Cardinal Blase J. Cupich

Easter gives us hope, not just optimism

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

I was once asked to explain the difference between optimism and hope. My response was to point to the transformation that takes place in the disciples after the Resurrection. 

Prior to the death of Jesus, it is not too much to say that the disciples were optimistic. Some of them were banking on Jesus being the Messiah who would secure their earthly futures. Remember Mrs. Zebedee who asked Jesus to put her sons James and John at his right and left? 

Then of course there was Judas, who eventually became disenchanted after Jesus made it clear he was not concerned with mundane success and power, even to the point of talking about being rejected and put to death. Yet, the dreams of these optimistic disciples evaporated at Calvary to the point that they scurried off in hiding. They were crestfallen and afraid.

With the Resurrection of Jesus, they were not called to a new optimism but to real hope. Optimism is an attitude that tries to bridge the gap between the present and the future. We have aspirations in the present moment about what can develop in the days ahead. Hope, however, closes the gap between the present and the future by making the future a present reality, as we see in the appearances of the risen Jesus. 

The hope given to the disciples that their death also will be overcome was not a matter of wishful thinking. They actually experienced it as a present reality in the appearances of Jesus. This is why hope is called a theological virtue. It accomplishes that which is hoped for, actual union with God, which is already taking place in the present in some way.

In a word, while optimism is an attitude, hope is a reality, for the hope to be fulfilled in the future is already present. Unlike mere optimism, the distance between the present and the future is overcome. Optimism has to wait for future developments in human activity to occur. But hope trusts that God, who is present to us, is already fulfilling the promises made. 

With optimism, that which is promised or wished for may or may not occur. But with hope there is certainty that the promise not only will be fulfilled but is already being fulfilled in our time, even though we do not see or perceive it.

Pope Francis often speaks of hope. He is a man of hope, rather than a man of optimism. He firmly believes that Christ, risen from the dead, is presently active and working to fulfill all that God has promised.

The fathers of the Second Vatican Council were particularly insistent that this foundational belief of the church receive greater attention in our day. They reminded us that Christ is always present in the church working to accomplish all the Father has sent him to do (“Sacrosanctum Concilium,” 6 and 7). This is the source of our hope, not human accomplishment or development.

If we look only at what humanity is doing, there is room for both pessimism and optimism. We fail at so much, and we succeed at so much. But life can go either way if human effort is the measure of history. 

Easter changed all this, as Jesus broke the barrier between time and eternity, joining the present with the future, so that all that God has ever promised is already in some way being fulfilled in our day. We do not have to wait until we die to enjoy the fruits of Christ’s death and resurrection. We can do so now as people of hope, who say Christ is Risen, and so are we.


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