Pope Francis writes to each one of us about striving for holiness in today’s world

Below are some questions and answers on the Apostolic Exhortation Gaudete et Exsultate.

Why did the Pope write this Exhortation, and why now?

Helping people to be holy is one of the Church’s main tasks, in every era. The Second Vatican Council spoke of the “universal call to holiness”. Pope Francis has written not an academic or doctrinal text, but an apostolic exhortation whose goal is “to repropose the call to holiness in a practical way for our own time.” It is an invitation to a journey that takes place in the concrete here and now of our daily lives, in small gestures and little things, in which we are led more and more by God’s grace.

In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis spoke of the call to all the faithful to be missionary disciples; Gaudete et Exsultate is about the mission at the heart of that call, which is to be in relationship with Jesus Christ, who stirs our desire for holiness and enables us, by his power rather than ours, to get there. Holiness is for all of us, not a select few. He wants us to know that it is our destiny; it’s what God has planned for us; and yet there is nothing intimidating or overpowering about it; rather it is a liberation, a way of becoming who we really are.

What is new about Gaudete et Exsultate?

St John Paul II and Benedict XVI spoke often about the universal call to holiness, with the former in Novo Millennio Ineunte, 30-31 inviting the Church’s pastoral planning to include a “training in holiness”, above all in the art of prayer.

Gaudete et Exsultate is addressed personally to each and every one of us, whatever our state in life or level of education or development. Pope Francis often uses the informal singular expression tu (in Latin languages), which is how we speak one at a time to friends and family. So Francis is extending a personal invitation to follow Christ.

Second, it is deliberately lay in its language and invitation, aimed at people who live in the world, who have jobs and families and busy lives with many different pressures. Pope Francis wants people to know that they need no special education or qualifications, nor to take religious vows: just an open heart and a desire to spend some time with the Lord in prayer and by reading the Gospel. He also wants people to know that the Church has everything they need to become holy, and it is all available to them.

Third, the pope shows us, in very practical ways, how the journey to holiness is undertaken, and how it makes us more alive and more human.

How does he suggest people will become holy?

Much of what Pope Francis suggests is well known in Catholic life: to make time for prayer, to frequent the sacraments of the Eucharist and Confession, to do a daily examination of conscience, and to read the Gospel regularly, so that Christ’s life and ours become ever more closely identified. But he makes a very strong connection between these “spiritual” activities and actions rooted in mercy. In fact, he says they cannot be separated, and the authenticity of our prayer will be shown in how we become and act more humbly and more mercifully. This is rooted in Matthew’s Gospel, where Jesus offers a very clear path to holiness in the Beatitudes in Chapter 5. Then in Chapter 25 we find the “one clear criterion on which we will be judged” at the end of time, namely how we have responded to the concrete needs of others, especially the poor. There is no holiness without this. It involves believing, praying and doing in ways that can’t be separated.

The document has an entire chapter about two ancient heresies. Why does Pope Francis seem so preoccupied with them?

Pope Francis has referred frequently to the dangers of the modern-day versions of Gnosticism and Pelagianism, and a February document of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith called Placuit Deo explains them in detail. They are temptations, false paths to salvation that might look superficially like Christianity but  are ways of seeking salvation not through the power of Christ but through the power of ideas or human effort. Pope Francis explains this in everyday language so that everyone can be aware of these dangers. In effect, he’s telling us how to spot and therefore avoid these “false forms of holiness”, which try to make human beings, not Christ, the agent of our salvation. Because these false forms appear to be very Catholic, they can take us in.

He tells us, for example, to be aware of beautiful ideas that seem to explain everything in a complex logical system, or of an excessive emphasis on rules and methods. He warns us about a “punctilious concern for the Church’s liturgy, doctrine and prestige”, for example. Reason, liturgy, laws – these are all good, but means to an end, to open us to Grace, not ends in themselves.

The key point is that we are saved – we become holy – not by our own sophisticated ideas or strong efforts but by being constantly open to the assistance God offers us, in our weakness. This help, or Grace, is not a reward for the righteous, but a way of assisting those who turn to God in need. Equally, the most important thing, says Pope Francis, is the way we respond to the least of our brothers and sisters. We are justified not by our works and efforts but by the grace of God, who always takes the initiative. Grace is God’s free gift to us – including our own desire to be holy. So becoming holy is about a progressive transformation in response to God’s free gift freely accepted and received by us.

No. 58 warns against the Church becoming “a museum piece or the possession of a select few”. Who is he talking about?

The “new Pelagians” in the Church: he does not name particular groups, but warns against “groups of Christians” who “give excessive importance to certain rules, customs or ways of acting”. This “may well be a subtle form of Pelagianism, for it appears to subject the life of grace to certain human structures”. This explains, he says, why certain groups or movements start with an intense life in the Spirit but end up “fossilized … or corrupt.”

Why does the Pope insist so much on the dangers of gossip? (No. 87)

The pope has often talked before about gossip, and has referred to it as a form of violence that destroys communities, sowing division and suspicion. Early in the document (no. 16) he gives an example of “everyday” holiness when a person meets someone out shopping and decides to refrain from engaging in gossip.  Speaking about the Beatitudes in no. 87 he gives the opposite example of hearing something about someone, repeating it and embellishing it, “and the more harm it does, the more satisfaction I seem to derive from it.  The world of gossip, inhabited by negative and destructive people, does not bring peace.  Such people are really the enemies of peace; in no way are they ‘blessed’.”

He sees the destructive power of gossip amplified by social media. In no. 115  he warns that Christians “can be caught up in networks of verbal violence through the internet and the various forums of digital communication” and that “even in Catholic media, limits can be overstepped, defamation and slander can become commonplace, and all ethical standards and respect for the good name of others can be abandoned.”  He says it is striking how, at times Catholics who claim to uphold the other commandments completely ignore the eighth, which forbids bearing false witness or lying, and ruthlessly vilify others.

In No. 98, Pope Francis gives the example of encountering a homeless person on a cold night. Does he mean to suggest that I am obliged to help that person there and then?

He is not offering a precept, but illustrating how holiness changes the way we view the world, and especially our fellow human beings. If I see this person not as a problem but as a brother or sister in need, then I am seeing them, as it were, through the eyes of Christ. What action flows from this will rightly depend on various factors. In the following paragraph he mentions the way we suffer “a constant and unhealthy unease” when we look at the world this way. It’s a sign of our growth in holiness.

Without using the word abortion, the Pope seems to argue in No. 101 that there is a moral equivalency between abortion and a number of other practices that destroy human dignity. Is this the case?

Pope Francis is here criticising an unholy attitude which separates off one area of ethical concern from all the rest and absolutizes it. And he offers the very common example of a Catholic who believes passionately in the pro-life cause while dismissing the social engagement of other Catholics as in some way ‘political’. The call to holiness requires a larger view, so that loving your neighbour means being concerned for anyone whose human dignity is under threat. Two of many examples are a family forced to flee their home because of bloodshed, or someone who has been trafficked into prostitution. Because we can’t be equally concerned all the time with every threat to human dignity, we should be grateful that others are responding where we cannot. He’s not getting it into the relative weight these issues have in moral theology but talking about the attitudes that holiness brings.

The pope appears to suggest that to be a Christian you have to care about migrants and receive anyone in need who comes to your border.

The Pope has never said that all migrants have to be received or welcomed. He has encouraged wealthier countries to be generous, and to see that immigrants can be integrated into the societies into which they come. He has always talked about building bridges, and against walls to keep people out. He has spoken of the importance of seeing migrants not as statistics but as people. Here he makes the point that the plight of migrants is not a ‘secondary’ or lesser ethical issue, and criticizes Catholics who “consider it a secondary issue compared to the “grave” bioethical questions”. The call to holiness is a call to put the Gospel into action, and that also means welcoming the foreigner (Mt 25:35).

“We may think that we give glory to God only by our worship and prayer, or simply by following certain ethical norms”, he says  in no. 104, but while “it is true that the primacy belongs to our relationship with God” we cannot forget that “the ultimate criterion on which our lives will be judged is what we have done for others.” 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” (no. 105).

In Nos. 160 and 161, the Pope pays a lot of attention to the devil. Given that, he presumably believes in hell as well?

Pope Francis has regularly referred elsewhere to hell, and reports that he in some way questions its existence were untrue. In his Lent message for 2016, for example, he described hell as the opposite destiny to the holiness he describes here – and for the same reason: “Yet the danger always remains that by a constant refusal to open the doors of their hearts to Christ who knocks on them in the poor, the proud, rich and powerful will end up condemning themselves and plunging into the eternal abyss of solitude which is Hell.” In March 2014 he warned mafia bosses to stop their lives of violence and extortion, telling them:  “There is still time to avoid ending up in hell. That is what is waiting for you if you continue on this path.”

Here he does not mention hell but the devil, warning that any journey to holiness will involve being assailed by the enemy of holiness. This is a constant struggle, not just a one-off event, and knowing this is key: Holiness is a series of victories over the devil’s temptations.

He warns that if we think of the devil as merely a symbol or an idea, we will let down our guard. But in the Church the Lord has given us many powerful weapons against the devil’s efforts, particularly the gift of discernment, which is particularly necessary today when there is much to distract us that seems superficially good.

* * *

Pope Francis notes that while the Lord speaks to us “in a variety of ways, at work, through others and at every moment”,  we cannot do without the silence of prolonged prayer, which allows us “to see the whole of our existence afresh in his own light” and allows “the birth of a new synthesis that springs from a life inspired by the Spirit.”

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