A contagion of hope

April 13th, 2020
This article is featured in the Growing Spiritually issue of Ministry During The Pandemic

Pope Francis marked the beginning of the Easter season Sunday by proclaiming a “contagion of hope” inside a mostly empty St. Peter’s Basilica.

The pontiff’s juxtaposition of the words contagion and hope is jarring, especially in the current moment, with much of the world “on pause” because of COVID-19. Most church buildings were closed for Easter Sunday — something unprecedented in modern times — as Christians joined a global effort to stem the worst pandemic in over a century.

Contagion means “the communication of disease from one person to another by close contact.” A negative, frightening word, to be sure. It’s also the title of a 2011 film, whose poster prominently features the tagline “Nothing spreads like fear.”

In 1933, U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt famously said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

That was probably an uplifting thought for the early years of the Great Depression, but not so much during a global pandemic, when making the crisis even somewhat manageable depends on people worldwide staying home. (Spoiler alert: Telling someone they only have fear to fear is probably not an effective way to convince them to shelter in place.)

Truth be told, some kinds of fear — e.g. fears of heights, poisonous snakes, getting deathly sick or spreading a pathogen to someone who’s vulnerable — can be downright useful.

Other fears — like the ones that come with the uncertainty surrounding the economy or the duration of the pandemic — can be paralyzing. These kinds of fears often manifest through denial, conspiracy theories, chronic negativity, even despair.

The movie poster was right. Nothing spreads like fear … and the more destructive the fear is, the faster it seems to spread.

So what’s the antidote to this poisonous kind of fear?

Maybe it’s hope.

Google Dictionary’s top two definitions for hope are

  1. a feeling of expectation and desire for a certain thing to happen 
  2. A feeling of trust 

The key to that first definition is expectation and desire.

Desire without expectation is really more of a wish than it is hope. And expectation without desire likely comes from a place of negativity or resignation ... not from hope.

So here do we get hope? Well, one way is from experience. Paul said in Romans that “trouble produces endurance, endurance produces character, and character produces hope” (Romans 5:3-4 CEB).

That's comforting. Maybe we’ll have an easier time handling the next big crisis when we see that this one has come to an end and somehow we got through it.

But where do we get hope for this crisis?

Pope Francis might be suggesting with his contagion metaphor that we can get it from each other.

Like a disease. From close contact. Except hope isn’t limited by physical proximity like a cold, the flu or the coronavirus.

We spread hope when we communicate encouragement through letters, phone conversations, social media posts, emails, texts. And, God help us, even Zoom meetings.

We spread fear the same way. Take a look at your social media feeds and you’ll probably see what I mean.

One way we find more hope in the social media world is to mute and block the negative voices so we’ll hear more of the positive ones. Real life, of course, is more complicated (especially when it involves friends and family!) but the principle is the same.

Back to the pandemic, the Wall Street Journal article I linked earlier quotes Bishop Broderick Pabillo of the Catholic Archdiocese of Manila:

“We do not know what will be our life after the lockdown. We will rise up, hopefully not to go back to our former way of life...We will rise up with greater trust in our God, who never leaves us and who sustains us in difficult times.”

Ah, trust.

Which, according to Google Dictionary definition number two above, brings us right back to hope — not false hope, but real hope — hope that points to a reality. And Hebrews 11:1 indicates that faith is the reality of what we hope for.

Pope Francis has proclaimed a “contagion of hope.” During this crisis, and afterward, let's be sure hope is what we're communicating and not fear.

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