The day the Papal Exhortation, Gaudete et Exsultate, was released a tweet was posted noting it was probably best not to read the document trying to find lines to disagree with or delighting in how the Pope called out one’s ideological enemies. It concluded “simply read and ask the Holy Spirit to help us become holier!”
These are wise words because there is a real danger of the Exhortation being turned into a battleground. On the one hand some are quick to criticise what Pope Francis says and where he places the emphasis; on the other hand others are keen to extract quotes from the document to attack people whose views they disagree with. The outcome may be that rather than discussion about the document being on how we can become holier in our daily lives, it gets side-tracked into polemics.
But the central message of the Exhortation – the call to holiness – is something that should interest us all. Right at the start the Pope reminds us that “The Lord asks everything of us” and he immediately goes on “and in return he offers us true life, the happiness for which we were created.” We may have thought that holiness sounds unattractive – but we all look for happiness!
The document is full of suggestions and examples of how we can progress along this path of holiness, of true life, of happiness. There are references to the lives of the saints but also the witness of ordinary people around us – maybe our mother or grandmother or the next neighbour. The Pope is clear that to be holy one does not have to hold a particular position in the church – it can come through being a husband or wife, a parent, a worker. When we feel the temptation to dwell on our own weaknesses we can raise our “eyes to Christ crucified and say: “Lord, I am a poor sinner, but you can work the miracle of making me a little bit better.”” So we can grow in holiness, and happiness, through little steps.
The vision of holiness Pope Francis offers is practical with his explanation of the Beatitudes and the reference to the parable of the sheep and goats (“I was hungry and you gave me food… “). But he is also clear that holiness comes from and is sustained by prayer, invoking the Holy Spirit, and moments of silence before God.
Some comments on social media imply that the Pope is not saying anything new or very challenging. But is this because we take things too much for granted? For example, he says that a Christian’s mission “has its fullest meaning in Christ, and can only be understood through him. 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. But it can also entail reproducing in our own lives various aspect of Jesus’s earthly life: his hidden life, his life in community, his closeness to the outcast, his poverty and other ways in which he showed his self-sacrificing love.” These words, the challenge and the promise they contain, will always be new. As we read them over and over again, maybe they will start to change us.
The Pope also regrets “ideologies that lead us at times to two harmful errors”. “On the one hand, there is the error of those Christians who separate [the] Gospel demands from their personal relationship with the Lord, from the interior union with him, from openness to his grace. Christianity thus becomes a sort of NGO stripped of the luminous mysticism so evident in the lives of [the saints]”. The other is found “in those who find suspect the social engagement of others, seeing it as superficial, worldly, secular, materialist, communist or populist. Or they relativize it, as if there are other more important matters, or the only thing that counts is one particular ethical issue or cause that they themselves defend.” In this passage he seems to identify the age-old argument within Christianity – whether a person is saved by deed alone or solely by faith. The tradition of the Church however teaches that we need both faith andgood works.
Much of the controversy on social media has come from the above passages and the subsequent comments referring to the defence of the unborn. Some have said the Pope is undermining the pro-life witness by placing equal emphasis on other issues of human dignity such as the plight of migrants. Others have used this passage to criticise the pro-life movement. One thing the Pope is very clear on, at the end of the Exhortation, is that the devil is a being not a metaphor for evil. How this “evil one” must be laughing up his sleeve at the sight of committed Catholics arguing between themselves about a hierarchy of life issues rather than celebrating the fact that some commit their time to defending the unborn while others go out to address the needs of refugees and migrants!
The Pope finishes: “Let us ask the Holy Spirit to pour out upon us a fervent longing to be saints for God’s greater glory, and let us encourage one another in this effort. In this way, we will share a happiness that the world will not be able to take from us.” Let us encourage one another, even when our sensibilities are different. Let us use this Exhortation to seek for greater holiness and so a fuller life and greater happiness.