13th Sunday of Easter
Fr Frank Brennan SJ
14 May 2023
Acts 8:5-8,14-17; Psalm 65; 1 Peter 3:15-18; John 14:15-21
Happy Mother’s Day to all the mothers with us today. And let’s remember all our Mums, living and dead, present and absent, those appreciated and loved, and those who are not. We particularly call to mind those mothers doing it tough. We recall Tolstoy’s great opening line in Anna Karenina: ‘All happy families resemble one another, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’ Of the 7.3 million families in Australia today, 1 million of them are one parent families, with 80% of those one parent families being headed by single mothers, some of whom are doing it very tough indeed.
In today’s second reading, we hear that ever consoling message from the first letter of Peter, penned by someone long after Peter had died: ‘Always have your answer ready for people who ask you the reason for the hope that you all have, but give it with courtesy and respect and with a clear conscience’.
Early in his pontificate, Pope Francis referred back to the optimistic hope expressed by Pope John XXIII when he opened the Second Vatican Council in 1962 with the words: ‘Divine Providence is leading us to a new order of human relations which, by human effort and even beyond all expectations, are directed to the fulfilment of God’s superior and inscrutable designs, in which everything, even human setbacks, leads to the greater good of the Church’. Francis added: ‘One of the more serious temptations which stifles boldness and zeal is a defeatism which turns us into querulous and disillusioned pessimists, “sourpusses”.’ Now that’s a word we had never heard before in an Apostolic Exhortation. It should have brought a smile even to those most skeptical about the present state of the church.
We Christians, like all human beings, occupy differing positions on the spectrum of optimism and pessimism. Our individual position on the spectrum probably depends as much on personal temperament and individual circumstances as anything else. But no matter where we land or oscillate on that spectrum, we are all people of hope, or at least we are called to be, and we are so graced.
The German theologian Karl Rahner when introducing his book Foundations of Christian Faith said that he wanted to reflect on our diverse experiences of Christian existence, wanting ‘to justify it before the demands of conscience and of truth by giving “an account of our hope”.’ Rahner thought that every Christian had to display a certain pessimistic realism, observing that we are Christian only if we believe ‘that everything positive and beautiful and everything which blossoms has to pass through what we call death’. We ‘know joy at one moment and tears at another’ but we ‘experience the grandeur and the vitality of human life’, and at another moment we ‘taste death, transitoriness and disappointment’. Rahner asserted: ‘To be able to open ourselves to the reality of life freely and unsystematically, and to do this without absolutising either earthly life or death, this can be done only by someone who believes and hopes that the totality of the life which we can experience is encompassed by the holy mystery of eternal love.’
Christian hope is not a naïve optimism. Christian hope drives us to work for justice and to seek for truth here and now. And we do this in season and out of season. We do it, whatever the spirit of the age, the mentality of the mob or the mood of the nation. During the week, I attended a conference where I heard an address by Dr Xavier Symons, a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Human Flourishing Program at Harvard University. He observed:
‘Appeals to the social justice mandate of religious organisations no longer seem to cut muster with more strident secular critics who would argue that we can achieve all of this and more without religion. That is to say, many believe that we can do away with the controversial dogmas of religious belief and the problematic transparency of religious institutions and replace it with a secular, independent, open and data-driven approaches to health, welfare and social justice.’
We all know our fair share of ex-Catholics who have maintained a strong commitment to social justice while ditching the rest of the package. They are some of the strongest and best informed critics of our Church. They are some of our most passionate social reformers.
Xavier Symons went on to describe some of the findings from the Harvard Human Flourishing Program which considered six domains of wellbeing: happiness and life satisfaction; mental and physical health; meaning and purpose; character and virtue; close social relationships; and financial stability.
It was staggering to learn that Generation Z (age 18-25) scored worse than every other generation on all these metrics of wellbeing.
What was truly revealing was this finding from the study: ‘There is one social factor that is remarkably effective in decreasing suicidality, depression, anxiety and substance abuse among young people’. What is it? ‘Active participation in a religious community (religious community here means a Church or other community). People who are actively involved in a religious community experience a five fold decrease in suicide risk. They also experience modest improvements in all-cause mortality; depression; substance abuse; anxiety; and life satisfaction’.
Symons concluded his address to Catholic educators and health care professionals with the challenge that we ‘highlight not just our distinctive contribution to the flourishing of individuals but also the unique orientation of our institutions to the flourishing of societies’. He thought this would be ‘the most distinctive offering that Catholic institutions can make in liberal democratic societies.’ That brings us back to today’s first reading from Peter: ‘Always have your answer ready for people who ask you the reason for the hope that you all have, but give it with courtesy and respect and with a clear conscience’.
Our hope is not a cause for self-satisfied triumphalism. It is a spur to courteous dialogue and respectful engagement with those who, though not sharing our faith, share our commitment to life in common as ‘a constitutive of human flourishing rather than just an instrument for the growth of capital and the satisfaction of individual preferences and desires’.
1. Pope John XXIII, ‘Address for the Opening of the Second Vatican Council’ (11 October 1962): 4, AAS 54 (1962), 789.
2. Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, #85
3. Karl Rahner, Foundations of Christian Faith, Darton Longman & Todd, 1978, p. 2
4. Ibid, 405
5. Xavier Symons, ‘Do pray that justice may be accomplished in peace and that truth may prevail’, Address to Mary Aikenhead Ministries, 11 May 2023.