It can be tempting for Christians to despair these days, when we witness continuing assaults on religious freedom and such cherished beliefs as respect for human life and world it shares.

But for Peter Stockland, signs of hope abound, from the mundane experience of sharing a joke with a dying friend, to meeting a suburban mom who made an extraordinary effort to help fire victims, to covering a court decision that upheld the rights of a Christian university.

Stockland, a senior writer at the Cardus think tank and columnist for the Catholic Register, shared his “Hope’s Notes” with about 80 people at Providence Renewal Centre on Friday as he delivered the first annual Dr. L.P. Mousseau Memorial Ethics Lecture for Newman Theological College.

Hope, he said, stems ultimately from the supreme sacrifice of Jesus Christ. In his catechism on the Creed, St. Thomas Aquinas wrote that Jesus descended into hell “that He might perfectly deliver all His friends … such as Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David, and other just and good men.”

“Christ extending himself in friendship” in this way shows us that hope is a collective act, an act of reaching out for others, a call that we might do as he did. It is not, said Stockland, a naive optimism or wishing things were better.

He likes the definition proposed by author and broadcaster Krista Tippett: “Hope, like every virtue, is a choice that becomes a habit that becomes spiritual muscle memory. It’s a renewable resource for moving through life as it is, not as we wish it to be.”

And life as it is can be discouraging. Stockland pointed to the Supreme Court’s Carter decision, which struck down the criminal law against physician-assisted suicide last year, as one that caused much despair for those who truly value life at every stage.  But other decisions suggest hope is not lost.

On November 1, the British Columbia Court of Appeal ruled in favour of Trinity Western University, a Christian institution that plans to establish a law school but has faced threats from law societies in three provinces not to accept any of its graduates. The law societies object to the fact that the university requires its students and faculty to sign a “community covenant” which, among other things, requires them to refrain from any sexual intimacy outside of a marriage between a man and woman. 

The B.C. Appeal Court relied heavily on the Loyola case, in which the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that a Catholic school in Quebec had the right to teach the provincial religion curriculum from a Catholic perspective. In that case, Justice Rosalie Abella wrote that “the pursuit of secular values means respecting the right to hold and manifest different religious beliefs. A secular state respects religious differences, it does not seek to extinguish them.”

“There is hope in those words,” said Stockland. “For me what is foundational is that our institutions (even in their weakness) … still can function as places of hope.”

The Church is another institution that is troubled, he conceded, but that is nothing new. The recent guidelines issued by the Alberta and Northwest Territories Bishops for pastoral care in situations of assisted suicide or euthanasia drew all kinds of criticism. But he praised the document “a Christian cry of love,” and urged everyone to read it and share it with others.

Finally, he shared two personal encounters with hope. The first was some 30 years ago, as a young reporter for the Edmonton Sun, when he interviewed a 19-year-old prostitute who was already “as hard as nails,” insisting that she freely chose to work in the sex trade.
When he asked what she would do if her sister were to make the same “choice,” she replied, “I’d kick her ass back home.” 

Why? She looked him straight in the eye and answered, “Don’t you think I’m ashamed of what I do?” He never forgot those words.

Many years later, he met up with a Catholic woman who took on the task of filling up 10 trucks of food, clothes and other necessities for victims of the Fort McMurray wildfire. Why?

 “I’ve always been someone who admired first responders,” she answered.  “And I realized that I am a first responder to the Holy Spirit.”

The connection, said Stockland, is the human heart. “Is shame a part of hope? Yes. It’s a sign that the Holy Spirit is telling us that something better can happen, and that we are called to do it.”