26 Feb February 2024 Reflection – Michael McFarland SJ


Hope in Difficult Times


The theme of our online Lenten retreat this year is “Finding and Cultivating Hope in Difficult Times.” As the title indicates, hope as we understand it is not a naïve belief that everything is great and always will be or that we will always get what we want without any challenges or setbacks. On the contrary hope becomes important precisely when we are struggling with no obvious way out. It is the light that illuminates an otherwise dark future. That is why, in his introductory talk for the retreat, Fr. Gerry Whelan, SJ, asks us to contemplate the five most discouraging challenges we face. There are plenty of candidates. There are the terrible divisions fueled by hatred and prejudice, which weaken our Church, our country and our society, set us against one another and undermine our most cherished values. We see the terrible suffering from war and violence, especially against innocent civilians, including the most vulnerable, in Ukraine, Israel and Gaza, Sudan and elsewhere. We struggle with what to do with the vast flood of migrants throughout the world, including our own country, people driven from their homes by violence, oppression and poverty, their hopes of a better future too often thwarted. In general there are the devastating effects of poverty, addiction, mental illness and discrimination, which we can see in the homeless camped in our doorways and on our sidewalks. Looming over these is the increasing threat of climate change, which is already showing up in more and more severe natural disasters, widespread drought and other threats to our food and water resources. Many of us face our personal tragedies as well, whether it is the loss of a parent, spouse, child or other loved one, debilitating and life-threatening illness, financial ruin, bullying and discrimination or other threats to our well-being.

Many of these tragedies are driven by forces beyond our control; and, while there is much we can and should do to mitigate their effects, the optimism that we can engineer our way out of them is wearing thin. That is not the source of true hope. Rather it is our faith, which gives us the conviction that God is at work on our behalf in this world and will help us overcome the many challenges we face. As Fr. Michael Rossman, SJ said in the second talk in our retreat, hope is a virtue we cultivate through our prayer and worship, which helps us “hold the uncertain future within the unshakeable promise of God.” It is not that God will necessarily make the problems go away. Rather God will help us rise above them so that they do not defeat us but instead lead us to a greater and more glorious good. We come to see sacrifice and suffering as redemptive, an affirmation of our human dignity, not its dissolution. God gives us the strength, wisdom and determination to battle against the evil and sin around us and the power to become a force for healing and reconciliation. Moreover, our faith gives us a vision of a new life, a new world of peace, joy and love, beyond the destructive forces of sin and death, to which Christ is leading us as our ultimate home.

It is not surprising that this insight for us arises out of the experience of the Gregorian University. As the Rector, Fr. Mark Lewis, SJ, says in our just-released video, seeing so many talented and attractive young people who have dedicated their lives to working in the Church on behalf of Christ and their communities is a tremendous source of hope. They come from every part of the world – Africa, Asia, the Middle East, North and South America, as well as Europe, and from every walk of life, including priests, seminarians, women and men religious and lay people, Catholics and Orthodox, Jews and Muslims. They are drawn there by a love of Christ and want to know Him and His Church more deeply in order to bring His healing and empowering Word into a world that desperately needs it. Those of us who have visited the Gregorian, for example on our Colloquium, have been deeply moved by the depth, the passion and the dedication to service of the students they have met. It is a very vivid and concrete experience of how God is truly at work among us. The retreat, which contains the reflections of these students, alumni/ae and their teachers and mentors, is another privileged way to capture that spirit.

Michael C McFarland, SJ
President, Gregorian University Foundation