Ten years ago Benedict XVI issued one of the more curious encyclicals of recent times, Spe Salvi (Saved in Hope), about the theological virtue of hope. The nature of its appearance meant that it has been prematurely forgotten. It shouldn’t be.

It was curious because almost all major papal documents are projects that involve long preparation and many collaborators. Consider Veritatis Splendor of St John Paul II, some seven years in preparation. Or the mammoth works of Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium and Amoris Laetitia, the longest papal documents in history, so long that they are necessarily and evidently the work of several different drafters.

Spe Salvi was different. The Vatican drafters were at work on the social encyclical that would become Caritas in Veritate in 2009. Benedict was devoting his spare time, such as a pope has, to his three-volume life of Christ, the first of which appeared in May 2007. But when he returned from his summer sojourn – a holiday it evidently was not – at Castel Gandolfo in the autumn of 2007, Benedict surprised everyone with a complete, polished magisterial meditation on hope. It was then, confirmed by the second volume of Jesus of Nazareth published in 2011, that it became apparent that Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict was the most learned man alive.

Spe Salvi is uniquely the work of brilliant mind steeped in the Christian tradition, a pastoral heart who knows the aspirations and anxieties of his flock, and the soul animated by the simple piety of the faithful.

While Benedict ranges from ancient to modern philosophy on the nature of hope, it is the Sudanese slave turned Canossian Sister, St Josephine Bakhita – one of John Paul’s Jubilee year canonisations – that he proposes as a model of hope.

Benedict writes: “Now she had ‘hope’ – no longer simply the modest hope of finding masters who would be less cruel, but the great hope: ‘I am definitively loved and whatever happens to me – I am awaited by this Love. And so my life is good.’ Through the knowledge of this hope she was ‘redeemed’, no longer a slave, but a free child of God.”

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