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Issue Date:  December 24, 2004

Hope for the long haul

It is in the believer’s DNA to come to this point each year -- no matter how many times expectations have been dashed in the past -- with a sense of anticipation and of hope.

Not of hope easily earned or hope that is short-lived.

True hope, perhaps the virtue with the lowest profile, is an expensive virtue; it comes at its best with great outlays of faith and of love. It is through those last two that we begin to understand hope in the long haul, hope in that existence beyond the travails of the day.

But if hope becomes better, more keenly known, with ever greater expenditures of faith and of love, then it is also a virtue deeply rooted in the here and now. For Christians, this season is, after all, a celebration of God among us today.

If hope, by definition, needs despair to push against, there was abundant potential in the past year. The war in Iraq grinds on, with uncounted thousands of dead Iraqis and more than 1,200 dead U.S. soldiers, most of them very young. It is a pursuit that continues to descend into hopelessness.

So, too, with the ravaged population of Sudan, where horrific stories of assault, rape and killing in addition to the starvation and deprivation of refugee camps haunt the edges of our consciousness.

A United Nations report lets us in on the grim fact that the majority of the world’s 2.2 billion children are living in extreme conditions of poverty and neglect: Six hundred forty million lack adequate shelter, 500 million have no access to sanitation, 400 million drink polluted water. And those are just the most jarring categories.

In our own backyard, the most distressing measure of the growing gap between rich and poor, between haves and have-nots, is the figure of more than 45 million Americans without health care coverage. The richest country in the history of the world can’t assure its citizens access to basic health care.

And there is the reality of abortion, the sad reality of mothers who lack even the hope necessary to choose life, and the deep social divides over how to respond to it.

Our church’s leaders and its followers continue to struggle with the fact and the aftermath of clerical sins, casting about for new footing, for a way beyond scandal.


Hope, it seems, isn’t cheap or for the faint-hearted. We, who see this season as marking the profound and improbable entry of God into our world, understand the divine folly of such promise.

We know it not just in some historic sense, but in the here and now, in the week after week of our own pages and the stories of people who set their lives against such despair.

Futility is simply not part of the calculation of those who work for peace and justice in corners of the world far and near. It doesn’t enter into the calculation of those Catholics who, against logic and institutional intransigence that has sent too many others packing, decide week after week to stay.

“Hope,” the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, “is the theological virtue by which we desire the kingdom of heaven and eternal life as our happiness, placing our trust in Christ’s promises and relying not on our own strength, but on the help of the grace of the Holy Spirit.” Like bread and water and air, we need it to carry on, to find the justice and happiness we seek.

Merry Christmas.

National Catholic Reporter, December 24, 2004

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