Reflecting on Pope Francis’ Apostolic exhortation “Gaudete Exsultate”
Reflecting on the almighty and holy God (Ex 3:5-6) the late Msgr. Bonaventure Kasaija of happy memory composed a song “Obuhikiriire bwa Mukama otebye omale” that is God’s holiness is a mystery and thus inexhaustible. “Rejoice and be glad!” is what Jesus said on the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5:12). It’s also the title of Pope Francis’ new apostolic exhortation on holiness in everyday life. Why should we “rejoice and be glad”? Because God, as Francis reminds us, calls us all to be saints by being perfect just as our heavenly Father is perfect (Mt 5:48). Here are some basic aspects to note in Pope Francis’ new and very practical exhortation.
Holiness means being yourself
Pope Francis offers us many examples of holy lives throughout this document: St. Thérèse of Lisieux, the French Carmelite who found holiness in doing small tasks; St. Ignatius of Loyola, the Jesuit founder who sought to find God in all things; St. Philip Neri, the founder of the Oratorians who was renowned for his sense of humor. The saints pray for us and give us examples of how to live, but we are not meant to be exactly like them. We are meant to be ourselves, and each believer is meant to “discern his or her our own path” and “bring out the very best of themselves.” As Thomas Merton said, “For me to be a saint means to be myself.” And John Cassian refers to such a person as one found the same day and night, the same in bed as in prayer, the same alone as surrounded by others with absolutely nothing to hide.
Everyday life can lead to holiness
You do not need to be a bishop, a priest or a member of a religious order to be holy (Gaudete exsultate, 2018, NO.14). Everyone is called to be a saint. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (NO. 2012) also aptly puts it that: “All Christians in any state or walk of life are called to the fullness of Christian life and to the perfection of charity”. All we need to do is to “live our lives in love” and “bear witness” to God in all we do. That also doesn’t have to mean big, dramatic actions. Francis offers examples of everyday sanctity, like a loving parent raising a child; as well as “small gestures” and sacrifices that one can make, like deciding not to pass on gossip. If you can see your own life as a “mission,” then you soon realize that you can simply be loving and kind to move towards holiness. You also do not have to be mystic to be a saint or walking around with “lowered eyes.” Nor do you have to withdraw from other people. On the other hand, you don’t have to be an activist to be a saint. A balance between action and contemplation is essential.
Two tendencies to avoid: Gnosticism and Pelagianism
Pope Francis may send people racing to either dictionaries or their theology textbooks when he asks us to avoid two dangers in the spiritual life. The first is Gnosticism, from the Greek word gnosis, to know. Gnosticism is the old heresy that says that what matters most is what you know. No need to be charitable or do good works. All you need is the correct intellectual approach. Today, Gnosticism tempts people to think that they can make the faith “entirely comprehensible” and leads them to want to force others to adopt their way of thinking. “When somebody has an answer for every question,” says Francis, “it’s a sign that they are not on the right path.” In other words, being a know-it-all is not going to save you.
The second thing to avoid is Pelagianism named for Pelagius, the fifth-century theologian associated with this idea. Pelagianism says that we can take care of our salvation through our own efforts. Pelagians trust in their own powers, don’t feel like they need God’s grace and act superior to others because they observe certain rules. Today’s Pelagians often have, the pope says, “an obsession with the law, an absorption with social and political advantages, punctilious concern for the church’s liturgy, doctrine and prestige.” It’s a real danger to holiness because it robs us of humility, sets us over others, and leaves little room for grace.
“Gaudete et Exsultate” is filled with Pope Francis’ trademark practical advice for living a life of holiness. For example, don’t gossip, stop judging and, most important, stop being cruel. That goes for online actions, too. Francis’ comments on this topic are memorable. Online, he writes, “defamation and slander can become commonplace since things can be said there that would be unacceptable in public discourse, as people look to compensate for their own discontent by lashing out at others. In claiming to uphold other commandments, they completely ignore the eighth, which forbids bearing false witness or lying and ruthlessly vilifying others.”
The Beatitudes are a roadmap for holiness
The Beatitudes are not only what Jesus means by holiness, they are also a portrait of our Lord himself. So we’re called to be poor in spirit, meek, peacemakers, to hunger and thirst for righteousness, and so on. But let me focus on one beatitude: “Blessed are the merciful.” Pope Francis says mercy, one of the central themes of his papacy, has two aspects: helping and serving others but also forgiving and understanding. Jesus does not say, “Blessed are those who plot revenge!” And what is Pope Francis’ overall summary of holiness? It’s based on the Beatitudes: “Seeing and acting with mercy.” While leading the funeral Mass of Cardinal Tauran on 12th July 2018, Cardinal Sodano had this to say of this holy man of God, “Jesus reminded us of the true Beatitudes of the Christian. It is always moving to hear proclaiming these Beatitudes in our Church. Blessed are the poor in spirit. Blessed are the sweet ones. Blessed are the merciful. Blessed are the pure hearts. Blessed are the peacemakers. These are Beatitudes who have always illuminated the life of our dear deceased brother, like luminous stars on his way.” May these beatitudes always illuminate our day to day lives as we strive to be perfect just as our heavenly Father is perfect (Mt 5:48).
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