Christian Hope in Europe for the Life of the World
A cloud is overshadowing the West — a cloud of despair. Try as we might to cast this cloud away with ambitions of future states of perfection, the desire for ultimate meaning remains unfulfilled.
Instead of a sober Christian hope, a form of nihilism masquerading as optimism now pervades bourgeois Western culture. We are too busy and too comfortable for contemplation. We ignore the question of whether there is something beyond our everyday lives, and we live as if the sad lyrics of Roxy Music’s hit song “More Than This” are our de facto reality: “More than this? No, there’s nothing.” Such melancholia is more than psychological, and its effects are more pervasive than individual mental health; the West now has the bearing of a century-old génération perdue.
Moreover, despite purported fears about the end of the world (nuclear annihilation, climate change, biological warfare and much more), death has become trivialized because of our metaphysical ignorance. Modern people avoid real discussions of death as something that will happen to each of us – and therefore as something for which our culture must prepare us. Pope Benedict noticed this “bourgeois taboo” on the reality death years ago in his book Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life. He wrote,
“Death is to be deprived of its character as a place where the metaphysical breaks through. Death is rendered banal, to quell the unsettling questions which arises from it. Schleiermacher once spoke of birth and death as ‘hewed out perspectives’ through which man peers into the infinite. But the infinite calls his ordinary lifestyle into question…. Attitudes to dying determine attitudes to living. Death becomes the key to the question: What really is man?”
“What really is man?”
Over the last century, destructive, false-messianic ideologies have taken the place of Christian hope across Europe and, by extension, throughout the world. Today's mixture of consumerist capitalism and social progressivism offers what Pope Benedict XVI described in his encyclical Spe Salvi as “greater and lesser hopes.” But our late pontiff explained, “these [greater and lesser hopes] are not enough without the great hope, which must surpass everything.” It is this great hope, this desire for union with Christ who reigns over creation, that Christians proclaim as Good News not just for individuals, but for societies.
The relevance of the Gospel for solving both timeless and novel problems has not gone away, and it is this hope which the Spe Salvi Institute seeks to share with our fellow men and women of the West. This hope is grounded in the truth that God so loved the world (i.e., everything!) that he sent his only Son to live and die for us, to rise again from the tomb, and to reign from Heaven as King of all creation. From almost the earliest days of Christianity, the continent and peoples of Europe have been the stewards of hope, the great gift of our heavenly sovereign.
In The Portal of the Mystery of Hope, the French poet Charles Péguy presented hope as a little girl upheld by her two older sisters, Faith and Charity. Despite her diminutive stature, Hope guides the other, larger virtues. We believe today that even a little hope can guide us out of the large cloud of despair, lead us towards a new Christian humanism, and spark a renewal of Christian society. And although by God’s providence the Christian faith has taken hold in every corner of the earth, we believe that Europe continues to bear indelible marks of faith that are as essential today as ever for the triumph of Christ’s reign throughout the whole of creation.
The beauty of great European art conveys hope, often in glimpses of the mystical rose, Mary, whom Dante describes as the “living font of hope” (Paradiso, XXXIII, 12). Like Dante, Péguy venerated Mary as “an exultation of the temporal by the eternal, and a glorification of the flesh by the spirit.” Devotion to Mary today, as in centuries past, may give rise to a culture of hope in Europe, as expressed in the great Chartres Cathedral (Our Lady of Chartres), where Péguy made a pilgrimage and wrote, “Our Lady saved me from despair.”
Modern European art, including modern European cinema, may help save us from despair too. The best of European films are encounters with the human condition, and these encounters strike us as beautiful, inciting us to return to the deep sources of experience where we may find something like religious ecstasy. Whereas much popular American cinema diverts us from reality, European cinema tends to invite us into the depth of the human experience as an ensouled, rational subject. In this way, even avant-garde art may be akin to prayers, reflective of a culture interested in the things from above. Great art, even by “secular” artists, has an almost unrivaled potential to enthuse an audience and inspire real hope.
By focusing on the beauty of the lived faith of Europe’s cultural heritage, the Spe Salvi Institute seeks to draw people into a greater encounter with the Mystery who took on flesh for the life of the world. The Institute’s founders, Bobby Mixa and Andrew Petiprin, are both Americans who believe that celebrating the enduring Christian character of modern Europe will bear fruit for the renewal of Christian society in the New World as well.
Green is the color of the Institute because it is the color of hope and new life. Green is also associated with the great celebrations of hope: the Annunciation and Easter.
The aforementioned Charles Péguy (1873-1914), a poet of hope, is the patron of the Institute. He was killed in the first days of World War I, shot through the heart. Before his death, Péguy set out to proclaim Christ through his art to a Europe on the brink of collapsing into despair. He made a pilgrimage to Chartres to adore Mary, the Mother of God, and despite the gathering gloom on the continent, he came home transformed, full of hope. In the spirit of Péguy, as if with him on pilgrimage, the Spe Salvi Institute carries out its work.
In sum, the Spe Salvi Institute is focused on five themes: Hope, Europe, Beauty, Mystery, and Mary.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines hope as “the theological virtue by which we desire the kingdom of heaven and eternal life as our happiness, placing our trust in Christ’s promises and relying not on our own strength, but on the help of the grace of the Holy Spirit” (CCC 1817). Hope is expressed and nourished in prayer, ultimately in the Liturgy, by which God helps us ascend to union with Himself. In a lecture on “St. Francis of Assisi, witness and guardian of hope”, Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) said, “To be a Christian is to be one who hopes; it is to situate oneself on the foundation of a sure hope…. [Hope] is not just one virtue among others; it is the very definition of Christian existence.” Hope is a central theme in Pope Benedict’s theological career, culminating in his second encyclical Spe Salvi. Perhaps this is due to Pope Benedict’s perception of the human condition of today, a condition in need of rediscovering Christian hope.
While many regions of Europe are “post-Christian” and secular, Christianity is still present. Often without acknowledging its spiritual inheritance, Europe still lives within a Christian ethos. Recent Popes, particularly Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, had great hope in the regeneration of the Christian faith in Europe. Both called for a New Evangelization in Europe. The 2003 Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation, Ecclesia in Europa, is a guiding text for the future of Europe.
In his Address to Artists at the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council, Pope Paul VI proclaimed, “This world in which we live needs beauty in order not to sink into despair. Beauty is an antidote to despair.” The Institute looks to John Paul II’s Letter to Artists and Pope Benedict XVI’s Meeting with Artists on the 10th Anniversary of John Paul II’s Letter as guides for promoting the connection between beauty, art, and hope.
In his Meeting with Artists, Pope Benedict XVI wrote, “Beauty, whether that of the natural universe or that expressed in art, precisely because it opens up and broadens the horizons of human awareness, pointing us beyond ourselves, bringing us face to face with the abyss of Infinity, can become a path towards the transcendent, towards the ultimate Mystery, towards God.” The ultimate Mystery is the trinitarian God who is love. Amidst the trials of this world, we find consolation in the Eucharist —which Benedict XVI called the “‘mystery of faith’ par excellence” — which is a foretaste of the final banquet of the wedding feast of the Lamb. This mystery will be an anchor for the Institute.
Lumen Gentium, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, concludes by looking to Mary, “the sign of created hope and solace to the wandering people of God.” Like Abraham, Mary “in hope believed against hope.” She is our model of hope. Much of European culture developed around the cult of Mary. May the renewal of veneration to Mary bring about a new Europe, a Europe anchored in hope.
Around these five focal points, the Spe Salvi Institute will build outward in the months and years ahead, offering regular articles and podcasts on the web, but also in-person seminars, conferences, and study tours in Europe and North America.
May God’s blessing be with all who support our work and journey with us in hope.
Robert Mixa and Andrew Petiprin
Founders, The Spe Salvi Institute
For more information, please contact Robert Mixa at firstname.lastname@example.org