12. Apr, 2018

Pope Francis reproposes the call to holiness

Gaudete et Exsultate

On Good Shepherd Sunday (22nd April) it’s appropriate to reflect on the latest apostolic exhortation from Pope Francis, who is the chief shepherd of the Church.

The Holy Father’s “modest goal is to repropose the call to holiness in a practical way for our own time” teaching that “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.”

The exhortation is called Gaudete et Exsultate or rejoice and be glad. He says that “the Lord asks everything of us, but in return he offers us true life, the happiness for which we were created. He wants us to be saints and not to settle for a bland and mediocre existence.” Rather, we are to be “holy and blameless before God in love.”

The 1st point in the introductory chapter is that we are called to heroic virtue and sacrifice just like the Saints, and in imitation of Christ. But it is the Holy Spirit who bestows holiness, and in ways we may not associate with sainthood such as “the patience of God’s people: in those parents who raise their children with immense love, in those men and women who work hard to support their families, in the sick…” Very often, Pope Francis says, “holiness is found in our next-door neighbours, those who, living in our midst, reflect God’s presence.”

Another point, “holiness…will grow through small gestures.” For 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 this way, led by God’s grace, we shape by many small gestures the holiness God has willed for us.

“At its core, holiness is experiencing, in union with Christ, the mysteries of his life. 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. [That means we must reproduce] in our own lives… aspects of Jesus’… hidden life, his life in community, his closeness to the outcast, his poverty and other ways in which he showed his self-sacrificing love. The contemplation of these mysteries… leads us to incarnate them in our choices and attitudes.”

Chapter two describes the subtle enemies of holiness: contemporary gnosticism and Pelagianism. Pope Francis warns of how the ‘gnostics’ attribute power to the intellect. ‘Pelagians’ trusts “in their own powers and feel superior to others because they observe certain rules or remain intransigently faithful to a particular Catholic style” which seems equally to describe pride. Many commentators have said that this chapter is Pope Francis taking a shot at his ideological enemies.

If any should ask “What must one do to be a good Christian?” Pope Francis assures us that the answer is clear. “We have to do, each in our own way, what Jesus told us in the Sermon on the Mount. In the Beatitudes, we find a portrait of the Master, which we are called to reflect in our daily lives.” Hence the third chapter is about reflecting on the Beatitudes, allowing them to “unsettle us, to challenge us and to demand a real change in the way we live.”

In Matthew 25 Jesus expands on the Beatitude that calls the merciful blessed. For Pope Francis the criterion for holiness is mercy (see Luke 6:36 and Matthew 5:48 for contrast) – meaning for him works of mercy. This emphasis is expected as the Holy Father tirelessly campaigns for social justice. Perhaps this is due to the influence of the liberation theology movement (prevalent in South America) that emphasises the liberation achieved by the action of the faithful and from ‘sinful’ socioeconomic structures that cause social inequities/injustices. Classically, liberation is seen as emancipation from personal sin wrought by grace


For Pope Francis holiness hinges around two factors – faith and works. At its core holiness is experiencing, in union with Christ, the mysteries of his life. In practice holiness requires the out-working of faith which is framed by the Beatitudes and achieved when our lives reflect the mercy of God.

"In this way, led by God’s grace, we shape by many small gestures the holiness God has willed for us.”

This is very beautiful.

. . .

Perhaps above all for Pope Francis, holiness is achieved by living out the text, “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.” This passage was also a favourite of Mother Teresa who loved to add, “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”

Let us cover the remaining two chapters – the signs of holiness and spiritual combat, vigilance and discernment, next week.


GAUDETE ET EXSULTATE OF THE HOLY FATHER FRANCIS ON THE CALL TO HOLINESS IN TODAY’S WORLD http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/apost_exhortations/documents/papa-francesco_esortazione-ap_20180319_gaudete-et-exsultate.html