Recently some readers of Another Voice told me they fear I am becoming “negatively critical and pessimistic.” Their remarks surprised me. I am critical but I think it is healthy and responsible to be constructively critical. Being critical, however, is not the same thing as being negative. And I am really not pessimistic. But I am a clear-eyed realist and greatly concerned about the problems that confront present and future generations in our contemporary world. 

Today I have short reflection that does not focus on the problems. I call it the Tenacity of Hope because I am not a prophet of doom; and my faith and my reading of history give me hope and encouragement . 

Yes very big problems confront us today: political and religious polarization, climate change, and of course a rebounding Coronavirus. If people work together, all of these problems can be resolved. I do believe that. For some problems it may take a lot of time. For other problems like the pandemic, there will be yet more suffering and death before we can say we have safely moved beyond that. 

As an older historical theologian, I am confident, as well, that there will be a greatly needed reconfiguration of our Christian churches. But I am not certain I will live to see it. Right now I enjoy witnessing what I call the new church transformation movements, like those involving women priests. And I find encouragement from truly well-informed contemporary theologians – like the men and women teaching and researching at the Catholic University of Leuven. They know the tradition and its history. They understand and know how to interpret today’s signs of the times.

One’s life perspective is important. I grew up with family stories about fear and hope. In Corona days I have thought a lot about my father, his four brothers, and of course my grandmother. My grandfather, Alonzo William Dick, a school teacher in Indiana, died in 1919 in the Great Influenza epidemic of 1918 – 1920. Most of his children as well as my grandmother were too sick to attend his funeral. Town authorities in Montpelier, Indiana wanted to put the boys in foster care homes. My grandmother said “absolutely not.” She had a big challenge in front of her. Fortunately there were neighbors and family members who encouraged and helped her, especially in the first couple years after Alonzo’s death. It was not always easy but, on her own, she raised the five boys and they all became wonderfully mature, optimistic, warm, and wise adults. Their mother had often reminded them – and often reminded me as I was growing up — that “bad things do happen but we cannot allow them to destroy us.”

Yes my perspective and optimistic vision are historically based. I look at what happened in the past, what is happening today, and what can happen tomorrow. 

These days I also find that my current Belgian environment is helpful when reflecting about tragedies and the tenacity of hope. 

Although I was born and grew up in Michigan, USA, I now live in Leuven (“Louvain”) Belgium. Many years ago I came here to complete a doctorate, was offered a job, and never left…But I am still very much a US American. 

Historical reminders are all around my family and me. In our back yard my wife and I can look at the area, not far from our house, where there was once the local community hanging-tree. Soldiers of the fiercely anti- Protestant Duke of Alba, “The Iron Duke,” used the local hanging-tree in the sixteenth century religious wars to execute citizens of Leuven suspected of Calvinist sympathies. Alba, strongly supported by Pope Pius V (1566 – 1572), was Governor of the Spanish Netherlands from 1567 to 1573. During those six years he executed, across the country, more than a thousand people. 

Nevertheless, Leuven not only survived but flourished, because enough people maintained courage and hope.  That area of the local hanging-tree — which I am sure is unknown to most contemporary people — has been greatly transformed and is quite safe and peaceful today. Life is stronger than death.

Close to three hundred and fifty years after the terrorism of the “Iron Duke,” Leuven suffered again in WWI. Starting on August 25, 1914, and over the course of five days, German troops burned and looted much of the city and executed hundreds of civilians. Our world renowned university library with its magnificent collection of ancient manuscripts was burned. This provoked great national and international outrage. Nevertheless, people did not give up and Leuven was rebuilt. And, starting in 1921, thanks to countless, mainly US American, fundraisers and the personal efforts of Herbert Hoover (1874-1964), chairman of the Commission for Relief of Belgium, a new library could be built.

Then, just about thirty years later, the city was bombed in World War II. Great devastation. Again, people picked up, rebuilt, and moved forward. The tenacity of hope. 

Hopeful people pick up and move forward. And now thanks to the narrow-minded, and often belligerent behavior of the anti-vaxxers, we are confronted with a major resurgence of the Coronavirus. Our contemporary challenges are very real.

I confess. I do find it very easy to point my fingers at and write articles about problematic and negative people. I get annoyed and frustrated. But I know we need to work against polarization and I do try to reach out to the problematic and negative. It is not easy. I have lost a lot of Facebook friends in the process. From the Apostle Paul, I know that “Love is patient. Love is kind. Love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way. It is not irritable or resentful.” (1 Cor 13: 4–5)

And I know as well that, in my dealings with negative and often obnoxious people, I do need to be humbly alert to the exhortation of Jesus in Matthew 7 and Luke 6: “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” 

Thinking about strengthening our own tenacity of hope, we greatly need to learn from the example of hope-filled men and women. My old friend, Archbishop Jadot, the subject of my recent book, was for me a supportive teacher. I remember complaining to him about problems in the church and my frustrations with problematic bishops. One US archbishop had tried very hard — but without success —  to get me fired from the University of Leuven. Jadot looked at me, put his hand on my shoulder, and said: “Yes it is winter now. But spring WILL return.” We all need people like Jean Jadot in our lives.

Actually I guess we are all called to be prophets of hope and hopeful change. We need to critically examine our own perspectives, because they can make us open or closed. 

A few days ago I met a very old fashioned-thinking young priest. His theology was medieval and his comportment was haughty and arrogant. What a disappointment. Then a couple days later I met a group of energetic young men and women, who are theology students at our university. They are wonderfully bright, well informed; and their theological perspectives are contemporary and pastoral. What a delight. A healthy perspective. These young people, working on advanced theological degrees, are indeed, whether they realize it or not, prophets of hope and hopeful change for today and for tomorrow.

In a couple weeks, one of my adult discussion groups will discuss an article about the English anthropologist Jane Goodall (born 1934). She is a wonderfully prophetic and inspiring person. I remember her 1999 book, written with Phillip Berman, Reason for Hope. The book details her spiritual epiphany and her belief that everyone can find a reason for hope. 

“Each one of us matters, has a role to play, and makes a difference” Goodall wrote. “It is these undeniable qualities of human love and compassion and self-sacrifice that give me hope for the future. We are, indeed, often cruel and evil. Nobody can deny this. We gang up on each one another, we torture each other, with words as well as deeds, we fight, we kill. But we are also capable of the most noble, generous, and heroic behavior.” 

The tenacity of hope. With constructive criticism and collaborative efforts, we can indeed be “noble, generous, and heroic” in church and in civil society.

  • Jack

23 thoughts on “The Tenacity of Hope

  1. Thank you for such an uplifting, inspiring essay!! In such dark and trying times, your words of wisdom and compassion are surely needed!!

  2. Thank you, Jack. I think the extent of my mental, attitudinal issues stem from being so deeply involved in religion and politics from, at least, age 15. For example, while my friends wanted to do other things, I sat in front of the TV emotionally involved in the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon debates. As a conservative then, I “knew” Nixon was the one. Sadly, yes, I then believed Kennedy could not be elected as he was a Catholic.
    In sum, I expend a lot of energy seeking hope, as I am always so occupied, fighting depression over current issues, religious and political. I always find it, often weaker than I’d prefer, in the transformative power of God’s love and the witness of the Christ. It is a daily effort.
    Jack, I don’t know how else to express it, but, for me, I believe what we now call Progressive Christianity offers/makes/enables me to be more open to having hope, not because, as Christians, we are supposed to; but because Jesus teaches me to trust God to love, i.e., know that good will come out of bad. Make sense?? I hope so. “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me, even if in my walk around the next bend I fall among thieves, which strip me of my raiment, and wound me, and depart, leaving me half dead.”

  3. Thank you for this, Jack.
    On similar lines, I am enjoying “Human Kind” by Rutger Bregman, a very encouraging and hopeful book.

  4. Dear Jack,
    Thank you for your hopeful vision of the future and a belief that good will win out. I have found that, for me, the best way to be optimistic is to confront challenges to optimism one person at a time. When I engage someone, I try to have a positive interaction and find something to be positive for in that moment of communication. My son-in-law’s brother died at a young age of pancreatic cancer but always believed in the good in people. He always engaged, no matter how briefly, in “eight seconds of humanity.” He died with grace, dignity, and with church full of people who loved him. His example has affected my life and has made changing the world one encounter at a time my life’s goal.
    Peace!
    Frank

    1. Jack, your essays always deal with the real things we are faced with in life — that’s one of the reasons I appreciate them so much — a sharp contrast to the latest news from the USCCB meeting this month which dealt with drivel! It reminds me of the saying in James 1:27, “Real religion is this — taking care of the widows and orphans.” The important issues.

      Frank, your son-in-law’s brother must have been a remarkable person. I love your/his example of “eight seconds of humanity.” Lately, this is my way forward, too, one moment, one person at a time. If we focus only on the moment (person) before us, maybe we will get through that encounter with grace.

      Recently, for my efforts at this, a close relative mocked me saying, “Okay. For your sensitive ears I’ll not say things like that any more.” Then she hung up! And in four days she & I will be at the same Thanksgiving dinner table. I must practice “eight seconds of humanity” during that time. I believe the light overcomes the darkness.

  5. My dear Jack, you are indeed a clear-eyed realist rather than a starry-eyed optimist, and have given a much needed reminder that we should never give up hope. But it leaves open the question: how do we cope with the knowledge that what we hope for isn’t going to happen for a very long time? I, too, have every hope and confidence that one day our Roman Church will become truly Catholic, will recognise the equal value of women, will cease treating the gift of the Eucharist as its own exclusive possession, will drop the pretence that its teachings never change; but I know perfectly well that none of these things are going to happen in my lifetime. I’m 82, I have done all I can and don’t want to spend the remainder of my days raging at the deafness of our bishops, and biting my tongue as our parish priest tells us for the umpteenth time that St Peter was the first Pope.

    I’m not at heart a quitter, but a recent relocation to another part of England has given me an opportunity to make a radical change, and I have been welcomed into an Anglican parish which combines deep and thoughtful spirituality with lively and practical pastoral work throughout the local community, where we are all invited to participate fully, and whose vicar exercises leadership rather than authority.

    I still remain in touch with the Catholic Church, I read your posts, subscribe to The Tablet, zoom into the men’s prayer group in my old parish, but while I still maintain my long-term hopes for the Church I now feel freed from the frustration of waiting for them to be fulfilled.

  6. Persistence is a much needed virtue along with hope for these times. If not the children, perhaps the grandchildren will rediscover fruits of Vatican II!!

  7. The contrast between the young priest and the young students is so illustrative of where the Catholic Church is and where it is called to be. May you continue to bring critical thinking and hope into the conversation.
    Blessings.

  8. Jack
    I stumbled over you blog the other day when I was scrolling through America – or was it la Croix International, but no matter. I have been searching for a reason to remain in this dysfunctional Church. Far from being the Light of the Nations, the Catholic Church just seems to be another nation – intent on guarding its power at all costs, concerned about its gold and image. Its leaders pay lip service to the victims of sexual abuse, but never did before the secular powers exposed the evil. But for this it probably wouldn’t be saying anything. Indeed, today more than one priest has a child but his Bishop ignores this, ships his to another diocese and is incardinated there. And no one knows. The secular press has not gotten a hold of it yet. Here, in Canada, the Bishops aided and abetted the separation of indigenous children from their parents and shipped them off to residential schools. There is a great gulf between those with collars and the rest of us – is this really the church of the Master who walked among us? Has the bulk of the leadership of this church ever met the Lord? At times I am close to giving up hope. So thank you for this article. Spring will return. Without that thought, we are trapped in perpetual winter, looking elsewhere for warmth.
    Ken

    1. Ken
      Many thanks for writing. Yes it is winter now; and it may be a long winter. But spring will return. There will be a new church configuration. Right now I see springtime buds in small Christian communities that are truly in touch with contemporary life and resonate with the Spirit of Jesus.

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