Challenge yourself with Gaudete et Exsultate!
If people do not think they can learn anything about holiness from Pope Francis, they need to think again. The Pope’s latest Apostolic Exhortation, Gaudete et Exsultate (Rejoice and Be Glad): On the Call to Holiness in Today’s World, recapitulates and develops several favorite themes in the context in which they can do the most good: Personal holiness. I will admit that when one needs theological precision and clear moral distinctions, Pope Francis is not the best consultant. But when one needs to be shaken and even slapped into that fundamental evangelical posture which we call holiness, this pope is frequently at his best.
I do not intend to argue about the ultimate importance of the former to the latter. I have done that often enough. But when Phil Lawler wrote in his news analysis on Monday that the “new papal document is more than a response to critics”, he demonstrated his usual ability to hit the nail cleanly on its proverbial head. It would be a grave error to read Gaudete et Exsultate while looking for a fight. In his analysis, Phil ably highlighted the passages which have attracted the most press as perhaps part of this pope’s lopsided argument with “conservatives”. But it is absolutely clear that this argument is not uppermost in Francis’ mind.
Pope Francis begins by taking up an important theme of the Second Vatican Council: The universal call to holiness. The first chapter emphasizes that the way of holiness is a way that suffuses all of our ordinary life with the presence and action of Christ. “Do not be afraid of holiness,” he writes. “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” (32). Or again:
Do not be afraid to set your sights higher, to allow yourself to be loved and liberated by God. Do not be afraid to let yourself be guided by the Holy Spirit. Holiness does not make you less human, since it is an encounter between your weakness and the power of God’s grace. For in the words of León Bloy, when all is said and done, “the only great tragedy in life, is not to become a saint”. 
Enemies and Friends of Holiness
In the second chapter, the Pope introduces “two subtle enemies of holiness”. He has mentioned these before as contemporary versions of the ancient heresies of Gnosticism and Pelagianism. The former reduces Christianity to the attainment of enlightenment through an understanding of secret truths; the latter reduces it to human moral effort. Typically Francis has been far better at seeing the form these errors take among those who make a point of doctrinal orthodoxy and traditional moral rectitude; he has been far less likely to spot their pervasive influence among those whose faith manifests itself only within the ideological boundaries permitted by our dominant secular culture.
But in Gaudete et Exsultate he uses the dangers of both tendencies to remind us that (on the Gnostic side) knowledge must not eclipse devotion and (on the Pelagian side) holiness must always be rooted in the Divine life within, through the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity. However much we may apply these categories to others (and, of course, I could do this all day long), we are foolish indeed if we do not realize that all of us fall into both temptations at times, either by confusing our Catholic knowledge with personal virtue or by displaying more pride in our own efforts than gratitude for grace received.
Having cleared away these confusions, Francis goes on to teach about the nature of holiness by reflecting on the beatitudes from Our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount. Indeed, there could hardly be a better school. We have all watered down the beatitudes, distinguishing a kind of essential general assent to them from an optional deeper commitment. But Pope Francis knows that they are the key to unlocking the Christ-life within us. He concludes the discussion of each beatitude with a kind of “translation” for holiness:
- Being poor of heart: that is holiness. (70)
- Reacting with meekness and humility: that is holiness. (74)
- Knowing how to mourn with others: that is holiness. (76)
- Hungering and thirsting for righteousness: that is holiness. (79)
- Seeing and acting with mercy: that is holiness. (82)
- Keeping a heart free of all that tarnishes love: that is holiness. (86)
- Sowing peace all around us: that is holiness. (89)
- Accepting daily the path of the Gospel, even though it may cause us problems: that is holiness. (94)
The Pope concludes this chapter by reminding us of “the great criterion” by which we will be judged worthy or unworthy of the Kingdom of Heaven: As often as we did (or did not) do good to those in need, we did (or did not) do good to Christ. In this section Francis emphasizes the complete range of our responsibilities, pointing out (rightly) that one cannot excuse the failure to take one moral issue seriously simply by asserting that some other moral issue is more important.
It is just here that we would wish for a more precise pope, for this is subject to misinterpretation. Nobody can do everything, and the moral issues we choose to emphasize must inescapably be determined in part by their specificity, their severity, their pervasiveness, and the clarity of their solution. That is why I will write a separate article about this very issue. But the Pope is surely right when he concludes:
Our worship becomes pleasing to God when we devote ourselves to living generously, and allow God’s gift, granted in prayer, to be shown in our concern for our brothers and sisters. 
Similarly, 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. 
Signs of holiness and spiritual combat
For me, the mother lode of Gaudete et Exsultate is found in the final two chapters (four and five) in which Francis discusses “Signs of Holiness in Today’s World” and “Spiritual Combat, Vigilance and Discernment”. It is in these chapters that I did most of my underlining. The Apostolic Exhortation is perfectly suitable for all adult readers and, since the call to holiness really does belong to each one of us, every adult should read it. Assuming that my readers will do so, then, I will do no more here than list, without further discussion, the signs of holiness Francis discusses in chapter four:
- Perseverance, patience and meekness
- Joy and a sense of humor
- Boldness and passion
- In community
- In constant prayer
It is worth noting that the Pope’s constant emphasis on the need for prayer throughout Gaudete et Exsultate amply demonstrates that simplistic dismissals of this pope as nothing but a mirror of popular culture will not withstand careful scrutiny—no matter how much his carelessness in discussing matters of faith and morals may sometimes frustrate us. Concluding this chapter with the section on prayer, Francis reaches the summit of his discourse by moving through prayerful reading of God’s word to the very reception of Our Lord Himself in the Holy Eucharist.
The final chapter, dealing as it does with spiritual combat, even more clearly differentiates Pope Francis from so many of the Jesuits in Rome to whom we may think he is far too close. It is either a boon or a bane of Francis’ personality that he combines in one and the same soul a deep awareness of the supernatural with a tendency to mimic in other ways the secularized categories so characteristic of spiritual discussions in our surrounding culture. But we already knew this; otherwise he would not frustrate us with relative inattention to the most culturally-approved evils of our age while constantly emphasizing the need for the Sacrament of Penance.
In this chapter, the Pope insists on the reality of Satan, and warns that we must not dismiss him as a myth. He points out that the phrase “deliver us from evil” in the Our Father is really more accurately translated as deliver us from the evil one. This “indicates a personal being who assails us. Jesus taught us to ask daily for deliverance from him, lest his power prevail over us” (160). Francis goes on to discuss what it means for us to “stand against the wiles of the devil” (Eph 6:11) and to “quench all the flaming darts of the evil one” (Eph 6:16). He warns:
Those who choose to remain neutral, who are satisfied with little, who renounce the ideal of giving themselves generously to the Lord, will never hold out. 
In the final section on “Discernment”, Francis explains the need for us to talk constantly with God, asking for the grace to discern, on the one hand, our own weaknesses and failings and, on the other, whatever it is that the Lord is calling us to do. “Discernment,” he writes, “is not about discovering what more we can get out of this life, but about recognizing how we can better accomplish the mission entrusted to us at our baptism” (174). More words like this in the problematic sections of Amoris Laetitia would have gone a long way toward clarifying the text of that apostolic exhortation.
The Pope concludes Gaudete et Exsultate by praying that his reflections will be “crowned by Mary”, recognizing that when in distress or anxiety our heavenly mother does not require a flood of words: “All we need to do is whisper, time and again: ‘Hail Mary…’.”
So set aside any bias you may have, even any biases triggered by this website. Read Gaudete Exsultate. If something in it challenges you, so much the better. Take it to heart. Make it part of your daily examination of conscience. That is exactly what Pope Francis recommends.
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