On the call to holiness in today’s world

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A reflection on Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation Gaudete et Exsultate” (“Rejoice and Be Glad”).

On March 19, 2018, Pope Francis published his third Apostolic Exhortation with the Latin title,Gaudete et Exsultate,” meaning “Rejoice and Be Glad.” 

This exhortation is a call to holiness in today’s world, which he notes is “not meant to be a treatise on holiness” but rather a “call to holiness in a practical way for our own time with its risks, challenges and opportunities.” He reminds us that, “the Lord has chosen each one of us to ‘be holy and blameless before him in love’ ” (Eph 1:4), and to “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven” (Mt 5:12) just as Jesus told the crowds on the Sermon on the Mount.

The following is a summary of “Gaudete et Exsultate” (“Rejoice and Be Glad”) and is not meant to be a substitute for the entire text, found at vatican.va

Chapter One — The Call to Holiness

The call to holiness expresses the Lord’s desire that we become saints, and not simply “settle for a bland and mediocre existence” (GEE 1). This is a challenging call, but we are part of the communion of saints — we are not alone in pursuing a holy way of life, but rather the saints pray and intercede for us. At the same time, “The Holy Spirit bestows holiness in abundance among God’s holy and faithful people” (GEE 6). Therefore, witness to Christian holiness can be found among those walking the pilgrim journey to heaven. We can look to those “saints next door” (GEE 7) who provide a practical example of daily faithful discipleship. It is recognized “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, in elderly religious who never lose their smile” (GEE 7). The Lord calls each of us to a holy life, but “each in his or her own way” (GEE 11, and Lumen Gentium 11). God has a unique plan for each of us, so we should not be discouraged when we might be tempted to think that holiness is unattainable. “We are all called to be witnesses, but there are many actual ways of bearing witness” (GEE 11).

Because we have been baptized, we have been set on a path that leads to God, who offers us, in the church, all the gifts we need to grow in holiness. Quoting the bishops of New Zealand, the Holy Father notes, “We are capable of loving with the Lord’s unconditional love, because the risen Lord Jesus shares his powerful life with our fragile lives” (GEE 18). Through an intimate relationship with God, the Christian disciple is empowered to be more lovingly directed to the service and support of others. “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. Are you married? Be holy by loving and caring for your husband or wife, as Christ does for the church. Do you work for a living? Be holy by laboring with integrity and skill in the service of your brothers and sisters. Are you a parent or grandparent? Be holy by patiently teaching the little ones how to follow Jesus. Are you in a position of authority? Be holy by working for the common good and renouncing personal gain” (GEE 14). 

As imperfect persons striving to live out such an awesome call to holiness, we can only do so by relying on God’s grace. Personal prayer allows the grace of the sacraments to take root in our lives through a time of intimate conversation with Our Lord. Although distractions are always present in the world around us, we need “moments of quiet, solitude and silence” (GEE 29) so that we can “recover the personal space needed to carry on a heartfelt dialogue with God” (GEE 29). This might mean that we turn off the cell phone or television, set aside the iPad or computer, and really try to listen to God’s voice speaking to the depths of our hearts, calling us to follow him and become more like Jesus His Son each day.

Chapter Two — Two Subtle Enemies of Holiness

We must guard against two subtle enemies of holiness: Gnosticism and Pelagianism. Both of these are ancient heresies the church had to confront, but which never really disappeared. Rather, they have taken on new forms that are destructive to a life of holiness.

Gnosticism and Pelagianism turn our attention away from God because they suggest that God is not needed for salvation and holiness. Gnosticism teaches that we are saved by some special, hidden, or personal knowledge of God. Often times this information stands in contradiction to the public revelation of Christ, the living Word of God. Pelagianism, on the other hand, teaches that we can be saved by our own will, by our personal effort alone, apart from the grace and loving initiative of God. 

To counter these tendencies, Pope Francis recalls the constant teaching of the church — that “we are justified not by our own works or efforts, but by the grace of the Lord, who always takes the initiative” (GEE 52). God’s grace is not something we can earn or fit into our own plans or ideas, but it is a free gift: “We must first belong to God, offering ourselves to him who was there first, and entrusting to him our abilities, our efforts, our struggle against evil and our creativity, so that his free gift may grow and develop within us” (GEE 56).

Chapter Three — In the Light of the Master

The Beatitudes provide a way of holiness that is outlined by Our Lord. In them “we find a portrait of the Master, which we are called to reflect in our daily lives” (GEE 63). We are encouraged to re-read them in the fifth chapter of the Gospel of St. Matthew and to “listen once more to Jesus, with all the love and respect that the Master deserves. Let us allow his words to unsettle us, to challenge us and to demand a real change in the way we live. Otherwise, holiness will remain no more than an empty word” (GEE 66).

In addition to the Beatitudes, the parable of the sheep and the goats found in Chapter 25 of St. Matthew’s Gospel reveals a further dimension to holiness. The parable delivers a powerful revelation by Jesus: “Whatever you did to the least of these, you did to me” (Mt 25:40). These words of the Lord remind us that “the ultimate criterion on which our lives will be judged is what we have done for others” (GEE 104). In a consumer society, we can end up being all too concerned about ourselves, anxious to have it all now. Both the Beatitudes and the scene of the Last Judgment in Matthew 25 demand of us a different way of life. It is enriching to meditate on “these great biblical texts frequently, referring back to them, praying with them, trying to embody them. They will benefit us; they will make us genuinely happy” (GEE 109).

Chapter Four — Signs of Holiness in Today’s World

Faced with a culture of anxiety, violence, negativity, individualism and self-satisfaction, the Holy Father offers five sets of contrary attitudes that stem from the Gospel and offer a promise of a healthier and happier life. The first set includes patience, perseverance and meekness. These virtues ground us in God, who loves and sustains us and who provides the inner strength we need “to give a witness of holiness through patience and constancy in doing good” (GEE 112). Patience, perseverance and meekness lead us to become more humble and bring us peace of mind and heart, free from the aggressiveness that comes from egotism (cf. GEE 121).

The second set of spiritual attitudes includes joy and a sense of humor. Joy is one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit; it is not a superficial sentiment but comes from knowing that “when everything is said and done, we are infinitely loved” (GEE 125). Humor helps us to fight against being self-focused and enables us to appreciate God’s many gifts to us (cf. GEE 126).

Boldness and passion make up the third set of attitudes. Jesus Himself, on many occasions, told His followers to have courage and not to be afraid. “Holiness … is boldness, an impulse to evangelize and to leave a mark in this world” (GEE 129). Sometimes we can be tempted by a lack of zeal; we can want to stay in hiding like the Apostles before Pentecost, we can want to remain close to the shore. Yet the Lord calls us to put out into the deep, to spend our lives in his service (cf. GEE 130). It is all too easy for any of us to become complacent, even about our faith and the power of the Gospel. We are summoned to be “passionate missionaries, enthusiastic about sharing true life … to have the apostolic courage to share the Gospel with others” (GEE 138-139). 

The importance of growing in holiness together with others in the community of the church is a fourth spiritual attitude. We cannot give in to any temptation to become isolated from one another. Instead, as Catholics, we are called to be with others, whether in the family, the parish, a religious community or any other (cf. GEE 143) so that we can identify all the more with Jesus’ prayer “that all may be one; even as you, Father, are in me, and I in you” (Jn 17:21; GEE 146).

Finally, constant prayer is a fifth sign, which “consists in a habitual openness to the transcendent” (GEE 147). A spirit of prayer and a need for communion with God is what characterized the saints, but we should remember, too, that prayer involves not only speaking to him but also listening to him. “For each disciple, it is essential to spend time with the Master, to listen to his words, and to learn from him always. Unless we listen, all our words will be nothing but useless chatter” (GEE 150). Prayer leads us to trust in God more and more, and to show greater concern for our brothers and sisters in concrete acts of charity. Prayer leads us to a deeper worship of God, especially in the Mass and the Holy Eucharist. As Pope Francis writes, “When we receive him in Holy Communion, we renew our covenant with him and allow him to carry out ever more fully his work of transforming our lives” (GEE 157).

Chapter Five — Spiritual Combat, Vigilance and Discernment

The Holy Father’s vision in his Apostolic Exhortation is realistic. Disciples of Christ know that, “The Christian life is a constant battle. We need strength and courage to withstand the temptations of the devil and to proclaim the Gospel” (GEE 158).

With the eyes of faith — with a supernatural vision — we are able to resist the temptation to “think of the devil as a myth, a representation, a symbol, a figure of speech or an idea. This mistake would lead us to let down our guard, to grow careless and end up more vulnerable. The devil … poisons us with the venom of hatred, desolation, envy and vice. When we let down our guard, he takes advantage of it to destroy our lives, our families and our communities” (GEE 161). These are strong words from the Holy Father, but we should not despair. “For this spiritual combat, we can count on the powerful weapons that the Lord has given us: faith-filled prayer, meditation on the word of God, the celebration of Mass, Eucharistic adoration, sacramental Reconciliation, works of charity, community life, missionary outreach” (GEE 162). We are not called to be neutral in the spiritual life, but rather to cultivate what is good and to grow in love in order to counterbalance evil.

The tools that God gives us to fight against evil include the gift of discernment, which helps us not to fall for every passing trend (cf. GEE 167). Discernment takes to heart and practice what St. Paul wrote to the Christians of Thessalonica: “Test everything; hold fast to what is good” (1 Thess. 5:21). Indeed, “Discernment 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. This entails a readiness to make sacrifices, even to sacrificing everything … Discernment, then, 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, for the good of our brothers and sisters” (GEE 174-175).

Conclusion

On the path to holiness, each of us is accompanied by Mary, our Blessed Mother. “She teaches us the way of holiness and she walks ever at our side” (GEE 176). With Mary’s powerful intercession, we “can continue to grow and offer something greater to God, even in those areas we find most difficult … 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” (GEE 175). That is what holiness is about — discovering and attaining our fulfillment as the persons God, from all eternity, wants us to be: his faithful sons and daughters, called to walk worthily each day on the path of holiness and discipleship. 

May the words of our Holy Father encourage you in your walk of faith and uplift your spirit now and forever.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2018