The latest Apostolic Exhortation from Pope Francis, Gaudete et Exsultate, is about the call to holiness in the world today. Pope Francis released it on Monday 9 April, the feast of the Annunciation and it was given on the Feast of St. Joseph. The document is broken into five chapters.
It begins with Pope Francis stating that this isn’t a treatise or discussion on holiness but rather is to “repropose the call to holiness in a practical way for our own time”. God has called us from the beginning to be holy, God told Abraham to “Walk before me, and be blameless” (Gen 17:1) and this call continues for us today as Francis points out that God wants us all to be saints and echoes the words of John Paul II “Don’t settle for mediocrity”.
The first chapter is on The Call to Holiness, it begins with acknowledging all the holy men and women from the Abraham and Moses to even those of our dearly departed family and friends who are apart of as the Letter to the Hebrews puts it “cloud of witnesses”. Sure these individuals may not always have been perfect in their lives, but despite their faults and failings they kept moving forward and proved pleasing to the Lord. One of the key things here is that love is what connects the saints to us. The processes of beatification and canonization recognize the signs of heroic virtue, the sacrifice of one’s life in martyrdom, and in certain cases where a life is constantly offered for others, even until death. This Imitation of Christ is what singles out individuals, but it’s not only those Saints who’ve been beatified/canonized but also our neighbors, since throughout Salvation History the Lord has never saved an individual but rather taking into account the complex fabric of interpersonal relationships present in a human community. This “middle class of holiness” is where most of us live our lives as Edith Stein (St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross) wrote “The greatest figures of prophecy and sanctity step forth out of the darkest night. But for the most part, the formative stream of the mystical life remains invisible. Certainly the most decisive turning points in world history are substantially co-determined by souls whom no history book ever mentions. And we will only find out about those souls to whom we owe the decisive turning points in our personal lives on the day when all that is hidden is revealed.” Now holiness isn’t just limited to the Catholic Church the Holy Spirit raises up individual from all backgrounds Catholics, Orthodox, Anglicans and Protestants Pope John Paul II points to these martyrs as a shared heritage.
Now, Francis says that this is well and good but his primary focus is going to be on the individual call to holiness. In Lumen Gentium we read that we are “called by the Lord – each in his or her own way – to that perfect holiness by which the Father himself is perfect”. So we shouldn’t get frustrated by others who seems “more holier” for the “important thing is that each believer discern his or her own path, that they bring out the very best of themselves, the most personal gifts that God has placed in their hearts, rather than hopelessly trying to imitate something not meant for them.” We are all called as witnesses and there are many ways to do this. John of the Cross, famous mystic, preferred to avoid hard and fast rules for all since God’s life is communicated “to some in one way and to others in another.” Francis notes of the genius of women and list a bunch of saints from Hildegarde and Bridget to Teresa and Theresa. He also notes that there are perhaps several unknown and forgotten who were great imitators of Christ.
For many it seem like you need to be a priest, bishops religious to be holy “we are all called to be holy by living our lives with love and by bearing witness in everything we do, wherever we find ourselves.” Holiness can grow with just small gestures like limiting gossip, being patient, taking out and praying a rosary faithfully, or turning to someone on the street and offering some kind words to them. At times life can get complicated like when Cardinal François-Xavier Nguyên van Thuân, the Archbishop of Saigon, who was imprisoned for 13 year in a communist reeducation camp and then exiled, who strove to accomplish ordinary actions in an extraordinary way. The Bishops of New Zealand teach that we can do this even with love, we are capable of loving with the Lord’s unconditional love even in the midst of our weaknesses. As Pope Benedict XVI taught us “holiness is nothing other than charity (love) lived to the full.” Then Pope Francis calls on us to allow the Spirit to forge in you the personal mystery that can reflect Jesus Christ in today’s world.
Francis says that there are a bunch of distractions in the world today but we are all called to be contemplatives even in the midst of action, and to grow in holiness by responsibly and generously carrying out our proper mission. He continues by saying to not be afraid of holiness. It will take away none of your energy, vitality or joy. Holiness does not make you less human, since it is an encounter between your weakness and the power of God’s grace. The first chapter ends with a quote from a French writer Leon Bloy “the only great tragedy in life, is not to become a saint” which sort of sums up this universal call to holiness.
The second chapter begins with some talk of some problems that have existed from the beginning of the church and continue today Gnosticism and Pelagianism. Those two heresies are still around, i guess. Gnosticism is looking for knowledge or experience that solves the mysteries. Those educated members of the church shouldn’t be superior to other members of the church for we all are basically on the same journey. The Lord works in mysterious ways and having knowledge should just motivate us to respond more fully to the love of God. Pelagianism is that sin does not taint human nature and that will is still capable of deciding between good and evil. The Church has continually taught that we are justified not by our own works or efforts, but by the grace of the Lord. We are reminded of the greatest commandment love your neighbor as yourself
The third chapter is where Pope Francis looks at how are we supposed to be holy and what consists holiness. This can be seen in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5) where the Beatitudes were given, these are the identity card for all Christians as we are called to reflect these values in our daily lives. Next Francis goes through all the Beatitudes and breaks them down pointing out that they run counter to the way the world works. Jesus later on in Matthew’s Gospel expand on the Beatitudes in the twenty fifth chapter adding that “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me” (25: 35-36), these are the Corporal works of Mercy. Now this call is to recognize Jesus in the poor and the suffering, for we are called to except all without the ifs or buts and holiness can not exist with out this demand for the beating heart of the Gospel is mercy.
Now there are two errors which Francis sees. First those Christians who forget the mercy part of the gospels. Christanity isn’t some NGO far from the lives of the Saints (Francis of Assisi, Mother Theresa) who lived their lives full of mercy yet still reflected on the scriptures and prayer. The other problem is relativistic way that many people look at the world today where nothing is good or bad until I choose who my neighbor is or how to do it. Francis tells us about the Rule of St. Benedict where the monks would welcome anyone and everyone like they would welcome Christ, special care was given to the poor and pilgrims as well. Let us all keep this in mind whenever we meet anyone. Finally we turn to worship and prayer first of all we do this not for God but ourselves and our neighbors. Saint Mother Theresa of Calcutta eloquently put it “…God bends down and uses us, you and me, to be his love and his compassion in the world; he bears our sins, our troubles and our faults. He depends on us to love the world and to show how much he loves it. If we are too concerned with ourselves, we will have no time left for others. ” I hope that we are all able to follow the advice given by Pope Francis to re-read the Gospel referenced earlier, the Beatitudes and Last Judgement, since they can be a benefit to all of us as we all try to embody them. For it will make us happy.
The fourth chapter Francis looks for signs of holiness in the World today, there are five great expressions of love for God and neighbor. The listed expressions are Perserverance, Patience and Meekness; Joy and sense of Humor; Boldness and Passion; In Community; and In Prayer. In each of these expressions Francis gives a deep reflection on each pulling from the Bible to explain some items and pulling from the lives of the Saint for others. The final chapter is on spiritual combat, and this battle can’t be reduced to the struggle against our human weaknesses and proclivities. In case you were wondering the battle is against the Devil, we all need to be cautious and stay alert for the devil is everywhere. We need to also be a bit more willing to discern things, asking for the help of the Holy Spirit when we decide things.
Let us all be able to take some basic things from this exhortation and try to add them into our lives. For this is one of the ways which will bring more happiness and holiness into the world. Sure I began strong and sort of puttered out toward the end but this thing it fairly long and it took several days to get through it and wrote it up. However, if you don’t want to take the time to read the Exhortation yourself this should suffice These were some nice words from Pope Francis and I hope than many Catholics and sure Christians in general take the key point, living the Beatitudes and corporal works of mercy to heart. This is how we can become a better world.