The Christian story began amidst great turmoil: The passion, suffering, and crucifixion of Jesus; the continuing doubts, even after the Resurrection; the long and brutal persecution; and the dispersal of believers across the Roman Empire. This was the context of the birth of the Church. Yet there was a paradox that defined the early Church. In the midst of raging uncertainty, unceasing social threats, and absolute lack of freedom, the faith thrived and the people of God grew in numbers. The faith of the early Christians was undefeatable, their hope was enduring, and their love became the defining movement of human history.
Today, we are a people in the throes of a different kind of turmoil: a debilitating pandemic. Since December 2019, more than 54 million people have been infected by the coronavirus and more than 1.3 million people have died. Here in the United States, more than 11 million people have been infected with COVID-19, and it has claimed more than 246,000 lives. Each day, many of us receive news of someone else within our circle of family and friends who have been infected or faces the grave danger of death. To make things worse, our nation has been affected by widespread racial and political upheavals. These upheavals have relegated other global and national tragedies to the sidelines— such as rising sea levels and an unprecedented number of storms and wildfires. While many ignore the warnings, climate change is creating havoc, destroying our planet’s very fragile biodiversity, and claiming thousands of lives.
Before I go further, here I must acknowledge the grief and the pain of the many people who have lost a loved one to the pandemic. This inconsolable pain is real. Please know that I grieve with you in solidarity. I must also acknowledge the anxiety and pain of those at high risk, the elderly, those who have lost employment, are underemployed, and those battling mental illnesses. I also express my solidarity with those who have been victims of racial and social injustices, and those who have lost their lives, their homes, or their livelihood to the storms and wildfires. Words fail to express my sorrow.
It is in these uncertain and difficult times that as a people of faith we pause to reflect, to pray, and to find hope. Like the early Christians, while we are realistic about our challenges, we do not let these challenges define us. No! We will only be defined by our faith. We will only be grounded in hope. And in spite of it all, we will only walk in love.
“There are three things that remain,” St. Paul said to the Corinthians, “faith, hope, and love” (1 Cor 13:13). Faith, hope, and love— these virtues defined the early Christians and now they must define us. Not the pandemic, not our divisions, not the inequalities, not our fears, nor the uncertainties. I believe that during this time it is faith, hope, and love that will guide us beyond the pandemic and other raging challenges.
In the Catholic tradition, faith, hope, and love are known as the three theological virtues. We owe this to the great saint and theologian, Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas called faith, hope, and love theological virtues because these virtues come from God and they teach us to live for God. Pardon me, then, if Aquinas is referenced often in this reflection.
If faith, hope, and love are the antidotes to our present malaise, where should we begin? Paul would say, “The greatest of these is love!” (1 Cor 13:13). Aquinas reflects on the theological virtues in the order of precedence he finds them in 1 Corinthians— faith, hope, and love. Thus, he begins with faith.
Even before the pandemic struck, in my parish’s pastoral council discussions and in conversations with my parish staff and adult faith formation groups, hope had emerged as a possible theme for the coming year. At that time, the upcoming election was foremost in our minds. And then COVID struck. Hope suddenly emerged as a necessary theme. Whereas I wholeheartedly agree that more than any other virtue people need to experience hope, hope is not found in nothingness. Hope must be grounded in something. Our hope is grounded in our faith and our love is found in living out our faith. This is why, like Aquinas, I would like to begin with faith.
Let me give an example that illustrates why we must begin with faith. Recently, an elderly couple in my parish became victims of the coronavirus. While the 81-year-old husband lay intubated in an intensive care unit struggling for his life, his wife was compelled to stay confined at home. Unable to be with her helpless husband, she was distraught. Moreover, their only son was also infected with COVID-19 and could not care for either of his parents. She called me, pleading for prayers. We spoke many times during those days. “I just want my husband back, Father!” she said to me on one occasion. Through it all, she never gave up her faith in God or faith in the medical community. Her faith gave her hope. Fortunately, her hope was realised, and he recovered.
I have a second story, which is more personal. Due to the pandemic, I had to cancel my visit home to be with my mother. My mother and I have been talking over the phone each morning and evening. She has caregivers to provide for her needs, but she finds herself isolated from her children, relatives, and friends. My mother and I have a common hope: that we can see each other in January. Even though the future is uncertain, I have already booked my flight. The reason? Faith in God’s providence. My mother constantly reminds me to have faith. Our hope is grounded in faith.
Often when we talk about religious faith, we think about faith in God. For Aquinas, even though God is the object of faith, he begins elsewhere. According to him, first of all, faith is a matter of being willing to ask the most important existential questions. Questions such as, “Why do we exist?” and “What is the meaning of our existence?” Our existential questions these days might be different. “Why do we have to endure suffering?” “Where is God is now?” Many people in our society have suggested that the pandemic is God’s punishment. Our existential question might be, “Who is God, now?” “Why does God allow such suffering?” “What is the meaning of life when we all suffer together?”
Existential questions are universal. Every religious tradition attempts to give answers to the same existential questions. As Christians, we look for answers within the Judeo-Christian tradition. After all, we believe that it was the existential questions such as, “Where did we come from?” and “If God is good and God created a good world, where did evil come from?” that led to the answers that we now have in the sacred scriptures.
Aquinas looked back into the rich tradition of Scripture, the early Church Fathers, and later saints, and saw a blueprint for reality: a good God who created a good world for human beings to be happy but also tainted by sin and finally, redeemed by Jesus Christ. As Aquinas considered all these things and looked around at his own world, he believed that what the Christian tradition teaches is true. This, for him, was the ground of his faith.
Today, it is our turn to come to a renewed moment of faith. The Christian answer to the existential questions is not a book. Our answer is not even merely the spoken word of God. Our answer is the “Word made Flesh.” In other words, God didn’t merely give us an answer to our existential questions. God became our answer. Jesus is the answer to our existential questions. Jesus took flesh, became human, lived, and died among us, and in this way revealed the true meaning of human life. He did this by reminding us of our origin and our destiny. We are not accidental beings living meaninglessly from the day we are born until the day we die with nowhere to go. We are not aimless human beings being tossed about by the ravages of life. Rather, just like Jesus, we believe that we all come from God and we are all journeying together toward God. And no matter what life deals us, like Jesus, not only do we make meaning out of it, but we also find salvation. The one who leads the way is Jesus.
At a very critical moment in his own life, Jesus declared himself as the Way, the Truth, and the Life (Jn 14:6). This means that humanity is invited to look to Jesus as the answer to our existential questions. By preaching the good news of the Kingdom of God; by revealing God’s personal and unconditional love for all; by revealing God’s involvement in human history; by inviting humanity to rediscover our identity as God’s children; by showing us the kindness, fidelity, and mercy of God in person; by teaching us the power of powerlessness; by showing us the fullness that comes from self-emptying sacrifice; by changing the meaning of suffering and making it a means of salvation; by showing us how to overcome the power of sin and evil; by teaching us to love God and love our neighbour; by teaching us to forgive and love even our enemies; by inviting us to be meek, merciful and peacemakers; by inviting us to place our lives unconditionally in God’s hands (as Jesus did at the crucifixion); by helping us believe that even the darkest darkness cannot overcome the light, and finally; by his resurrection opening the way to eternity—Jesus showed himself as the Way, the Truth and the Life. Jesus came from God, taught us the meaning of life, returned back to God his Father in heaven, and then sent us the Holy Spirit to help us live His life. Today, as we live His life, we are sustained by the Eucharist and all the Sacraments.
The early Church learned well the answers that Jesus’ life offered to the existential questions. They put their faith in Jesus the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one understood this better than St. Paul. Paul wrote about the enduring value of faith, hope, and love, to impress upon the Church, the value of living meaningful lives, especially in turbulent times. Through the extremely challenging two-and-a-quarter centuries the early Church lived in total faith in Jesus Christ as the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Since then, numerous heroes of faith—Augustine, John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila, Francis of Assisi, Mother Teresa, and many others—have given witness to this life of radical faith.
As we live our lives during these challenging times, the life of Jesus, His faith in God, the lessons He taught us, the faith of the early Christians, and the example of the later saints is the ground of our own faith. Just as Aquinas looked back at the Christian tradition and saw that what it proposed was true, for us today, faith means that we believe that Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
Faith means that we surrender to his vision of life. Faith means that we unite our origin and our destiny with that of Jesus. Faith means that we endure suffering in the same way Jesus did. Faith means that we trust that if we live like Jesus did and love like Jesus loved, our life will bear the same fruit that his life did. Our faith journey began in baptism. Today, we reaffirm our faith and recommit ourselves to living it amidst the challenges of our times.
Faith precedes hope because faith answers our ultimate questions. Hope follows faith.
According to Aquinas, hope means believing that what we believe in with faith, will actually come to pass. Hope is the absolute conviction that what we believe will be accomplished. As Aquinas says, “Hope is the habit of embracing a higher standard of behaviour because we act out what we believe. We also believe that if we do, we will in fact turn into better, happier versions of ourselves,” even if we know that this path is not easy and that we will never be perfect.
But hope does not exist in a vacuum. Hope is found in human hearts. In his latest encyclical, Fratelli tutti, Pope Francis says: “Hope speaks to us of something deeply rooted in every human heart, independently of our circumstances and historical conditioning. Hope speaks to us of a thirst, an aspiration, a longing for a life of fulfilment, a desire to achieve great things, things that fill our heart and lift our spirit to lofty realities like truth, goodness, and beauty, justice and love” (FT 55).
Thus far we have discussed the faith-answers to our existential questions. We have also pointed out the place where hope is found: the human heart. So, what is it that we hope? Our hope lies in the enduring value of the life and message of Jesus Christ. Our hope lies in believing that even though much brokenness surrounds us, the human spirit, touched by the love of Christ, will ultimately act for the good of all humanity. Our hope is that the human race will unite one more time to overcome the challenges that confront us. Our hope that this pandemic—even though it has claimed millions of lives across the globe and caused irreparable damage to persons, to human relationships, to people’s livelihood, especially the poor—will be overcome and we will emerge stronger from this tragedy. Our hope that there will be a peaceful resolution to the political, social, and racial injustices we see in our culture.
And we have reason for hope. Our hope is grounded in our faith that Christ has overcome every injustice, every suffering, every pain, and every evil. The Christian story tells us that suffering, despair, darkness, and death are never the last word; that love always wins; and that the stone that covered even the darkest tomb was removed. Yes! Our hope is not groundless. It is grounded in the life of Jesus Christ. Just as Jesus by his faith in God, overcame suffering, death, and destruction and brought love, light, and life to humanity, so can we. This we believe! This we hope.
Love or Caritas
As I said earlier, while our hope is grounded in our faith, love is the living-out of our faith.
Aquinas says, “Charity is friendship first with God and secondly with all who belong to God including ourselves. So we love ourselves with charity, inasmuch as we too are God’s.” (2a2ae, 25, 4). Love (or charity), for Aquinas, is the habit of choosing to be vulnerable enough to be drawn to “the good,” to love it, and to act accordingly.
Aquinas speaks of the love of charity as being like the love of friendship. When we love our friends, we open ourselves to enjoying them for their own sake and we wish good things for them. This is exactly the attitude he thinks we should have towards creation, all of its creatures, and God. Aquinas also says that “The ultimate goal of man is to enjoy God, and to this love directs him” (2a2ae, 23, 7). It is in this sense, that love is the living-out of our faith.
Love is the living out of our faith. This means that impelled by God’s infinite love for us, spurred by our faith in God, and driven by hope, we get into the habit of loving infinitely—God, creation, ourselves, our neighbours, and even our enemies. As Aquinas explains, when we experience eternal bliss in heaven, we will no longer need faith or hope, “But we will always have love.” Love is forever. In Paul’s words, “the greatest of these is love!”
What is love? To define love, I would like to adopt Aquinas’s method of the via negativa and via positiva. First, let us define love by giving an example of what it is not: the via negativa. It is not love when, during the pandemic, we refuse to wear a mask or make the mask a political statement; it is not love to condone racial injustices and even support it; it is not love to refuse to adopt a consistent life ethic (meaning that we protect life from conception to natural end); it is not love to violently separate immigrant children from their families; it is not love to treat God’s creation as a tool for profit and to refuse to care for it; it is not love to disregard the poor and the vulnerable in making national and global economic policies; it is not love to refuse to respect the God-given dignity of every human person; it is not love to refuse to act for the common good. These are just some examples. These are not examples of love because, as Aquinas says, the theological virtues come from God and help us to live for God. The above examples are steeped in selfishness. They are contrary to the model God places before us through Jesus Christ.
Now let’s move to the via positive—describing what love is. As Jesus said, first and foremost, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength” (Mk 12:30). Then Jesus quickly added, “The second is like it, namely this, “You shalt love your neighbour as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these” (Mk 12:31).
When the pandemic led to the very first shutdown in March, I was astounded by so many of my parishioners, whose instinctive faith-response was, “How can I help those in need?” They chose to love their neighbour as an expression of their love for God. It led to a movement—more and more people stepped up to take care of undocumented immigrants, the poor, the vulnerable, and the elderly. Some made donations, some helped to distribute food, others grocery-shopped for the elderly, others offered child-care as parents went to work. This is love. We also saw health care workers—nationally, locally, and many from within my parish—step up and make immense sacrifices to save lives. They worked long hours without adequate personal protection and medical equipment. Many of them died from the virus that they were trying to save others from. This is love. Many grocery store workers, cleaners, and disinfectors risked their health as they assisted in helping maintain the smooth functioning of society. This is love. Many teachers did their best to adopt new methods to impart education to their students. This is love.
As a community of disciples, as followers of Jesus, other issues today also demand a love response from us. Our faith demands this. When we confront racial inequality and injustice, we must act in love. We must work to ensure, unequivocally, that no human person is stripped of his or her human dignity. Our faith demands this from us. When political and social upheavals erupt, in love we must categorically stand for truth, justice, and peace. Our faith demands this from us. When the vulnerable—whether in the womb, or at our borders, or immigrant children and families separated from each other, or the hungry and homeless, or those suffering mental illnesses, or the poor struggling for a single meal, or those with different sexual orientations—are excluded from mainstream society and relegated to the peripheries, we must, like Jesus, act in love and offer hope. Our faith demands this from us. When we see God’s beautiful creation mercilessly destroyed to satisfy our endless consumerism, in love we must come to her aid. Our faith demands this from us.
The theological virtues of faith, hope, and love come from God and help us to live for God. I invite each person reading this reflection today to intentionally and conscientiously surrender to the God of our Lord Jesus Christ. I invite you to surrender to the Gospel of faith, hope, and love incarnated and entrusted to us by Jesus. Our Church envisions herself as a “Community of Disciples.” By this, we mean that we strive to “think like Jesus, talk like Jesus, and Act like Jesus.” There is no better way to live up to our calling than to be a people of faith, hope, and love. Let us have faith in God, hope in God’s promises, and love for God and solidarity with every brother and sister.
Father Satish Joseph is the pastor of Immaculate Conception Church and St. Helen’s Church in the diocese of Dayton, Ohio. His homilies and reflections can be found at https://www.itemissaest.org/.
With thanks to Where Peter Is and Fr Satish Joseph, where this article originally appeared.