Gaudete et Exsultat: "A Pilgrim’s Notes: HOLINESS MADE EASY"

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            A close friend of mine, a lay person called me up some days ago to tell me joyfully: “I understood it well!”He was referring to the new Apostolic Exhortation of Pope Francis entitled Gaudete et Exsultate, or Rejoice and Be Glad (March 19, 2018), which focuses on the call to holiness in today’s world. Indeed, the papal text is quite readable; the language is simple; the content, understandable and practical.  Inviting us to holiness, the Argentine Pope shows us the traditional way of holiness and makes it rather attractive and fascinating for our time.

            Rejoice and Be Gladis like a wonderful puzzle with many differently shaped and beautiful pieces that have to be put together to complete the picture of holiness in our word. The Apostolic Exhortation is composed of five intertwined chapters. Compared with other papal documents, this one is short: 91 pages for 177 numbers or paragraphs and 125 footnotes. The titles of the Chapters provide us with the general themes of the papal document: The call to holiness: the saints who encourage and accompany us  (chapter I); Two subtle enemies of holiness (II);In the light of the Master (III); Signs of holiness in today’s world (IV), and Spiritual combat, vigilance and discernment(V).  

            The essential elements of holiness are permanent. They come from the very time of Jesus, who is God’s face of holiness and the way of holiness: He loves all unconditionally and the needy in a special way; He is intimately united to God in deepest prayer, and He does always God’s will. 

In Gaudete et Exsultate (GE), Pope Francis tells us modestly that he only wants to “re-propose the call to holiness in a practical way for our time” (GE, no. 2) and to call our attention to certainsignificant aspects of holiness. It is not Pope Francis’ intention to explain the means of sanctification already known to us, namely: “the methods of prayer, the inestimable sacraments of the Eucharist and Reconciliation, the offerings of personal sacrifices, different forms of devotion, spiritual direction, and many others as well” (no. 110). Near the end of his Apostolic Exhortation, the Pope mentions again classical elements of the ladder of holiness: “Faith-filled prayer, a meditation on the Word of God, a celebration of the Mass, Eucharistic adoration, sacramental reconciliation, works of charity, community life, and missionary outreach” (no. 162). 

            In Rejoice and Be Glad, Pope Francis invites us all to hear God’s call to holiness. Indeed, we are all called to holiness (chapter one). And the Church, our Teacher, and Mother, present to us always the models to follow – the canonized saints and the anonymous ones, which may include our mothers, grandmothers and other loved ones (GE 3). All the saints through all times point to and follow Jesus, starting with Mary Our Lady (cf. GE, 124 & 176), the apostles, the martyrs, the virgins, the confessors, ordinary people living extraordinary lives of fidelity and service. Hopefully, we shall be among them. Is it hard to be a saint? Pope Francis quotes Leon Bloy: “One step beyond mediocrity and you are a saint.” 

Pope Francis affirms joyfully that holiness is “the most attractive face of the Church” (GE, no. 9). At its core, holiness consists in the union with Christ: union with the crucified and risen Lord (cf. no. 20). It is letting the Blessed Trinity - that thanks God dwells within us - work in us through divine grace, which purifies, elevates, and enlightens us (no. 24). Holiness means to imitate Jesus, the virtuous one. All virtues are connected among themselves, and centered on love and work through faithful love (no. 60). The agent of holiness is the Holy Spirit, who leads us in the way of love (no. 57). Beside the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity, the human and moral virtues are also signs and means of holiness, especially mercy, humility, prayer, joy, patience and perseverance, meekness, justice, courage or boldness, fervor, peace. 

The road of holiness is travelled through the practice of virtues, which is also the best way of keeping our enemies - evil, sins and vices - at bay: pride, envy, avarice, hatred, lying, injustice, violence, complacency, spiritualism, dogmatism, intransigence, etc. (cf. GE, 134). Our main enemy is our own self, our “fat ego,” our aggressive and selfish inclinations, which we ought to fight (GE, no. 114) through the continuing process of un-selfing. In chapter two, Pope Francis strongly criticizes two ideologies that defend the human person’s unlimited power to renew himself or herself without Christ and the grace of the Holy Spirit. The two are agnosticism, “disembodied spirituality” that sidelines charity, and Pelagianism, limitless will power, that rejects the need of divine grace: both “continue to plague us” (no. 35), and “block our progress along the path of holiness” (no. 62). Other enemies we face in our world are hedonism, anxiety, negativity, sullenness, and “the self-content bred of consumerism, individualism, and ersatz spirituality” (no. 111); also “superficial information, instant communication and virtual reality” that wastes precious time, and may block in us the voice of the Spirit and the cry of the needy (108) - and can cause in us digital addiction. In chapter five, Pope Francis speaks strongly against our enemy number one the devil, Satan, the evil one, who “like a roaring lion prowls around looking for someone to devour” (I Pet 5:8; GE, 161).   

Pope Francis says that the Beatitudes and the Parable of the Last Judgment shape the framework of holiness. In GE chapter three, he speaks movingly of the Beatitudes, which are “the identity card” of Christians, and portray the Master for all (no. 63). Jesus is the Beatitude of God. He lived the Beatitudes with unconditional love for humankind (no. 18). 

What caught most my attention in Rejoice and Be Glad is the Pope’s teaching on holiness as love, that is, love of God and love of neighbor - and their seamless unity -, and on love of neighbor as primarily love of the needy neighbor. 

            Love of God is fed by prayer and silence, community life, worship, adoration, the Eucharist …The Pope underlines silence, which is needed to be able to listen to God’s voice: “Unless we listen, all our words will be nothing but useless chatter” (GE, 150). This attitude of listening “entails obedience to the Gospel as the ultimate standard, but also to the Magisterium that guards it” (no. 173). True discernment of the Spirit aids the Church, the community of Jesus’ disciples, to see the light of the newness of the Gospel, and not just to apply and repeat what was done in the past, for “what was useful in a context may not be in a different one.” Prayerful discernment will liberate people from rigidity, which is out of place “in the perennial ‘today’ of the risen Lord” (no. 173). 

            Pope Francis says that the followers of Christ ought to listen not only to the Lord, but also to others, and to reality, that is, to the “signs of the times,” or “what takes place around us” (cf. GE, no. 172). We listen to the voices of others when we possess a true love of neighbor, which is a universal, and “passionate and effective commitment to the neighbor.” This commitment includes recognizing the dignity of each human being (no. 98). Therefore, it does not ignore injustice (101) and is concerned with the kingdom of justice, truth, freedom, love, and universal peace (no. 25).

            St. Thomas Aquinas writes: The noblest deeds are the works of mercy, “even more than our acts of worship” (cf. GE, 106). “Mercy is the beating heart of the Gospel” (no, 97). Love of the needy neighbor is the priority, the distinguishing characteristic of all the followers of Jesus, “the great criterion” of holiness also today. It is Christ’s call in the poor to all Christians and people of good will: “I was hungry and you gave me food…” (cf. Mt 25:35-36).  This call implies concretely to defend the unborn and born children, and equally, the lives of all the poor: the destitute, the abandoned and the vulnerable infirm, and (first time I hear this piercing expression) “elderly exposed to covert euthanasia” (no. 101), migrants (no. 102) and strangers (no. 103).  

Pope Francis writes: Holiness “is not swooning in mystic rapture,” but in practicing the preferential love for the poor (cf. GE, 96). This special love of the needy neighbor is not – cannot be – opposed to love of God in prayer and worship: “I don’t believe in holiness without prayer” (no. 147). On the contrary, authentic prayer transforms us in such a way that it urges us to practice mercy as almsgiving and forgiving.  Truly, “the primacy belongs to our relationship with God, but we cannot forget that the ultimate criterion on which our lives will be judged is what we have done for others” (no. 104). Jesus’ words: “What you do to the least of my brothers and sisters, you do it to me” (Mt 25:40, 45). 105). In this context, Pope Francis invites us with St. Luke to live “a plain and austere life” and to share with the most in need (no. 70). 

             Pope Francis reminds us not to forget the essential place of the cross on the journey of holiness or happiness(cf. GE, 125). St. John of the Cross, often mentioned through Gaudete et Exsultate, says that many people love the graces and gifts that come from holiness, but when they realize that the gate to open holiness is the cross, they do not pursue it: “For the gate may one enter into these riches of his (God’s) wisdom is the narrow gate of the cross.” Our Pope comments: “Christian triumph is always a cross, yet a cross which is at the same time a victorious banner, born with aggressive tenderness against the assault of evil” (no. 163).          

After reading Gaudete et Exsultate, many people commented on it. In general, people praise the Apostolic Exhortation, and love its five chapters on the call to holiness in today’s world. Some say that they like most chapter five on combat, vigilance and discernment of the Holy Spirit. Others like most chapters four on the signs of holiness in today’s world) and chapter five, still others like above all chapter two on the two enemies of holiness today, or chapter three on the Beatitudes and the poor. Some of our brothers and sisters would have liked a bit different text: more conservative for some, more liberal for others, and for some others a less simple and more “mystical” text. Certainly, Pope Francis listens to various opinions. Imagine, when writing on the signs of holiness (no. 110) the Pope says humbly: “In my opinion…” For my part, I am happy with the papal text as is – and grateful to our dear universal Shepherd. Let me add that what matters most for me – and for many others - is not coming forward with different opinions, or looking for loopholes in the papal text, but its practice: walking the talk on holiness, witnessing that Jesus is alive in our daily life, our relations, and occupations, loving more deeply God, all neighbors, primarily the poor neighbors. Indeed, this practice is the evangelizing mission of the believers in Jesus, who is the Son of God and of Mary, and the Man-for-Others. 

As I close Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation, these words keep ringing in my soul: In order that we may share in God’s holiness…, we need to find a more perfect way of doing better what we are already doing (no. 17); Three key expressions speak of the little details of love of the Christian community, three essential words“Please,” ”Thank you,” “Sorry” (GE, 145; Pope Francis, AL, 133). 

(Published in O Clarim, May 18, 2018, pp. 1 & 3)