Multitudes Before the Throne: Hope for a Pilgrim Church

… I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no man could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb…. (Rev. 7:9)

As a candidate who will enter the Church on Palm Sunday, I participated this last week in the Rite of Election and Call to Continuing Conversion at the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul in Philadelphia, with Archbishop Chaput presiding.

I am overwhelmed with hope.

Although we’re generally punctual—my grandmother believed that five minutes early was five minutes late—parking and the gathering of many small children had us and our sponsors entering the narthex just moments before the processional began. It was a dramatic moment. My young son exclaimed, “It’s beautiful!” My daughter spontaneously genuflected. And I gasped; not, as would be entirely understandable, at the grandeur of the cathedral, as majestic as it is, but at the multitude.

It’s very difficult to grasp the capaciousness of such spaces until you see them full, for only then do you realize that the 2000 people jammed into the pews scarcely register in the expansiveness. I gasped because the multitudes rendered visible, as if for the first time, the great space which remained. Ten, twenty, thirty times as many could have fit, even more since the oculus opens to heaven, rendering the space infinite. More than that, hints of God’s infinity, that His love was space enough for the whole world, for multitudes beyond number. As Saint Augustine puts in the Confessions: “Surely You have no need of any place to contain You since you contain all things, and fill them indeed precisely by containing them … we are gathered into one by You.”

There were so many people. Not only the Catechumens, Candidates, and Sponsors of this service, and not only those participating in the two other identically sized services held this weekend in Philadelphia, but the Communion of Saints, that great cloud of witnesses—the Church.

Hope is overwhelming, something of a new reality for me. I’ve been a Christian my entire life—and I am very grateful for the faith I inherited—but the sense in my previous communities was that of decline. Attendance was precipitously down, the average age of worshipers was almost 70 years old, few children were born, evangelism was somewhat frowned upon, and membership was virtually monolithic in ethnicity, education, and income level. Some pined nostalgically for better days, others looked abroad for signs of life, but in the main we were docents of well-endowed museums, slowly shuttering and readying for the long winter to come.

But this! This seemingly endless throng processing to the cathedra to be welcomed by Archbishop Chaput, it was so big, so young (and pregnant), and so genuinely diverse. “Here comes everybody!”—indeed, and thanks be to God. The elderly came, anxious for Easter and their baptism; the young came, perhaps anxiously awaiting the end of this very long service; the well-dressed and well-heeled came, as did those who came as they were; those with Philly accents came, as did those whose voices revealed homes in Asia, Africa, Europe, South America, Montreal, Mexico City, and even to “the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8).


Now, I am not naïve. I know the Pilgrim Church suffers on her way. I know the struggle for the soul of the West, I know the internal tensions and divisions, I know the infidelities and abuses, and I know that one happy evening is not the Church Triumphant. I know that much of what I said about attendance and age in my former congregation could be repeated here. I, to steal a line from another, also read the papers. But I know that this is Christ’s Body and Bride, and I know that the gates of Hell will not prevail. I know that hope is a gift from the Holy Spirit, and I know this gift has in fact been given to us.

In his little book, Hope, Josef Pieper explains the human has status viatoris, we are pilgrims on our way—those who are “not yet.” The natural virtue of magnanimity reaches out for great things, for our fulfillment, even as humility remembers our limits and feebleness compared to God. Hope, as a theological virtue unattainable without grace, perfects magnanimity and humility, thus allowing for patient anticipation. Certain with the steadfastness of faith, constant with the fidelity of love, hope makes its way, always walking toward consummation, following the way of the Christ who has gone before.

Pieper explains, too, the youthfulness of hope, how it rejuvenates (to make young) those who’ve become weighted down, tempted to a despairing resignation that we are “not” rather than the hopeful acceptance that we are “not yet.”

Well, I am not yet Roman Catholic, but I am already hopeful; the vision of all tribes and peoples and tongues standing before the throne is one I now understand, and eagerly await.


R. J. Snell directs the Center on the University and Intellectual Life at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, New Jersey, and is a senior fellow at the Agora Institute for Civic Virtue and the Common Good. He is the author (with Steve Cone) of Authentic Cosmopolitanism: Love, Sin, and Grace in the Christian University. His latest books are Acedia and Its Discontents: Metaphysical Boredom in an Empire of Desire and The Perspective of Love.

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