The Substance of Hope

In his new encyclical Spe Salvi, Pope Benedict XVI notes that “in the eleventh chapter of the Letter to the Hebrews (v. 1) we find a kind of definition of faith which closely links this virtue with hope.” He carefully explains that the most precise translation of that verse is “faith is the substance of things hoped for; the proof of things not seen.” He continues:

“Saint Thomas Aquinas, using the terminology of the philosophical tradition to which he belonged, explains it as follows: faith is a habitus, that is, a stable disposition of the spirit, through which eternal life takes root in us and reason is led to consent to what it does not see. The concept of ‘substance’ is therefore modified in the sense that through faith, in a tentative way, or as we might say ‘in embryo’—and thus according to the ‘substance’—there are already present in us the things that are hoped for: the whole, true life. And precisely because the thing itself is already present, this presence of what is to come also creates certainty: this ‘thing’ which must come is not yet visible in the external world (it does not ‘appear’), but because of the fact that, as an initial and dynamic reality, we carry it within us, a certain perception of it has even now come into existence. . . .

“Faith is not merely a personal reaching out towards things to come that are still totally absent: it gives us something. It gives us even now something of the reality we are waiting for, and this present reality constitutes for us a ‘proof’ of the things that are still unseen. Faith draws the future into the present, so that it is no longer simply a ‘not yet.’ The fact that this future exists changes the present; the present is touched by the future reality, and thus the things of the future spill over into those of the present and those of the present into those of the future.”

Hope is necessarily ordered toward a future, difficult good. We don’t hope for things we have already obtained. The theological virtue of hope has this “not yet” dimension. St. Paul himself admits as much in his Letter to the Philippians, where he says that “I for my part do not consider myself to have taken possession. . . . I continue my pursuit toward the goal, the prize of God’s upward calling, in Christ Jesus” (3:13-14).

But Pope Benedict here emphasizes that hope also has an “already” dimension to complement the perhaps more obvious “not yet” dimension. The basis of this “already-ness” is the “substance” of our faith, which is a present, life-changing reality. In other words, because of faith, that for which we hope is already present in seed form, giving us confident assurance that we are not running the race in vain. After all, we have received the Holy Spirit as the “first installment” of the fullness of life that will one day be ours (see 2 Cor. 1:22; 5:5; Rom. 5:5).

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