Last week, Pope Francis published an apostolic exhortation on the call to holiness in today’s world. Entitled Gaudete et Exsultate, “Rejoice and Be Glad,” taken from Jesus’ words from the Sermon on the Mount, the papal appeal passionately urges us “not to settle for a bland and mediocre existence,” but to commit ourselves, body and soul, to responding to God’s “call to holiness in today’s world.”
The relatively short and often eloquent exhortation is somewhat unique in magisterial style. Normally Popes only use the second person singular (“tu” in Romance languages) in letters to young people or to individuals. The Pope strikingly uses it throughout this letter, seeking to draw each of us — including you and me — into dialogue.
“I would like to insist,” he writes, “primarily on the call to holiness that the Lord addresses to each of us, the call that he also addresses, personally, to you: ‘Be holy, for I am holy.’” Addressing any possible anxiety we might have before such a vocation to sanctity, he counsels, “Do not be afraid of holiness. It will take away none of your energy, vitality or joy. On the contrary, you will become what the Father had in mind when he created you, and you will be faithful to your deepest self.”
The exhortation was fittingly released on April 9, the Solemnity of the Annunciation this year (March 25 was Palm Sunday), because Christ took on our humanity so that we might participate in his divinity. Holiness is our sharing in divine life.
“At its core, holiness is experiencing, in union with Christ, the mysteries of his life,” he states. “It consists in uniting ourselves to the Lord’s death and resurrection in a unique and personal way, constantly dying and rising anew with him. But it can also entail reproducing in our own lives various aspects of Jesus’ earthly life: his hidden life, his life in community, his closeness to the outcast, his poverty and other ways in which he showed his self-sacrificing love.”
But Pope Francis didn’t want to write a “treatise on holiness,” but rather to “repropose the call to holiness in a practical way for our own time, with all its risks, challenges and opportunities.” Holiness is not an idea, like the Gnostics believe, thinking that holiness depends fundamentally on what we know. Holiness, rather, depends on how we put into practice what we have learned from Christ. Christianity, after all, “is a practical religion: it is not there to be thought about, but to be practiced, to be done.”
And Pope Francis has written the most extensive, practical treatise on the call to holiness in the history of the papacy.
I would urge everyone to read this letter in its entirety (vatican.va). But as a primer, I would like to share ten practical nuggets Pope Francis shares.
First, holiness is the deepest meaning of our life. “A Christian cannot think of his or her mission on earth,” the Pope notes, “without seeing it as a path of holiness, for [as St. Paul wrote], ‘This is the will of God, your sanctification.’ Each saint is a mission, planned by the Father to reflect and embody, at a specific moment in history, a certain aspect of the Gospel.” He says that it’s “to the extent that each Christian grows in holiness [that] he or she will bear greater fruit for our world.”
Second, holiness is found in ordinary daily life. It does not involve “swooning in mystic rapture,” or having the stigmata, or being listed on the rolls of canonized saints and martyrs. We’re not called to be Saint Someone Else and therefore “should not grow discouraged before examples of holiness that appear unattainable.” There’s a “middle class of holiness,” he says humorously, often found “in our next-door neighbors,” among our “own mothers, grandmothers and loved ones,” who “living in our midst reflect God’s presence.” We are all called to this holiness “through small gestures,” mindful that “every minute of our lives can be a step along the path to growth in holiness.”
Third, holiness begins with desire. St. Thomas Aquinas stressed that to become a saint we have to “will it.” Pope Francis says he wrote the exhortation to help the “whole Church devote herself anew to promoting the desire for holiness” and praying that God will “pour out upon us a fervent longing to be saints for God’s greater glory.” This desire for holiness, however, doesn’t mean it’s principally our work. Pope Francis cautions us against the Pelagian heresy that pretends that holiness depends exclusively on our personal strength and abilities. Rather, it depends on God and his grace. “Only on the basis of God’s gift, freely accepted and humbly received can we cooperate by our own efforts in our progressive transformation.”
Fourth, God carries out the work of our sanctification, among other ways, through the traditional “means of sanctification already known to us: the various methods of prayer, the inestimable sacraments of the Eucharist and Reconciliation, the offering of personal sacrifices, different forms of devotion, spiritual direction, and many others as well.” We should take these all seriously.
Fifth, holiness can be understood more simply as living the Beatitudes. “Jesus explained with great simplicity what it means to be holy when he gave us the Beatitudes,” Pope Francis writes. “In the Beatitudes, we find a portrait of the Master, which we are called to reflect in our daily lives: … being poor of heart, … reacting with meekness and humility, … knowing how to mourn with others, … hungering and thirsting for righteousness, … seeing and acting with mercy, … keeping a heart free of all that tarnishes love, … sowing peace all around us, … accepting daily the path of the Gospel, even though it may cause us problems, that is holiness.”
Sixth, holiness flows from a life of prayer. “Holiness consists in a habitual openness to the transcendent, expressed in prayer and adoration. The saints are distinguished by a spirit of prayer and a need for communion with God,” the Holy Father indicates. “I do not believe in holiness without prayer.” Part of that prayer is discernment, since the path of holiness is “given to us by the Spirit,” helping us to hear his voice and attune our lives to him. Discernment is “an authentic process of leaving ourselves behind in order to approach the mystery of God, who helps us to carry out the mission to which he has called us.”
Seventh, our prayer must overflow into charity. “We cannot forget that the best way to discern if our prayer is authentic is to judge to what extent our life is being transformed in the light of mercy,” Pope Francis says. Holiness “is nothing other than charity lived to the full.” He says that we have to “acknowledge and accept … the uncompromising demands of Jesus” to care for him in the poor, sick, stranger, naked, ill, imprisoned and needed (Mt 25:31-46) because “our Lord made it very clear that holiness cannot be understood or lived apart from these demands.” The ultimate criterion on which our lives will be judged, he says “is what we have done for others.”
Eighth, our holy, self-giving love must be cheerful. “Far from being timid, morose, acerbic or melancholy, … the saints are joyful and full of good humor.” The exhortation is entitled “Rejoice and Be Glad” because the Christian life is marked by “joy in the Holy Spirit,” which is what helps make holiness “the most attractive face of the Church.” Each of us is called to have that joyous face.
Ninth, growth in holiness is a battle that requires perseverance, patience, courage and meekness. “Holiness is … boldness,” Pope Francis says. “You cannot grow in holiness without committing yourself, body and soul, to giving your best to this endeavor,” because “The Christian life is a constant battle. The battle is not just against the ways of the world or against our human weaknesses and inclinations; it’s also a “constant struggle against the devil” who incessantly seeks to divert us from the path of sanctity — and from God — in this world and in the next. For that reason, “Those who really wish to give glory to God by their lives, who truly long to grow in holiness, are called to be single-minded and tenacious.”
Finally, holiness is not principally a solitary battle, but one waged in communion with God and his faithful in heaven and on earth. “Growth in holiness is a journey in community, side by side with others,” something we see in the Holy Family in Nazareth, in the early Church, in so many homes and religious communities today. We are surrounded by a “great cloud of witnesses” (Heb 12:1) urging us on to victory, so that we may truly become one as God is one, a communion of saints within the Triune communion. Among all the saints, Pope Francis proudly stresses, stands Mary, who “teaches us the way of holiness and walks ever at our side.”
The path that Pope Francis is describing isn’t easy. This battle entails, he writes, “a readiness to make sacrifices, even to sacrificing everything.” But he adds, “God asks everything of us, yet he also gives everything to us. He does not want to enter our lives to cripple or diminish them, but to bring them to fulfillment.”
That fulfillment is the eternal life to which God summons each of us through the universal call to holiness — which Pope Francis has now engagingly made more practical.
Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in The Anchor, the weekly newspaper of the Diocese of Fall River, Mass, on April 20, 2018 and appears here with permission of the author.