, modern man hopes for the wrong thing through the wrong means: he hopes for an earthly happiness rather than an eternal one, and he hopes to achieve this by human ingenuity, rather than by the grace of Christ.3
Hoping for the wrong thing through the wrong means, society at large seems to oscillate between the false hope that science, technology, or some new political system will finally bring lasting happiness to man, and the emptiness and despair that inevitably follow in the wake of abandoning the God of all hope and consolation. Without the one great hope of eternal salvation which anchors the soul, we find ourselves in an age characterized by fleeting pleasures, anxiety, and despair. Our society is in need of the one great hope that orients our whole lives. For modern man to find his way, he must find the Way, the Truth, and the Life — Jesus Christ.
Saint Peter: Hope in Christ is the Answer
We can all see evidence of this crisis of despair around us, but we still may feel compelled to ask: is Christian hope really the answer? Would a renewal of this overlooked theological virtue really make a difference in our society? A look at St. Peter’s teaching on hope will help us to begin to grasp the fundamental transformative impact that true hope can give to our modern world.
We are all familiar with St. Peter’s exhortation to “always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who calls you to account for the hope that is in you.”4 But perhaps we consider less often that St. Peter himself gives us that defense, and the reason for his own hope, a few short verses later: “For Christ also died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that He might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit.”5 St. Peter defends both the boldness and the reasonableness of his hope by pointing us to the Paschal Mystery: Jesus died for our sins and was raised from the dead — made alive in the Spirit.
Our hope is in Christ who saved us through His passion, death, and resurrection. But how do these events accomplished in a far-off place nearly two thousand years ago touch and save us today? According to St. Peter, Jesus allows us to sacramentally enter into His victory over sin and death through Baptism: “Baptism . . . saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God.”6
We become likened to and conformed with Christ crucified and risen through our Baptism. By the grace of this sacrament we die to sin and are raised up to newness of life. The saving work of Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection is applied to us in our sacramental conformity to Christ. Christ died so we might die to sin. Christ, our Head, rose to new life that He might be the source of new life for the members of His Body — the Church.
We are definitively loved by God. Redeemed by Christ, we are called to become members of His Body, and thus partake of His life and victory. Christ’s love for us is stronger than our fragility and sinfulness. Our share in God’s life has already begun, here and now, by the grace of our Baptism. We seek to advance in this life as we await the final glory of perfect, loving communion with God in heaven. Christ has gone before us into glory and has promised to prepare a place for us.7 This is our hope. This is what we await — eternal life. Perfect knowledge and love of God — perfect communion with the Father, Son, and Spirit — being caught up in the inner life and love of the Blessed Trinity.
It is said that after St. Thomas Aquinas wrote his treatise on the Eucharist our Lord spoke to him from the crucifix on the chapel wall: “Thomas, you have written well of me. What reward will you have?” The holy doctor replied: “Lord, nothing — but yourself.” St. Thomas answered rightly. We are called to be bold in our hope. We hope for nothing less than God Himself. This is a hope that can be the steadfast anchor of our soul. It needs to root, ground, and orient all of our lesser hopes and desires.
The one who has experienced this kind of hope is different. The one who has this kind of hope has a “sure and steadfast anchor of the soul.”8 The winds of change and human disappointment cannot shake the man of this kind of hope. He remains steadfast in the face of all the trials and fleeting pleasures that buffet his companions. This kind of hope can only be received as a gift from God. This kind of hope is marked by the certainty that we are definitively loved by God, who has come to save us and unite us to Himself, and that His love is more powerful than any human weakness.
Recent popes have assured us that now is the time of mercy. Where sin and evil abound, grace abounds all the more; the greater our need, the greater is our loving God’s eagerness to stoop to meet it. And the age of mercy is the age of hope. God loves us unfathomably not because we are good, but because He is good. His merciful heart longs to alleviate misery and delights in aiding us in our weakness. Thus, the very crisis of hope which characterizes our age, the suffering and worldliness that surround us, are themselves cause for hope in the One who gives all the more lavishly when the need is the greatest.
St. Faustina, in her Diary on divine mercy, repeatedly reminds us how greatly the Lord desires our trust. She records Jesus’s words to her: “The graces of My mercy are drawn by means of one vessel only, and that is — trust. The more a soul trusts, the more it will receive.”9 God’s answer to the needs of our time is unimaginable love and abundant mercy. And what does this ask of us? He asks that we trust in His goodness — that we hope in Him as our Helper and loving Friend.
Hope Compels Us to Evangelize
This kind of hope — so readily available as a gift of our Baptism, so easily embraced from such an abundantly merciful God — clearly matters a great deal for the Christian. To live with unshakeable confidence in God’s action for our good and to orient our whole lives around that one great goal of eternal life in the bosom of the Trinity, will have radical, transformative consequences for our lives. But does hope impact only the one who possesses this virtue, or is its reach wider? Can our own personal growth in this tremendous virtue have any effect on the crisis of hope that afflicts our society at large?
Our hope in God is lifeless if it is not informed and shaped by charity — our love for God not only as our happiness, but also for His own sake. In charity, our hearts are conformed to Christ’s own heart which was pierced for love of all mankind. Charity is a love of friendship which makes us look upon our neighbor as a second self. It sees our neighbor’s distress as our distress; it sees our neighbor’s happiness as our happiness. A hope informed by charity, therefore, longs not only to enjoy God, but to enjoy God with our friends who are enjoying Him also. Our salvation is communal, and in heaven we will rejoice over God in Himself, all that He has done for us, and all that He has done for our neighbor. Our hope is for a heavenly Jerusalem that is a great and massive city — not a personal hut.
Once we have understood the great riches we have been given in our hope in Jesus Christ, we are compelled to share this hope with others. We cannot stand by idly in a society full of brothers and sisters who have lost the one hope that can save them. Once we fully perceive the great gift that hope is, we must share it with others. The love of Christ compels us.
How ought we to do this? There are any number of ways, and the most appropriate for us will depend upon our circumstances and state in life. But all ways of sharing our hope, no matter who we are or what we do, must start with our own deeper fidelity and conversion. Only hearts burning with confidence in God’s goodness can inspire this trust in others. Our first and most effective means of evangelization will be the beauty of a life transparently anchored in loving hope. May our neighbors see in us the inner love, peace, and joy which only Christ can give and spontaneously exclaim: “See how they love one another!”10 And in this way may the experience of God’s love and mercy transform the world one heart at a time.
- St. Thomas Aquinas says that the theological virtues are called “Theological” for three reasons: God is their object inasmuch as they direct us rightly to Him, they are supernatural and can only be given to us (infused) by God, and they can only be known by God’s revelation. See St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, 5 vols. trans. The Fathers of the English Dominican Province (Westminster: Christian Classics, 1981), I-II, q. 62, a. 1.
- The Catechism of the Catholic Church offers the following definition of the theological virtue of hope: “Hope is the theological virtue by which we desire the kingdom of heaven and eternal life as our happiness, placing our trust in Christ’s promises and relying not on our own strength, but on the help of the grace of the Holy Spirit.” CCC §1817.
- See Spe Salvi, especially §16-23.
- 1 Peter 3:15.
- 1 Peter 3:18.
- 1 Peter 3:21-22.
- cf. Jn. 14:13.
- Heb. 6:19.
- Diary of Saint Maria Faustina Kowalska: Divine Mercy in My Soul (Stockbridge: Marian Press, 1987), 1578.
- Tertullian, Apologeticus ch. 39, sect. 7.
Jeffrey Froula is Assistant Professor of Moral Theology at St. Patrick’s Seminary and University in Menlo Park, California. He received his doctorate from Ave Maria University in Florida. His doctoral dissertation focused on hope as a Christocentric virtue in the theology of St. Thomas Aquinas.About Dr. Katie Froula