My dear brothers and sisters of the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul:
Let us start by reflecting on human hope. The philosopher Ernst Bloch wrote a valuable book: Das Prinzip Hoffnung [The principle of hope]. It expresses his philosophy around the subject of hope. He does it because he is convinced that human beings live in tension with the future. We always believe that the future will be better. The novelty of the future guides us towards the achievement of what is possible. For Bloch, the principle of hope is not merely a psychological question, but it defines the human being. It is to believe that what is not yet, the incomplete, what is going badly, has the capacity to improve. This hope is transformative. It broadens our horizons, rather than limiting them. For the horizon to change effectively, however, we must be actors, not just spectators. Not hoping that change will be delivered in an Amazon box. A hopeful person is not resigned to a dog’s life, to accepting corruption, bewailing their fate. On the contrary, from the possible we can seek the better. This attitude made Bloch, for example, into a convinced pacifist. As you can see, this book can offer many lessons to SSVP members.
It is also true that history very often gives us a ‘slap in the face’, as we see how our best plans come to nothing, are disappointed, undermined. More than once, humanity itself “sabotages” its greatest plans. When the effects of this are severe, the sense of the absurd arises. Take care, this sense is not something that happened only recently. Coming in many different ways, we find it in some very ancient texts: Sumerian, Akkadian, Egyptian, Greek, Mayan, etc. Let us recall the Gilgamesh poem, for instance. It is also found in literature of the time of Saint Vincent, in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, for instance.
In the 20th century, the idea of the absurd was magnified, particularly in the Existentialist movement. This emphasised the helplessness of human beings. This is the case, because ultimately, the human being has no support. Capturing the meaningless nature of existence leads one to express what one experiences: nausea, nothingness, the useless passion of being, life is vomit (apologies to those present), etc. In this respect, Sartre was one of its best ambassadors. I often acknowledge his grave, as it is in the Montparnasse cemetery,
beside the Lazarist pantheon.
Of course, we cannot deny that helplessness exists. During the Covid pandemic, for instance. Or when we see the lack in so many countries of positive leaders, whether of the right, the left, or the liberals. Or where we see Mafia organisations involved in major sectors of society. Or when we see, in many SSVP conferences, that things are not going well, and these problems are repeated over and over again. Or when we see that, despite so many years of work, poverty is still not resolved… and is growing. We could also include distressing personal situations, such as the difficulties we find in trying to change ourselves, but we would go on too long. Sometimes this feeling of helplessness may combine with a sense of the absurd. In these moments, one perhaps might only give in, and stand under a tree, having a glass of French wine, to forget all these problems.
But here, hope comes to our aid, showing that there can always be a turning point in history. It is interesting to see how often hope revives in the midst of the greatest crises. And I rejoice that this is so. Christian hope strengthens human hope, since it tells us: God wishes our good, and helps us to achieve what is good. Vincent de Paul and Frédéric Ozanam were people of great hope, even in the midst of really critical situations.
Saint Vincent teaches us to live in hope, which is just like saying we trust in God’s goodness. He points out: “Trust and hope are almost the same thing”. Christian hope produces trust, and makes God the foundation. We have to rely on Him: “I have to rely on God alone, and hope for the grace of perseverance from Him”. We can say that loving in hope is the source of Vincent de Paul’s theology of hope. Hope gives a strength to human beings to continue doing God’s work, despite times of sterility and poverty, loss and ruin, intrigue and persecution. The golden rule of the Vincentian moral life is always trust in God. This allows the Christian to be a good tool in God’s hands.
I also end with a saying of the worthy Julio Cortázar, who say that hope is life itself, defending itself. I share some questions with you:
1. What disheartens me?
2. Am I a hopeful person?
3. How do I grow in hope?
4. How can I give hope to those most marginalised?
5. How to serve in hope?
Andrés R. M. Motto, CM