Spe Salvi (“saved in hope”) is the title of a marvelous encyclical letter written by Pope Benedict XVI in 2007. The Pope begins his encyclical with these words, but he puts them in quotation marks, because Spe Salvi, before being a title of a papal encyclical, was part of a phrase from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans. The full quote is, Spe salvi facti sumus – “In hope we were saved” (Rom 8:24). In this article, I would like to consider how hope can save us and what saving hope has to do with our ministry to the sick.
Pope Benedict begins his encyclical by pointing to the closely related and, at times, overlapping meanings of the words “faith” and “hope” in the New Testament scriptures. The hope that saves, of which St. Paul speaks in Romans 8, is bound up with Christian faith: the trusting reception of all that God graciously bestows in Christ. Hope is similar to faith. It is distinguished, however, by its orientation toward the future. Hope is the looking forward in faith to the future in God that Christ makes possible. Hope clings to that future, assured of God’s faithfulness, certain that His promise cannot fail.
Pope Benedict makes use of another New Testament passage to further illuminate the relationship between faith and hope and to illustrate the kind of assurance they provide. “Faith,” the Letter to the Hebrews says, “is the substance of things hoped for.” The word translated here as “substance” has also been translated with more subjective words like “confidence” or “conviction,” but Pope Benedict argues that such translations miss the true meaning of the text. The author of the Letter to the Hebrews is not only saying that faith gives us confidence in what we hope for, he’s saying that, by faith, we already possess what we hope for. That is, we possess God. The God with whom we hope to share eternal life and unthinkable joy is with us, and in us, here and now, through faith.
This is how hope saves us. It reaches out to the eternal salvation God has promised us in Christ – that blessed future in which we enjoy the fullness of life and love in unity with the Trinity as members of the one Body of Christ. But this salvation is not just in the future, because, in faith, the substance of our hope is already ours. We are saved not only in anticipation of future blessedness, but in the very possession of our hope. Spe salvi facti sunt – “In hope we were saved.”
But what does this have to do with health care? Answer: everything. That becomes especially evident when we consider that the word for “health” in Latin, Salutem, (as well as in several other ancient languages) is also the word for “salvation.” Salvation is total well-being, which for human beings is the perfect health of body and spirit. Health care, considered in this way, is the pursuit of human salvation – bodily and spiritual well-being.
Health care ministry – the health care work of Christian ministers and faith-based chaplains – focuses especially on spiritual health. As a health care minister, however, I often converse with patients about their bodily health too, and bodily health is often the subject of our prayer. Likewise, health care professionals who are more directly concerned with bodily healing are more effective as healers when they take an interest in the spirits of their patients and not just their bodies. Body and spirit go together. Health Care should and must be about the whole person.
Health care ministry is care for the whole person, body and spirit, present and future. In health care ministry, we encounter people who suffer illness and infirmity, their families, and those who care for them. These people almost always have faith. But their faith has been shaken by the onset or progression of disease. They wonder why God allows it and whether God hears them and will help them. They need to be assured that God is with them, and hears them, and provides for them according to His infinite wisdom and fathomless love. They need the faith that is the substance, here and now, of that for which they hope.
They also need hope. Some of the people I meet in my health care ministry tell me they have lost hope. The treatments aren’t working. Perhaps the doctors told them that nothing more can be done to offset the progression of their disease. My job – and this gets to the heart of what Dominican Friars Health Care Ministry of New York is all about – is to assure such people of the saving hope they have in Christ: that their future is not in sickness and pain, their future is not in sorrow and grief, and their future is not in death. Their future – our future – is in God. Spe salvi facti sumus. In hope we are saved!