[Week 5 of the “Imagination in Action” series. Topic this week: the theological virtue of hope]
One of my favorite movies as a kid was “Rudy.” It is based on the true story of Daniel “Rudy” Ruettiger and his quest to make the Notre Dame football team. His first major challenge was even getting accepted to the University of Notre Dame. He struggled with school (he was eventually diagnosed with dyslexia) and came from a working-class family without a history of attending college. The second major challenge was his small size and lack of the physical gifts that normally were needed to play football at the college level (let alone at Notre Dame!). He persevered through these obstacles to become a Notre Dame student, make the football team as a walk-on, and eventually play 27 seconds in the final home game of his senior year. He was able to sack the quarterback on his last play (his only career stat). This led to him being carried off the field, the first time this had been done for a Notre Dame player. While some of the aspects of the movie were played up for dramatic effect, all of the parts I mentioned here are true, and make the movie that much more inspirational!
This film is an iconic example of hope in my mind. One of its famous lines is, “Having dreams is what makes life tolerable.” Hope motivates us to look to the future and not give up in the midst of trial. However, I think this concept of “hope” can be seen in two different ways. On the one hand, it could just be seen from the human perspective – a sort of “wishful thinking.” Hope could merely be the decision to look with optimism at a situation and see the glass “half full,” as they say.
The Christian sense of hope as a theological virtue, on the other hand, is built on a different foundation. The Catechism teaches, “Hope is the theological virtue by which we desire the kingdom of heaven and eternal life as our happiness, placing our trust in Christ’s promises and relying not on our own strength, but on the help of the grace of the Holy Spirit” (paragraph 1817). It goes on to add, “Hope is the ‘sure and steadfast anchor of the soul . . . that enters . . . where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf.'” (paragraph 1820, quoting Hebrews 6:19-20). In other words, the virtue of hope is not grounded in our own ability, but in confidence in God’s grace. It is the “anchor” that holds us steady in the midst of the tide and the storms of life. It counteracts the great temptations of discouragement and despair, that can kill the “dream” within us and lead us to settle for less.
Even though the movie “Rudy” doesn’t draw out this divine dimension directly, the connection with Notre Dame provides a strong backdrop of faith. It is one of the most well-known Catholic universities in the country, and its name is French for “Our Lady” (named after the virgin Mary). There are many connections between the movie and faith in my own experience, as well. My mother grew up in South Bend (where Notre Dame is located) and I associate it with the witness of faith from her and my grandparents. Bishop Jenky (the bishop of Peoria) spent much of his priesthood at Notre Dame and is a member of the Holy Cross order that founded the university. One of my classmates in seminary even had the real-life father of Rudy as his Confirmation sponsor! (Rudy’s dad was a member of his parish and agreed to do this for students on the condition that they didn’t mention the movie… apparently he didn’t like the way it portrayed him!). Looking back years later, it is also fitting that Sean Astin portrayed both Rudy and Samwise Gamgee (the Hobbit in Lord of the Rings that especially exemplifies hope).
In the end, true hope is a life-giving power that finds its foundation in something beyond human optimism. It is living our life grounded with confidence in the power of God, even when we cannot see the way forward clearly. Let us set our sights on the greatness of our calling (both here and hereafter), and never lose the gift of hope!