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April 10, 2018

Pope Francis on the Call to Holiness in Today’s World

Pope Francis on the Call to Holiness in Today’s World


Wow. That is my reaction to the Apostolic Exhortation Gaudete et Exsultate (Rejoice and Be Glad) of Pope Francis of Rome. There are so many wonderful aspects about the exhortation, but perhaps for a blog, the best thing would be to encourage you to read it and to present a couple of examples of why it is so great.

So read it. At 177 paragraphs it is not overly long. It is written in reader friendly language, and is easily available from the Vatican here.

So read it.

Now on to the interesting ideas:
Holiness is everywhere. Pope Francis promotes everyday holiness, what he calls the “holiness of the middle class,” a holiness found in “The Saints ‘Next Door.” The Pope cites Saint John Paul II when he recognizes that holiness is not limited to the Catholic Church, that there are saints and even martyrs among all forms of Christians. Holiness is varied and simple. There is no one call to holiness. Each of us is called in our own way to our own path, and how we are to live out holiness is in some way determined by our path. This might come as a surprise to the wealthy and the powerful: “Are you in a position of authority? Be holy by working for the common good and renouncing personal gain.” (#14) Now that’s going against the grain!

Paragraph 16 is just so beautiful in its simplicity – here it is: “This holiness to which the Lord calls you will grow through small gestures. Here is an example: a woman goes shopping, she meets a neighbour and they begin to speak, and the gossip starts. But she says in her heart: ‘No, I will not speak badly of anyone.’ This is a step forward in holiness. Later, at home, one of her children wants to talk to her about his hopes and dreams, and even though she is tired, she sits down and listens with patience and love. That is another sacrifice that brings holiness. Later she experiences some anxiety, but recalling the love of the Virgin Mary, she takes her rosary and prays with faith. Yet another path of holiness. Later still, she goes out onto the street, encounters a poor person and stops to say a kind word to him. One more step.”

In paragraph 21, the Pope tells us what God the Father’s plan is for the world, which can be summed up in one word: Christ. This is really getting back to the basics. Don’t complicate things. It is all about Jesus, and about us as Christians in Him.

I think this is unique in church documents – the Pope says in paragraph 22 not to get caught up in the details. Look at the larger issues. Later in paragraph 57, he makes it clear that he really means this when he pans: “an obsession with the law, an absorption with social and political advantages, a punctilious concern for the Church’s liturgy, doctrine and prestige, a vanity about the ability to manage practical matters, and an excessive concern with programmes of self-help and personal fulfilment.” It is not just for liturgists that the Pope has a challenge. Those who would retire from life and spend it in prayer alone are missing the point. “It is not healthy to love silence while fleeing interaction with others, to want peace and quiet while avoiding activity, to seek prayer while disdaining service. Everything can be accepted and integrated into our life in this world, and become a part of our path to holiness. We are called to be contemplatives even in the midst of action.” (#26)

Holiness is about having a mission. I love so many parts of this document, but perhaps one of the most powerful is a quote from Spanish philosopher, Xavier Zubiri. It is a simple assertion on finding the meaning of life: “Life does not have a mission, but is a mission.” (#27) The Pope encourages everyone to pursue holiness not to limit their lives, but quite the contrary, for he believes that holiness makes us more alive, more human.

Holiness is contained in the Beatitudes. After warning about a couple of ancient heresies in the church that have become modern problems, Gnosticism (which teaches that it’s all in our head – really we don’t need God) and Pelagianism (which teaches that we can save ourselves – again, really we don’t need God), the Pope gives a wonderful reflection on the Beatitudes from Matthew 5. These are pretty mainstream, but are worth reading.

After this, the Pope offers some strong challenges to Catholics, to see the last judgment scene in Matthew 25.31-46 as our guide for life. Not what we think, but what we do for the least of our brothers and sisters.

One of the most dramatic challenges he gives is to those who “find suspect the social engagement of others….” (#101). Here he makes a specific point to those who defend the lives of the unborn, requiring of us all to support that right, but also challenging those who work in this area to also have a strong care for those in need, especially the poor, the aged, and in particular, migrants. The Pope says that this issue cannot be placed at a second level: “That a politician looking for votes might say such a thing is understandable, but not a Christian, for whom the only proper attitude is to stand in the shoes of those brothers and sisters of ours who risk their lives to offer a future to their children. Can we not realize that this is exactly what Jesus demands of us, when he tells us that in welcoming the stranger, we welcome him (cf. Mt 25:35)?” (#102)

What a challenge! And for the faithful churchgoer, there are challenges too, quoting an authority no less than Saint Thomas Acquinas: “We worship God by outward sacrifices and gifts, not for his own benefit, but for that of ourselves and our neighbor.” (#106)

The marks of holiness. This is already a lot, but what I was so happy to see was the Pope’s advice on how to put all of this into practice. He identifies 5 marks of holiness. Now before you peek down to see that they are, make your own list. I’d be surprised if you have more than one or two in common with the Pope:

5 Signs of holiness in Today’s world:

  1. Perseverance, patience and meekness
  2. Joy and a sense of humor
  3. Boldness and Passion
  4. In Community – in the little things
  5. In Constant Prayer – the Word leads to the Eucharist

The Pope’s insistence that it is in the little things that we find the path to holiness reminds us of his adopted namesake, Saint Francis, and his Portiuncula, his small portion. The Pope looks to the life of Jesus and sees all the times where Jesus saw small things and called them holy.

Holiness is a battle. Now the Pope is not living with his head in the clouds. He sees evil and Satan as real. Make no mistake. And so Christian life is a constant battle. But again one of the best lines on this subject ever, for the Pope “the battle is sweet” (#158) – in fighting we feel God working through us, and Christ winning triumph after triumph through our lives.

The Pope gives us further advice, by suggesting that we should live lives of discernment. In particular, he suggests that we do some form of examination of conscience every day, to keep track of how we are fighting the battle for holiness, and to frankly acknowledge where we have failed. The Pope also encourages the human sciences that can help us to evaluate our lives and where we are going. But in the end, the Pope calls us to have an adult faith, one that sees God’s timetable. It is childish and wrong to expect God to punish our enemies; “God does not pour down fire upon those who are unfaithful.” (#174) It’s time we grew up and acknowledged this.

The call to holiness is about discovering our baptismal mission, and rather than trying to sum what this all means, here’s the Pope’s conclusion:
“177. It is my hope that these pages will prove helpful by enabling the whole Church to devote herself anew to promoting the desire for holiness. Let us ask the Holy Spirit to pour out upon us a fervent longing to be saints for God’s greater glory, and let us encourage one another in this effort. In this way, we will share a happiness that the world will not be able to take from us.”

Glenn CJ Byer
Dr. Glenn CJ Byer

Glenn CJ Byer has written widely on the liturgy, including articles on the meaning of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, marriage preparation, the renovation of churches and the anointing of the sick. He speaks widely on the role of lay ministers in the Mass.