Fr. Charlie McCoy, C.S.C., associate professor of mathematics at University of Portland and our regular blog correspondent, has checked in with a powerful reflection about hope. Written from the perspective of a professor at finals time, it reveals the real spiritual depth of the vocation of a professor priest as a man with hope to bring.
As an instructor or professor at three different universities, I’ve always found it fitting that the first semester ends just before Christmas. Sure, the hectic pace of finals doesn’t exactly help to create an Advent environment of contemplation or peace. But the last few weeks of the semester leading up to finals foster a real anticipation that something big is coming, and a genuine hope that this something, while possibly experienced as a bit of an ordeal, is actually quite good.
And so often, I receive a number of surprise gifts during finals. I don’t mean literal presents, like socks or a fruit-basket (although once in a while, a funny and old-school student might come to class or office hours bearing just such an offering for someone in the department). I mean the surprise gifts of seeing something special happen in certain students by semester’s end. Maybe it’s a student who struggled during most of the class, and on the final, all the intellectual pieces just come together for her. Maybe it’s a student who complained early in the term that there was too much homework or the tests were too tough; and then, in a note on his final exam or in a short email, he tells you that all that hard work was worth it, because he learned more than he ever had in a math class. The particular details vary from semester to semester, but somehow, just before Christmas, I’ll get the kind of gift that reminds me of the beauty and meaning of my vocation as a professor.
I got no gift this year. (I must have been on Santa’s naughty list.) I don’t mean to suggest that it was a bad semester or that my students didn’t do well. Just no nice surprises. The good students succeeded. The weaker students struggled. The motivated, eager students stayed the course until the end. The students who grumbled in August were still whining in December. Only now, after my first semester of mild disappointment, do I realize that I have come to hope for these surprise gifts, almost to count on them. What do we do when our hopes are not realized?
In a religious, theological sense, this was the burning question for the ancient Jews for the hundreds of years that they awaited the Messiah. This was, and in a sense still is, the burning question for the Church as we await the Messiah’s Second Coming. In a more practical, down-to-earth sense, this is the burning question for the many people who struggle with chronic illness, or long-term unemployment, or years of estrangement. What do we do when our hopes are not realized?
We keep hoping. Not because we’re unrealistic dreamers, but because we have reason to hope. I have about a dozen previous semesters in which I did witness some form of “finals miracle.” I have every reason to hope for them in future semesters. We as Christians have experienced the miraculous power of God through the life, death and Resurrection of Jesus and the 2000-year, amazing life of the Church He founded. We have every reason to hope for His return in glory. And in our own individual lives, we have seen healing happen through prayer and medicine; and we have seen the healing of spirits and the calming of fears even when physical cures never come. We have seen families and parishes and communities support one another through joblessness and other crises. We have seen broken relationships healed by the grace of forgiveness. We have every reason to hope for these same miracles in our futures.
As a Holy Cross priest, I am specifically called by my community to be one of the “men with hope to bring.” The very “Cross and Anchors” we wear reminds us of our responsibility. I am grateful that my own small experiences of satisfaction and disappointment help to teach me about this most Christian virtue.