For reasons unknown to science and every other mode of knowledge, the human race has a weakness for prophecy. Both true and false. And especially at times like the beginning of a new year. It’s “only human” to wonder what the next year will bring, even though – as COVID time has demonstrated beyond all reasonable doubt – we have little ability to predict and even less to control the future. Except for very rare individuals – with names like Isaiah, Micaiah, Daniel – God seems to think it’s best that way.
But it’s always a safe bet to believe prophets who tell us that if we continue on as we are, disasters will follow.
It’s easy to see, for instance, that without massive renewal, Christians are headed for a status unlike anything since the fourth century: a despised group, “enemies of the human race” (Tacitus, even earlier), subject to various political and social penalties.
And our secular politics in most Western nations are locked in a suicidal drive towards woke utopianism that is already, as all revolutions do, eating its own.
So, even without the gift of prophecy, it’s hard to be optimistic about the coming year. We remember, of course, the old warning that believers should not indulge in optimism, which is a pastime for the shallow and worldly. We have here no abiding city. Our thing is Hope – something of a very different order and one of the theological virtues along with Faith and Charity.
But with all the apocalyptic doom surrounding us, and as we step into the still-unwritten pages of 2022, there’s a case that could be made for a chastened – i.e., limited – optimism.
One reason many of us feel the sky is falling is that we’ve expected too much, far too much, from things sharply limited by their very nature, particularly politics. Progressives, of course, have made politics into a substitute religion. But believers too now seem to expect more of messy matters of governance than, absent many other human values, they cannot give.
Still, these days we may be properly “optimistic” that by Fall 2022 there will be changes in the House and Senate that will slow, even stop, some of the worst insults to human life and religious liberty in America. That’s a realistic expectation – and something to take some comfort in – just so long as we don’t expect too much from November 2022 – or 2024, or 2144, or any version of mere politics. Real, incremental improvements are something very much worth sacrificing to achieve, particularly when revolution is in the air. The rest is – thank God – not in our hands.
It’s much more painful to contemplate the next twelve months in the Church. There seems nothing likely to stop further divisions in the body – which seems almost willed these days by Rome. The savage incoherence with which the Traditional Latin Mass has been attacked in recent months may seem like a side issue, but it goes to the very heart of whether we are a universal Church that has developed in multiple dimensions but still in continuity with Jesus Christ or one that has decided it can just make things up as it goes along.
We’ve all but forgotten, for example, that a few years ago Our Lord’s own words in the Our Father seemed so scandalous that they led the pope to suggest changing them (because God does not tempt us). In his native Spanish, “lead us not into temptation” is vaguely translated as “do not let us fall into temptation” (no nos dejes caer en la tentación).
The distinguished Cambridge University classicist Mary Beard has remarked, however, that the traditional English translation is “as close as you can get to the earliest (Greek) version we have.”
A New Testament Greek specialist might clarify that the phrase means do not lead us into “a test” – though we see in Scripture that God has sometimes done that (cf. Abraham about to sacrifice Isaac, for one instance). But nowhere does it suggest “letting us fall” or anything like merely “allowing.” As Beard said, “‘Not a good translation’ indeed! Doesn’t say what I want it to, more like.”
Apparently, the God of surprises can only surprise us when he’s, surprisingly, progressive.
With such willful challenges to liturgy and prayer and much more within the Church herself, even a limited optimism would be – well, overly optimistic. But it’s clear that the bishops of the world as a body are not jumping for joy shutting down Latin Masses (Chicago notwithstanding) or rewording the Lord’s own Prayer, except in small enclaves.
I’d advise conscientious bishops to set up commissions of carefully selected advisors to take several years of study before deciding how to manage all such radical changes.
The Church is a big place, where Faith is very much alive in many places beneath appearances – as is Hope.
Even most Catholics do not know that Hope is a theological virtue. They understand the need for Faith, and the obligations of Charity. The great 20th-century French thinker and writer Charles Péguy has God say (humorously) in a long poem The Portal of the Mystery of Hope, “Faith doesn’t surprise me. . . .I am so resplendent in my creation. . . .Charity does not surprise me. . . .These poor creatures are so miserable that unless they had a heart of stone, how could they not have love for each other.”
But Hope. . .that is something that surprises me.
Even me. . . .
That these poor children see how things are going and believe that tomorrow things will
go better. . .
That is surprising and it’s by far the greatest marvel of our grace.
And I’m surprised by it myself.
And my grace must indeed be an incredible force.
When God says here that people believe things will “go better” he doesn’t mean the false optimism of worldly ambitions. He means that the theological virtues will move our souls to a better place, whatever our circumstances. And it’s Hope that actually pulls along Faith and Charity.
Péguy’s God may joke about his surprise at the “incredible force” of his own grace, but we ought to take it seriously. Because it’s in that grace that all legitimate prophecy, optimism, and Hope live and act. Praying for the virtue of Hope in the kind of year 2022 promises to be is an urgent priority.
Happy New Year.
*Image: Hope by an unknown Italian (Umbrian) artist, c. 1500 [The MET, New York]
You may also enjoy:
Rev. Jerry J. Pokorsky’s An Elusive and Essential Virtue
Randall Smith’s Hope in a Time of Darkness and Despair