Today we begin the liturgical season defined by hope. The preface for Mass says that we dare to hope. Indeed, hope seems a more daring venture than ever. And yet for precisely that reason, it holds more importance than ever. In keeping with Chesterton’s famous aphorism — Hope means hoping when things are hopeless – hope’s importance increases in proportion to its absurdity.
We dare to hope. At this time in our nation and in our Church, many find it difficult to hope at all . . . never mind to abound in hope, as Saint Paul exhorts us. (cf. Rom 15:13) In this context we do well to recall our Lord’s familiar image of the vine and branches:
I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch of mine that bears no fruit, he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. (Jn 15:1-2)
It has always seemed to me that this beautiful image of the vine and branches is somewhat compromised by the harsh words about pruning. I don’t know much about horticulture, but I know enough to know that pruning – although necessary – seems, while it’s happening, gratuitous and cruel. A perfectly good branch is cut away. We can understand the bad branches being done away with. But pruning does away with plenty of good as well.
Friends of mine out in the country recently planted vines on their land. I’m yet to go out there to help with the pruning, but I’ve already learned two more things. First, that pruning is best done in the late winter and early spring. In other words, at the very time of year that we’re anticipating new growth, things are cut back even more. Second, that the vinedresser must be merciless. He must prune even if it seems to have killed the vine. Perhaps you’ve seen the barren, seemingly dead vines in the country. Well, they’re not dead. They’re not lifeless. They’re just pruned.
Of course, that pruning and denuding of the branches is necessary – not just for fruit but for abundant fruit. Again, Saint Paul exhorts us to abound in hope. And for things to abound there must be some pruning. The Latin phrase Succisa virescit – Cut off, if grows again – gets at this point. It is the motto of Monte Cassino’s Benedictine monastery, which has been sacked, pillaged, and bombed throughout history. And yet endures.
Succisa virescit: this motto and the whole practice of pruning are important for the Church right now. We do not know why the Lord is allowing such trials to afflict the Church; why He is allowing such confusion and decline. The most difficult thing to accept is God’s permissive will. But at the very least, without knowing His entire mind and purpose, we can accept this moment of trial as a time of pruning. Things are being cut back, and in some cases severely. But such is necessary for new growth.
In effect, we are experiencing a pruning of our hope. We make the mistake of relegating the virtue of hope to hopeful situations. When things are rosy, then we’re hopeful. Again, as Chesterton’s line teaches, just the opposite should be the case. Too many of us had – perhaps without realizing it – a worldly basis for our hope, and thus a worldly hope. It was easy to be hopeful when the Church was a major player in our country, when we were building parishes and schools and seminaries and hospitals and colleges and universities and so on. It was easy to be hopeful under such giants as John Paul II and Benedict XVI. We saw the vigor of the Church and grew hopeful, but perhaps not for the right reasons.
Will we hope now that things are different? When the Church is no longer a major player, when in many places our institutions are being closed and properties sold off, when attendance declines, when confusion afflicts us? Will we still hope?
Our hope has received a necessary pruning. It is being cut back to what makes it authentically Christian and not worldly. The difficulties afflicting the Church challenge us to hope differently, not on worldly considerations but on the Lord.
I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch of mine that bears no fruit, he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit.
These are words of true hope. Not of the fleeting, worldly hope that we Americans like – the hope that promises a quick fix. Not that false hope but the hope that sees difficulties and cutbacks as within God’s Providence and therefore ordered to our good. In short, we hope not because of a rosy outlook, because we are popular or accepted, or at ease, but because of Him.
Hope is found in a pruned branch, in what is negligible and seemingly lifeless. This is our Lord’s preferred way of doing things. Next Sunday we will hear that a shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse. (Is 11:1) Note that: not from Jesse’s tree in full bloom, but from the stump, from what looks like it cannot grow at all, never mind bear fruit.
This is where we always find new life in the Church. Not from the big and powerful, not from the corridors of power or think tanks in D.C., not from the enormous initiatives that once characterized the Church in the U.S. It comes from the simple, small, and seemingly fruitless: from simple devotional prayers; from a straightforward confidence in the Sacraments; from the hidden work and prayers of women religious; from parents striving to raise children amid a twisted and depraved generation; from priests standing faithfully at their posts despite the maelstrom of scandals; and most of all, from a no-account town in Galilee, from a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph of the forgotten and ruined house of David.
*Image: The Vine Dresser and the Fig Tree (Le vigneron et le figuier) by J.J. Tissot, c. 1890 [Brooklyn Museum]