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Pope Benedict XVI – Messenger of Hope

by Sr. Theresa Rickard, O.P., D.Min, Director of RENEW International

Like many American Catholics, I observed with great interest the visit of Pope Benedict XVI to the United States, especially to my native New York. My interest was heightened as a member of the Dominican Sisters of Blauvelt and as the leader of RENEW International, a Catholic organization dedicated to spiritual renewal in dioceses, parishes, and on college campuses.

Pope Benedict XVI has turned out to be a very different leader for our Church than many had predicted. He is neither the hardliner that some feared nor the authoritarian for whom others hoped. Instead, he embodies a blend of the qualities that his Benedict namesakes represent—a deep spirituality with a profound concern for the world. The first St. Benedict, founder of Western monasticism, focused on the revival of the spirit; while Pope Benedict XV promoted world peace as the focal point of his pontificate during World War I.

Benedict’s theme for his visit, “Christ Our Hope” connects into people’s deep hunger for an anchor in uncertain times. In his advance message to the people of the United States, Pope Benedict observed that “the world has greater need of hope than ever: hope for peace, for justice, and for freedom.” He reinforced that theme numerous times during the course of his visit.

Of course, the Catholic Church itself is in need of renewed hope, particularly in the wake of the hurt from the sexual abuse scandal, the closing of parishes and schools, and the recent surveys indicating the diminishing number of young adults participating in the life of the Church.

In fact, my ministry at RENEW International brings me to parishes and campuses where many express deep concerns: dissatisfaction with our country’s policies and cultural values, questions about the Church’s authenticity and relevance, worry about their own futures, sadness due to family members no longer going to Church.

In the midst of these challenges, Catholics and all people of goodwill are called to be saved by true hope in redemption, not just the lesser hopes for relationships, career, and financial success. In his latest encyclical, Spe Salvi [Saved by Hope], Benedict XVI challenges us: “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.” [Spe Salvi, 31].

The Pope’s message of hope resonated deeply with Catholics and others, based on the enthusiastic crowds during the visit. Hundreds of thousands cheered Benedict XVI at Masses and events in New York and Washington, DC. Over 25,000 young people turned out at the spirited Youth Rally in Yonkers, including my own nephew, Douglas Hutchings, whose Christian rock band Full Armor had the honor of performing.

The fervor surrounding a papal visit is like the awakening of faith from a retreat experience—feeling buoyed by the excitement of an encounter with God and connecting with others who are looking for more from life than our secularized society offers. But what happens now that the Pope has returned home? How do we keep the hope alive? That job is the responsibility of the local church—its leaders and its people.

People searching for meaning and purpose in life need to be uplifted by Jesus’ message of love and salvation. Those isolated and alone need to be brought into communities of caring. Parents wanting to pass on the faith need to be given the words and the tools to teach their children. Young people, indeed all people, need opportunities to awaken and deepen their faith. Those who seek God with a sincere heart need to be encouraged to connect their faith with action on behalf of justice—for the sake of the Church and the world. As faith communities on a mission, this is the work parish leaders, both clergy and laity, need to do and can do in the coming weeks and months.

I see plenty of signs of hope.

This week, RENEW International is working with the Archdiocese of Boston to launch a three-year process of spiritual renewal in celebration of its 200th anniversary. Despite the experiences of deep hurt and disillusionment by both clergy and laity since the unfolding of the clergy abuse crisis in Boston and the recent closing of parishes, many of today’s parish leaders are enthusiastic about inviting family and friends to rejoin them in faith. We expect over 30,000 people to be engaged in the parish-based, diocesan-wide program called ARISE Together in Christ. Student leaders at Catholic University, where the Pope speaks this week, have been forming small Christian communities, with over 400 students participating as part of Campus RENEW—and reaching out to their peers and serving others.

In other words, "The one who has hope lives differently; the one who hopes has been granted the gift of a new life."[SS, 2]

Will our parishes and people respond, using the Pope’s visit to reflect on the opportunities to renew our parishes and put our faith into action?

I, for one, have hope.