It might be a perception that my active rejection of safe environment programs for children as an unjustified intrusion on both the innocence of the child and the integrity of the family reflects a glimmer of courage. But there too, I simply am responding to the courageous resistance to these things already manifested by hundreds of concerned and faithful Catholic laity. They are the real bearers of the badges of courage. In the midst of their own schools and parishes they have borne insult, rejection, repudiation and even discrimination because of their firm upholding of the truth. I am most proud to represent and support them but the credit for any semblance of courage more properly belongs to them.
Each year around this time the Office of Readings, a part of the Liturgy of the Hours which priests and many lay persons recite each day, gets to be very challenging. Several weeks ago the Readings included a stern reminder from Saint Augustine. We read from his Sermon On Pastors where he cites the Prophets: “I have appointed you a watchman for the house of Israel. You shall hear the word from my mouth and you shall point out the way to them in my name.” On the 27th Sunday of Ordinary Time we find that challenging passage from the writings of Saint Gregory: “A spiritual guide should be silent when discretion requires and speak when words are of service. Otherwise he may say what he should not or be silent when he should speak. Indiscreet speech may lead men into error and an imprudent silence may leave in error those who could have been taught. Pastors who lack foresight hesitate to say openly what is right because they fear losing the favor of men.”
Saint Gregory was well aware that this simple fear, the fear of losing the favor of men, was a very powerful impediment to bold speech. He continues: “As the voice of truth tells us, such leaders are not zealous pastors who protect their flocks, rather they are like mercenaries who flee by taking refuge in silence when the wolf appears.” In that same sermon, he later adds: “To advance against the foe involves a bold resistance to the powers of this world in defense of the flock. To stand fast in battle on the day of the Lord means to oppose the wicked enemy out of love for what is right. When a pastor has been afraid to assert what is right, has he not turned his back and fled by remaining silent?” I sincerely wonder what Saint Gregory would say to me today.
If there is a note of holy boldness in what pastors, including bishops, have done, I suspect it is in part because we read these passages each year and become more afraid of not doing our duty than losing the favor of men. I pray it is also the result of authentic hope. I have very much enjoyed and been challenged by Pope Benedict’s Encyclical on Hope, Spe Salvi. One of my favorite passages: “All serious and upright human conduct is hope in action.” I think this is worth repeating: “All serious and upright human conduct is hope in action.” The Holy Father continues: “This is so first of all in the sense that we thereby strive to realize our lesser and greater hopes, to complete this or that task which is important for our onward journey, or we work towards a brighter and more humane world so as to open doors into the future.” Pope Benedict thus positions all, even purely secular action, in the realm of hope. Then he makes a very important distinction: “Yet our daily efforts in pursuing our own lives and in working for the world’s future either tire us or turn into fanaticism, unless we are enlightened by the radiance of the great hope that cannot be destroyed even by small-scale failures or by a breakdown in matters of historic importance. If we cannot hope for more than is effectively attainable at any given time, or more than is promised by political or economic authorities, our lives will soon be without hope.”
It is easy to see how such a state of hopelessness would soon redound to a state either of cowardly inactivity or complete fanaticism. The hope the Holy Father talks about is a hope which transcends this existence: “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.”
In our present political climate it would be very easy to somehow link our courage and hopefulness to the outcome of political endeavors. It would be easy to position our hope in some kind of political strategy and call for greater courage in fostering that particular strategy. This is certainly hope in action but it is often based on a limited and a meager hope. It is a hope which in many ways leaves God at the perimeter. Pope Benedict calls us back to spiritual reality: “Certainly we cannot ‘build’ the Kingdom of God by our own efforts – what we build will always be the kingdom of man with all the limitations proper to our human nature. The Kingdom of God is a gift, and precisely because of this, it is great and beautiful, and constitutes the response to our hope.” (Spe Salvi, 35) The fact that whatever kind of kingdom we manage to build here will always be an imperfect kingdom helps us keep our focus on that in which and for which we ultimately hope, a kingdom of God in eternity.
Our hope-filled efforts here at building as much of an image of the true Kingdom of God as possible can meet with frustration and even perceived failure and yet every one of our efforts, however successful or unsuccessful here, is a sign and witness to that Kingdom in which we truly hope. By all accounts the death of Eleazar constituted his life as a waste, a failure. Yet, he witnesses to a hope for a kingdom which is greater and more beautiful than any secular kingdom. His courage was hope in action, not a limited and meager hope but a hope much greater.