Did you know that you’re meant to be a saint? So says Pope Francis, in his latest Apostolic Exhortation, Gaudete et Exsultate (Rejoice and Be Glad). An Apostolic Exhortation is a communication to Catholics throughout the world; but this one speaks to all Christians.
Gaudete et Exsultate‘s very first paragraph announces: “The Lord… wants us to be saints and not to settle for a bland and mediocre existence.” Before you shake your head that this is an impossible goal, let me clarify what Francis means by “saints.” His document’s subtitle is On the Call to Holiness in Today’s World. “Holiness” sounds a bit less scary than “sainthood”—though, in fact, the frequent New Testament term hagios can be translated either way. For instance, Colossians 1:12 might be translated either “Let us give thanks to the Father for having made you worthy to share the lot of the saints in light” (NAB) or “…to share in the inheritance of his holy people” (NIV).
Francis’s exhortation to holiness has firm biblical grounding. Just one example is Ephesians 1:4, which says the Lord has chosen each of us “to be holy and blameless before him.” Again, this might sound overwhelming, but what’s characteristic of this most pastoral of popes is his practical and down-to-earth approach.
He presents our call to holiness as actually achievable—as something challenging, yes, but not overwhelming. A motif of Gaudete is: “This holiness to which the Lord calls you will grow through small gestures“(¶16).
Small gestures. We’re not expected to exhibit grandly virtuous behaviors. Rather, the Pope calls us to an everyday holiness “found in our next-door neighbors” (¶7). And he emphasizes, in one of my favorite lines, that “Holiness is not about swooning in mystic rapture” (¶96). It’s about concrete actions.
What I want to do in this post is just give the flavor of this challenging but deeply pastoral document, hoping this will entice you to read the whole.
Core to Francis’s message are what he names as “five great expressions of love of God and neighbor” which are essential to holiness:
Meekness or Humility, which “can only take root in the heart through humiliations”(¶118). As always, it’s the small, daily humiliations that Francis has in mind, like praising others instead of boasting of ourselves.
Joy, the Exhortation’s title word (Gaudete). This is the “supernatural joy” granted us even in hard times.
Boldness in witnessing to our faith, without fear, because “God is eternal newness. He impels us constantly to set out anew, to pass beyond what is familiar, to the fringes and beyond.… Unafraid of the fringes, [God] himself became a fringe. So if we dare to go to the fringes… Jesus is already there, in the hearts of our brothers and sisters, in their wounded flesh, in their troubles and their profound desolation” (¶135).
In Community. “Growth in holiness is a journey in community, side by side with others.” The community might be a parish, a religious community, or even a marriage. Whichever it is, this shared life “is made up of [again!] small everyday things.” “A community that cherishes the little details of love”—even just saying “thank you” and “sorry” — “is a place where the risen Lord is present”(¶141-145).Constant Prayer, without which holiness cannot grow. Adding one of his typically reassuring qualifiers—”prayer need not be lengthy or involve intense emotions” (¶147)—Francis advises both contemplative prayer “calmly spending time with the Lord… basking in his gaze” and intercessory prayer, which he explains in a way I love, as “an act of trust in God and, at the same time, an expression of love for our neighbor” (¶151-154).
Aside from these five elements of holiness, Francis details throughout Gaudete specific imperatives, for “Christianity is meant above all to be put into practice”(¶109).
So in elaborating on Matthew 25, he writes: “If I encounter a person sleeping outdoors on a cold night, I can view him or her as an annoyance, an idler, an obstacle in my path, a troubling sight, a problem for politicians to sort out, or even a piece of refuse cluttering a public space. Or I can…see in this person a human being with a dignity identical to my own, a creature infinitely loved by the Father… a brother or sister redeemed by Jesus Christ. That is what it is to be a Christian!”(¶98).
As a Christian, I’m called, like the Good Samaritan, to give aid to this person; yet further, I’m called to “seek social change” — to advocate for shelter for the homeless (¶99).
Francis doesn’t make light of the difficulties of truly being a Christian. It “involves a constant and healthy unease”(¶99). Speaking of the Beatitudes as a model for holiness, he notes that we must allow Jesus’s words “to unsettle us, to challenge us and to demand a real change in the way we live. Otherwise,” he warns, “holiness will remain no more than an empty word”(¶66).
Moreover, Francis warns throughout, holiness must resist the dangers of our secular culture. “The feverish demands of a consumer society”; an egotism focusing on the individual at the expense of communal values; a hedonism which makes it “hard to feel and show any real concern for those in need”: these all keep us from cultivating the “simplicity of life” necessary to hear God addressing us and to notice “the suffering flesh of our brothers and sisters”(¶108).
A further danger is what the Pope calls, delightfully, a “culture of zapping”: “We can navigate simultaneously on two or more screens and interact at the same time with two or three virtual scenarios. Without the wisdom of discernment, we can easily become prey to every passing trend”(¶167).
Elaborating on “discernment” is in fact how Francis chooses to end Gaudete et Exsultate. “Discernment is necessary not only at extraordinary times” but “at all times,” in (and here we recognize Gaudete‘s motif) “small and apparently irrelevant things, since greatness of spirit is manifested in simple everyday realities”(¶169).
Through the grace of discernment, listening carefully to God’s will for me, God reveals “the real purpose of my life”(¶170), and that purpose will be inseparable from the life and dignity of others.
How characteristic of Pope Francis that he closes his Exhortation in this way: describing discernment as “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“(¶175).
Peggy Rosenthal writes widely on poetry as a spiritual resource. Her books include Praying through Poetry: Hope for Violent Times (Franciscan Media), and The Poets’ Jesus (Oxford). See Amazon for a full list. She also teaches an online course, “Poetry as a Spiritual Practice,” through Image’s Glen Online program.