A version of this article originally appeared in the November 22, 2021, edition of La Croix International. We are grateful to the author for permission to reprint it here—Ed.
Recently some readers of my blog, For Another Voice, told me they fear I am becoming “negatively critical and pessimistic.” Their remarks surprised me. I am critical, but I think it is healthy and responsible to be constructively critical. Being critical, however, is not the same thing as being negative. And I am really not pessimistic. But I am a clear-eyed realist and greatly concerned about the problems that confront present and future generations in our contemporary world.
Today I have short reflection that does not focus on these problems. I call it the “Tenacity of Hope” because I am not a prophet of doom, and my faith and my reading of history give me hope and encouragement.
Yes, very big problems confront us today: political and religious polarization, climate change, and of course a rebounding coronavirus. If people work together, all of these problems can be resolved. I do believe that. For some problems it may take a lot of time. For other problems like the pandemic, there will be yet more suffering and death before we can say we have safely moved beyond them.
As an older historical theologian, I am confident, as well, that there will be a greatly needed reconfiguration of our Christian churches. But I am not certain I will live to see it. Right now I enjoy witnessing what I call the new church transformation movements, like those involving women priests. And I find encouragement from truly well-informed contemporary theologians, like the men and women teaching and researching at the Catholic University of Leuven. They know the tradition and its history. They understand and know how to interpret today’s signs of the times.
One’s life perspective is important. I grew up with family stories about fear and hope. In this time of pandemic, I have thought a lot about my father, his four brothers, and, of course, my grandmother. My grandfather, Alonzo William Dick, a school teacher in Indiana, died in 1919 in the Great Influenza epidemic of 1918–1920. Most of his children as well as my grandmother were too sick to attend his funeral. Town authorities in Montpelier, Indiana, wanted to put the boys in foster-care homes. My grandmother said absolutely not. She had a big challenge in front of her. Fortunately, there were neighbors and family members who encouraged and helped her, especially in the first couple years after Alonzo’s death. It was not always easy, but, on her own, she raised the five boys, and they all became wonderfully mature, optimistic, warm, and wise adults. Their mother had often reminded them—and often reminded me as I was growing up—that “bad things do happen but we cannot allow them to destroy us.”
Yes, my perspective and optimistic vision are historically based. I look at what happened in the past, what is happening today, and what can happen tomorrow. These days I also find that my current Belgian environment is helpful when reflecting about tragedies and the tenacity of hope.
Although I was born and grew up in Michigan, I now live in Leuven (“Louvain”), Belgium. Many years ago I came here to complete a doctorate, was offered a job, and never left. But I am still very much a US American.
Historical reminders are all around my family and me. In our backyard, my wife and I can look at the area, not far from our house, where there was once the local community hanging-tree. Soldiers of the fiercely anti-Protestant Duke of Alba, “The Iron Duke,” used the local hanging-tree in the 16th-century religious wars to execute citizens of Leuven suspected of Calvinist sympathies. Alba, strongly supported by Pope Pius V (1566–1572), was governor of the Spanish Netherlands from 1567 to 1573. During those six years he executed, across the country, more than a thousand people.
Nevertheless, Leuven not only survived but flourished, because enough people maintained courage and hope. That area of the local hanging-tree—which I am sure is unknown to most contemporary people—has been greatly transformed and is quite safe and peaceful today. Life is stronger than death.
Close to 350 years after the terrorism of the “Iron Duke,” Leuven suffered again in World War I. Starting on August 25, 1914, and over the course of five days, German troops burned and looted much of the city and executed hundreds of civilians. Our world-renowned university library with its magnificent collection of ancient manuscripts was burned. This provoked great national and international outrage. Nevertheless, people did not give up, and Leuven was rebuilt. And, starting in 1921, thanks to countless, mainly US American, fundraisers and the personal efforts of Herbert Hoover (1874–1964), chairman of the Commission for Relief of Belgium, a new library could be built.
Then, just about 30 years later, the city was bombed in World War II. Great devastation. Again, people picked up, rebuilt, and moved forward. The tenacity of hope.
Hopeful people pick up and move forward. And now, thanks to the narrow-minded and often belligerent behavior of the anti-vaxxers, we are confronted with a major resurgence of the coronavirus. Our contemporary challenges are very real.
I confess: I do find it very easy to point my fingers at and write articles about problematic and negative people. I get annoyed and frustrated. But I know we need to work against polarization, and I do try to reach out to the problematic and negative. It is not easy. I have lost a lot of Facebook friends in the process. From the Apostle Paul, I know that “Love is patient. Love is kind. Love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way. It is not irritable or resentful” (1 Cor. 13:4–5).
And I know as well that, in my dealings with negative and often obnoxious people, I do need to be humbly alert to the exhortation of Jesus in Matthew 7 and Luke 6: “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?”
Thinking about strengthening our own tenacity of hope, we greatly need to learn from the example of hope-filled men and women. My old friend Archbishop Jadot, the subject of my recent book, was for me a supportive teacher. I remember complaining to him about problems in the church and my frustrations with problematic bishops. One US archbishop had tried very hard—but without success—to get me fired from the University of Leuven. Jadot looked at me, put his hand on my shoulder, and said: “Yes, it is winter now. But spring will return.” We all need people like Jean Jadot in our lives. Actually, I guess we are all called to be prophets of hope and hopeful change. We need to critically examine our own perspectives, because they can make us open or closed.
A few days ago I met a very old fashioned–thinking young priest. His theology was medieval and his comportment was haughty and arrogant. What a disappointment. Then a couple days later I met a group of energetic young men and women who are theology students at our university. They are wonderfully bright and well informed, and their theological perspectives are contemporary and pastoral. What a delight. A healthy perspective. These young people, working on advanced theological degrees, are indeed, whether they realize it or not, prophets of hope and hopeful change for today and for tomorrow.
In a couple of weeks, one of my adult discussion groups will review an article about the English anthropologist Jane Goodall. She is a wonderfully prophetic and inspiring person. I remember her 1999 book written with Phillip Berman, Reason for Hope. The book details her spiritual epiphany and her belief that everyone can find a reason for hope. “Each one of us matters, has a role to play, and makes a difference,” Goodall writes. “It is these undeniable qualities of human love and compassion and self-sacrifice that give me hope for the future. We are, indeed, often cruel and evil. Nobody can deny this. We gang up on each one another, we torture each other, with words as well as deeds, we fight, we kill. But we are also capable of the most noble, generous, and heroic behavior.”
The tenacity of hope. With constructive criticism and collaborative efforts, we can indeed be “noble, generous, and heroic” in church and in civil society.
John Alonzo Dick is a retired professor of historical theology at the Catholic University of Leuven (KU Leuven). He holds licentiates in historical theology from the University of Nijmegen and KU Leuven, and doctorates in religious studies and historical theology from KU Leuven. For 30 years he taught courses about religion and values in American society at KU Leuven and the University of Ghent. He is the author of The Malines Conversations Revisited (1989), From Malines to ARCIC (1997) with A. Denaux, and Aggiornamento?: Catholicism from Gregory XVI to Benedict XVI (2013) with J. Mettepenningen and K. Schelkens. This year he published Jean Jadot: Paul’s Man in Washington. He maintains a weekly blog at foranothervoice.com.