“We are people whose hearts are grounded in our faith and in our hope, that is the strength that helps us during this time of uncertainty. Though we are living out concepts such as isolation, quarantine, and social distancing – as believers and followers of Christ we know we are never truly alone and that He is always by our side. It has been a painful, confusing, trying time for all of us, but in Christ and His triumph over the cross there is hope.” These are the words of Archbishop Pérez that he made in a March 27 statement announcing a virtual Lenten retreat shortly after our churches were closed for public worship. He concluded his statement by saying, “Christ is hope and through Him we’re a people of hope”. For the Archbishop’s statement to continue to resonate with us more than seven weeks later and with at least several more weeks to go under the Governor’s “stay at home” order, we need to really understand what he means by “hope” and how our hearts can be grounded in faith and hope. Hope is not the same as optimism or wishful thinking, but hope is a certainty about the future based on a present fact. If we don’t understand this – and understand this personally, what the Archbishop said are just pious words. How is it that we know (as he claims) – we who count ourselves as believers and followers of Christ – “that we are never truly alone and that He is always by our side.” It cannot be simply because the Archbishop says so or even that Jesus said so as we hear in today’s Gospel: “I will not leave you orphans; I will come to you.” For us to have hope in these uncertain times (and anytime for that matter), we have to recognize His presence with us here and now in our experience. Our hope is not based on a theological concept or on a quote we read in the Bible or the Catechism. Our hope is based on something that has happened to us personally – a fact to which we can point. Saint Peter says in his letter we hear in the first reading, “Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope…” This is something each one of us has to answer individually and personally. What is the reason for your hope? Why do you have hope?
How do we see Jesus – the source of our hope – in our midst? Jesus tells the disciples at the Last Supper, “In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me, because I live and you will live.” The sign of his presence is a new life that is in us – a life that we cannot attribute to our own efforts, skills, or energy. Has it happened to you that you responded to a situation with an uncharacteristic peace or with words or an understanding that clearly did not come from yourself? Have you experienced a conversion in life that was a real grace – a free response of your heart to an unexpected love? Having a child or falling in love, one often discovers a capacity to love and to change in ways that one never thought was possible before that experience. When we do what is right and good not because it is a commandment or a law or out of fear of punishment but freely out of love, Christ is revealing himself to us. Jesus says that it is “on that day you will realize that I am in my Father and you are in me and I in you.” This change in ourselves that is not the fruit of our own efforts or merits is “the reason for our hope” and the explanation we can give if anyone asks how we know that Christ is alive and remains with us.
I’ve found myself on several occasions in conversation with non-believers who have pressed me about why I believe (and why I have hope) in a time when the Church is enduring scandal and many people are leaving the church. We can give sociological reasons and a historical perspective to put whatever crisis we are facing today into a big picture, but such responses always seem evasive and unsatisfying. I always have to come back to my experience – why I believe. And it comes down to the fact that my life was changed – I experienced a new life – through my encounter with the Word of God and the sacraments of the Church and a community of persons involved in the charitable work of the Church. This change in myself was a pure grace. The new way of looking at myself and the world came through an encounter with God’s mercy. And it has been something that has remained in me. I could not attribute the change to the many books I read on self-improvement or the various techniques of therapy that I studied and tried to apply to myself. Those things are helpful and have their place, but the change I experienced was on a deeper level. This new way of living and facing reality was not something I figured out intellectually and applied to my life. I met a Presence that fascinated me and called me to follow. A new life was awakened in me by this encounter. And this life continued to grow the more I followed the call.
Peter says that we are to give the reason for our hope with “gentleness and reverence”. We are gentle with those who doubt or disagree because we know that what we have received and come to know has not been through the strength of our will or our intellectual prowess. Knowledge of God does not come through force or strength of argument. Peter’s hope is based on the fact that he, with all his weaknesses, sinfulness, and failures, was chosen and forgiven by Christ – that after his repeated denials, Christ still wanted him and loved him. Peter’s own denials and weakness could not wipe out the fact that his heart was made for Christ. “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” His certainty does not rest on his own strength but on the mercy of Christ and the gift of the Holy Spirit given at Pentecost. We speak of our hope with reverence – with awe and wonder at what God has done. Reverence is the human response to the recognition of the presence of God.
The people of Samaria paid attention to Philip because he was a witness to hope – someone whose humanity was changed because he was filled with the Holy Spirit. This is the same Spirit that Jesus promised the disciples at the Last Supper that would remain with them and be in them. The gift of the Holy Spirit makes the life of Christ present in us today. In the history of Israel, the Samaritans were greatly disliked by the Jews and seen as a people cut off from salvation because they had mixed with the gentiles who had conquered them. They were spiritual “orphans”. But now Christ has come to them in the person of Philip to reconcile them to God. Today is the 17th Anniversary of my ordination to the priesthood. I can point to the day more than 23 years ago that I realized that Christ was really with me. It was a day that began my discernment to the priesthood in earnest and gave me the certainty that there was a direction and hope for my life. Please pray for me that I may, recognizing my own weaknesses and how Christ has changed my life, always place my hope in Christ and be a gentle and reverent witness to hope.