I’ve spent a decent amount of time the past week listening to the pre-conclave coverage, probably more than is good for me. Besides the endless lists of papabile, a lot of the coverage has focused on Benedict’s resignation leaving the church in a time of “crisis.” On the radio one morning, a journalist described Benedict’s whole papacy as “marred by crises,” offering several examples of missteps in interreligious dialogue. Moreover, the segment concluded by noting that Benedict “also failed to restore unity with Anglicans and Orthodox.” (Of course, the same could be said of every pope since 1054 in the case of the Orthodox and 1531 in the case of the Anglicans – but I digress.)
As a remedy to the 24-hour news coverage as we’re waiting for the conclave to start tomorrow, and as expression of gratitude for his time as pope, I decided to spend some time reacquainting myself with Benedict XVI’s three encyclicals. I remembered how surprising it was that the former head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith began his papal career with an encyclical entitled “God is Love” (Deus Caritas Est), and that his focus in Caritas in Veritate was not so much on doctrine, but on the application and renewal of the Church’s social teaching in the age of globalization.
But I was most struck this time by his second encyclical, Spe Salvi (“in hope we were saved”). The news coverage is giving us a narrative of crisis — of the church at a crossroads, buffeted by secularism on one side and scandal on the other, and needing to find a pope to fix our problems. And even from “inside” the Church, it’s easy to let that narrative take priority.
Here’s Benedict, then, on what we hope for:
Let us say once again: we need the greater and lesser hopes that keep us going day by day. But these are not enough without the great hope, which must surpass everything else. This great hope can only be God, who encompasses the whole of reality and who can bestow upon us what we, by ourselves, cannot attain. The fact that it comes to us as a gift is actually part of hope. God is the foundation of hope: not any god, but the God who has a human face and who has loved us to the end, each one of us and humanity in its entirety (§31).
It’s not sound-bite-sized, and it doesn’t easily fit the crisis/solution narrative that is dominating the news coverage. But while we’re waiting for the conclave to start, and as we’re waiting to hear “Habemus Papam!” from the balcony of St. Peter’s, I’m grateful to be reminded about our real hope. Not someone who will fix the Curia, or evangelize agnostics, or renew our theology. The Church will always have some crisis needing to be fixed. No, our real hope is the God who has a human face.