Can you be a ‘Prisoner of Hope?’
May 18, 2012
It was a Tuesday in my first assignment as a newly ordained priest. The pastor had the day off, the other parochial vicar, the resident priest and the cook were gone as well. It was simply me and the parish secretaries to take on the world!
And, of course, it ended up a crazy day. Too many calls, too many questions, too many individual walk-ins. Finally, at 5 p.m., I was able to slip away for a few minutes to a nearby McDonald’s. With a Newsweek under my arm, I looked forward to a Big Mac, fries, a large Diet Coke and my Newsweek.
I got my order, sat down, unwrapped that Big Mac and opened that Newsweek. And then a shadow from behind, looming over me. It was a mother and daughter. “Do you mind if we have dinner with you, Father?"
Did I mind!? Just a few minutes of peace and quiet were all I wanted. But I smiled — albeit not so warmly — but a smile nonetheless. I offered them a seat on the other side of the table. Just what I didn’t need! Just what I didn’t want!
As I remember it, it was an uneventful dinner. Chit-chat and nothing more. I headed back to the rectory when we were done, ready for a busy evening of teaching an adult faith formation class.
“Be not afraid”
Five years later, I was leaving church after celebrating the last Mass of the day — getting ready to leave the parish for a new assignment. The ushers told me that a woman gave them an envelope as she was leaving church and asked them to hand the envelope to me personally. They did so dutifully. I locked up the church. Went to my room. Got relaxed. And opened the letter.
“Dear Father,” it began, “you probably won’t remember me, but five years ago I joined you for supper at McDonald’s. In all honesty, I intended that it would be my last supper and the last supper for my daughter as well. I had intended to kill my daughter and myself. But because you let us have dinner with you, I am alive today and so is my daughter.”
I don’t know what I had done. I don’t remember what I had said. In fact, my only memory of that meal some five years later was my annoyance at having my peace and quiet interrupted.
But I must have said or done something that gave another person hope. Only by the grace of God did I do or say the right thing. Somehow, some way, I was an angel of hope!
That virtue is at the heart of Catholic Charities. If I am asked what Catholic Charities does, I can describe it simply as “Catholic Charities gives hope.” And with hope comes anything else that could really matter.
It is a phrase that comes from the prophet Zechariah, and is cited by Pope Benedict. He calls us to be “Prisoners of Hope.”
It is an odd marriage of two words: “prisoner” and “hope.” Hope is a great virtue; to be a prisoner is not so great!
But come to think about it, it makes a great deal of sense. When we reflect on it a bit, Pope Benedict makes sense of it. As he wrote in his second encyclical on hope, “Spe Salvi,” he said: “The dark door of time, of the future, has been thrown open. The one who has hope lives differently; the one who hopes has been granted the gift of a new life.”
Once we have hope, hope has us. In a delightful way, when hope grabs a hold of us, we become “Prisoners of Hope.” And with hope, the world never does look the same again for us. Fear no longer overwhelms us. The terrors of life no longer own us.
When John Paul II was elected our pope on Oct. 16, 1978, his first message to a waiting world was “Be not afraid.” He was citing the words of Jesus to his disciples when he came among them after the Resurrection. “Be not afraid!” he said. And in that instant, Jesus gave them back their hope. Hope grabbed a hold of them. They were “Prisoners of Hope.” And giving back their hope, Jesus gave them life. And the hope and the life he gave them could not be contained.
Pope John Paul knew that there can be a trap at the heart of modern humanity. The world can be afraid of itself; afraid for its future. It is a fear that comes from failing to know, or failing to understand, what it means to be human in our world. When we have lost hope — we have lost that serene confidence that can bear any burden; when we have lost hope — we have lost the ability to understand who and what we are as human beings. When we have lost hope — we have lost God.
Hope is the answer to humanity’s restlessness; the answer to humanity’s fear. In our Catholic tradition, hope is combined with faith and charity. These three virtues are inextricably linked, and properly called the three theological virtues, the virtues of God. In the “Divine Comedy,” Dante described them as the greatest stars in the universe never seen on earth. But we can feel them all around us.
Just recently, close to 900 people gathered together as “Prisoners of Hope,” gathering together to support the important work of Catholic Charities. We did so at the annual Bishop’s Dinner for Catholic Charities. And indeed, it was a celebration of hope. Hope is what Catholic Charities gave to more than 80,000 people served last year in southwestern Pennsylvania.
As I had the chance to meet so many people at that dinner, and as I have the chance of meeting so many of you in our parishes, in the supermarket, on the streets of Downtown Pittsburgh, I see people of hope, people who are “Prisoners of Hope,” people whose hope can’t be contained but shared with love. You are people who know God. You are people who know what a gift God is! You are people who know what a gift hope is! Hope fills the empty heart; God saves a hopeless world.
That is what Catholic Charities means in our small corner of the world. Whether it is addiction counseling, assisting refugees or reaching out to those needing help with bills; whether it is educating on parenthood skills or taking a look at some hurting teeth at the Free Health Care Center of Catholic Charities, Catholic Charities is giving hope. And it could not give hope without your support, without your willing to be “Prisoners of Hope.”
So I want you to understand what you have become. All of you who have let hope capture you have become “Prisoners of Hope.” Hope has grabbed on to you and it will not let go. But it is a hope that you simply cannot contain. It is a hope that I cannot simply contain. Hope has grabbed on to us and it will not let go. You and I have seen the door to the future thrown open, and we know that the world can never be the same. Your hunger, my hunger is to share that hope. And we do so every day by our support of Catholic Charities.
There are moments these many years later when I try to remember what I could have possibly said or done for that young woman many years ago who interrupted my solitude at McDonald’s. Come to think of it, you and I never know at first glance the battles people are waging. We never know what small thing that we do t