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

“Rejoice and be glad.” With these words from Matthew’s Gospel (5:12), Pope Francis begins his apostolic exhortation “Gaudete et Exsultate: The Call to Holiness in Today’s World,” released today.  The Holy Father’s goal with this document “is to repropose the call to holiness in a practical way for our own time, with all its risks, challenges and opportunities” (Gaudete et Exsultate, 2), expanding upon familiar themes presented in his previous teachings on the richness of God’s mercy, Christian faith, the joy of the Gospel, love in marriage and family, and caring for our common home.

As with any magisterial document, it will take some time to digest and unfold the gift that Pope Francis has given us, but I do wish to offer a few initial thoughts for you.  In summary, the Holy Father reminds us that the Lord calls each of us to holiness and that the entirety of our lives should be seen as being on a path of personal sanctification in communion with the whole of God’s people (Id., 6, 10, 19).  “At its core,” he says, this “holiness is experiencing, in union with Christ, the mysteries of his life,” and letting ourselves be transformed into Christ who is love incarnate (Id., 20, 24).  In other words, “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” – and such holiness grows even in small gestures (Id., 14, 16).

Beyond the personal examples of holiness in daily life in the first chapter, Pope Francis notes in the third chapter the criterion on what it means to be holy, pointing to the Beatitudes and to the judgment of the nations in Matthew’s Gospel (5:3-12, 25:31-46).  Within this framework, the Holy Father highlights in chapter four the signs or attitudes that are necessary to the holy life of loving God and neighbor.  These include: trust in God who loves and sustains us, which gives the grace and strength of perseverance and patience in avoiding evil and doing good; Christian joy and good humor; boldness and fervor of the Holy Spirit; community and caring for one another; and “habitual openness to the transcendent, expressed in prayer and adoration” (Gaudete et Exsultate, 110 et seq., 147).

These qualities are not only preferable, but essential in this world which presents so many negative challenges to a holy life.  Pope Francis even goes so far as to say that the Christian life involves constant spiritual combat and vigilance against human weakness and evil at work in the world (Id., 158-65). In the face of these challenges of the human condition, the spiritual gift to discern good from evil is necessary in resolving problems and making decisions (Id., 166-73).  Two particular challenges to guard against, the Holy Father says in chapter two, are the false conceit of gnosticism, which claims a superior subjective intellectual knowledge of the faith, and the deceptive idea of pelagiansim that fails to acknowledge or appreciate our human limitations. 

The Lord is not unaware of our human difficulties, however, and he does not leave us to our own devices.  Quoting Saint Augustine, Pope Francis urges us to do what we can and ask God for help to do what we cannot (Id., 49).  If we strive for the perfection that Jesus summons us to, he affirms, “the Lord will bring it to fulfilment despite your mistakes and missteps, provided that you do not abandon the path of love but remain ever open to his supernatural grace, which purifies and enlightens” (Id., 24).

In “Gaudete et Exsultate (Rejoice and Be Glad),” we have been given splendid spiritual and practical guidance by Pope Francis.  During this holy season of the Risen Lord, I highly recommend that you read and reflect upon the words of this pastor of souls in your own pilgrim journey.  Joining my prayers to his and to yours, “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” (Id., 177).