My personal call to sanctity does not usually involve getting up earlier than usual to read newly released Apostolic Exhortations, but in today’s newly released Gaudete et Exsultate, Pope Francis writes that the “holiness to which the Lord calls you will grow through small gestures” (16). This won’t be a definitive summary of the entire letter, nor a paragraph-by-paragraph review, but simply a list of some of my initial reactions, as a Catholic theologian, as an ecclesiologist, and as a baptized Christian trying to take small steps toward holiness, to this very rich document, which will reward reading and re-reading on its own.
1. The Juicy Bits
First, you can already find, I’m sure, headlines and articles on what will be excised out of this text and held up as further evidence for a “pope-vs-bishops” narrative or a “pope-vs-conservatives” narrative. Such narratives aren’t entirely wrong, they’re just impoverished. Nevertheless, there are some paragraphs that will be taken as red meat by the secular press and by parts of the Catholic internet. Paragraphs 101-103 are quite stark in promoting what the late Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago named a “seamless garment” approach to connecting ethical questions regarding the beginning and end of life to ethical questions regarding poverty, justice, and inequality. Pope Francis writes in 101:
The other harmful ideological error 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. Our defence of the innocent unborn, for example, needs to be clear, firm and passionate, for at stake is the dignity of a human life, which is always sacred and demands love for each person, regardless of his or her stage of development. Equally sacred, however, are the lives of the poor, those already born, the destitute, the abandoned and the underprivileged, the vulnerable infirm and elderly exposed to covert euthanasia, the victims of human trafficking, new forms of slavery, and every form of rejection.
That’s going to cause a great deal of conversation today, not all charitable.
Almost as though he were anticipating that, the pope then writes a few paragraphs later, in 115, about holiness and its absence on the internet, “even the Catholic media”:
Christians too can be caught up in networks of verbal violence through the internet and the various forums of digital communication. 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. The result is a dangerous dichotomy, since things can be said there that would be unacceptable in public discourse, and people look to compensate for their own discontent by lashing out at others. It is striking that at times, in claiming to uphold the other commandments, they completely ignore the eighth, which forbids bearing false witness or lying, and ruthlessly vilify others. Here we see how the unguarded tongue, set on fire by hell, sets all things ablaze (cf. Jas 3:6).
2. Your Call to Holiness
What can be missed, if you’re only looking at these headlines, is the embeddedness of these pieces within a deeper and richer reflection upon the universal call to holiness, and the in many places beautiful reflections on “holiness next door” and holiness in daily life that the pope writes about. The pope describes himself as “reproposing” the universal call to holiness, that is, the teaching of the Second Vatican Council in Chapter Five of Lumen Gentium that taught more clearly than in any other modern text that all Christians, and not simply clergy or religious, are called to holiness and not simply to the lower bar of “avoiding sin.”
Most striking to me is the fact that in a long section in Chapter One, in paragraphs 14-34, the pope switches from the usual first-person plural of papal documents (“we are called to X, we should really be led by Y”) to a striking reflection addressed in the second person singular, to you. For example, “Let the grace of your baptism bear fruit in a path of holiness” (15); “This holiness to which the Lord calls you will grow through small gestures” (16); “You too need to see the entirety of your life as a mission. Try to do so by listening to God in prayer and recognizing the signs that he gives you” (17).
From my perspective, two of the most beautiful statements in the document come from the end of this section – at least these were two that most spoke to me this morning in my still-sleep-wanting brain:
“Do not be afraid of holiness. It will take away none of your energy, vitality or joy. On the contrary, you will become what the Father had in mind when he created you, and you will be faithful to your deepest self. To depend on God sets us free from every form of enslavement and leads us to recognize our great dignity.” (32)
“Do not be afraid to set your sights higher, to allow yourself to be loved and liberated by God. Do not be afraid to let yourself be guided by the Holy Spirit. Holiness does not make you less human, since it is an encounter between your weakness and the power of God’s grace. For in the words of León Bloy, when all is said and done, ‘the only great tragedy in life, is not to become a saint’.” (34)
In this section, Francis has taken what is usually a pretty staid genre and, as John Paul II often did, turned it into a sermon. A similar effect can be found in Chapter 3, an extended reflection on the call to holiness in the Beatitudes and on the judgment scene of Matthew 25. This is a pastor opening the scriptures to his flock.
More than that, this is a Jesuit guiding you through the spiritual exercises. As with his later section on discernment (166-175), this section is asking you to reflect upon where God is calling you, how you are being asked to be more deeply “loved and liberated by God.” (34) In that, it’s not meant to be a quick read, but rather a meditatio leading to contemplatio.
Further, he highlights the “ordinariness,” the “middle-class of holiness,” the “saints next door” and all of the anonymous saints, all the nameless women and men, who have lived out their holiness in the quiet life of the every day. It’s almost as though Francis, or whoever helped him draft this letter, has read Elizabeth Johnson’s great book Friends of God and Prophets, where she lifts up the theological and ecclesial importance of all those “ordinary people in ordinary time” (228), especially those easily forgotten by the powerful but not by God.
3. Interesting Technical Stuff
There’s also some interesting choices here that will keep the theologians talking to each other for a while. As he has in past statements and homilies, Pope Francis highlights contemporary forms of “Gnosticism” and “Pelagianism” as “false forms of holiness.” Frankly, especially by contrast to the previous chapter, these don’t particularly work. They don’t preach, as my friends who preach often might say, and while the ideas might be true, it seems an overly complicated way of trying to explain them.
There’s a long reflection on the devil and spiritual combat in Chapter Five. This is a very traditional idea, and Pope Francis has talked more about the reality of the devil and the personified power of evil than some of his immediate predecessors. Journalists reading the document with a narrative of “Cool Pope Francis” might be in for a bit of a surprise, but it might also put to rest some of the kerfuffle over Francis’s “interview” with Eugenio Scalfari and his comments about hell there. While he doesn’t address hell directly, this is a pope who takes traditional, Ignatian ideas about the Evil One deadly seriously.
I also enjoyed the section in 122-128 about how holiness leads to joy and a sense of humor. “Ill humor is no sign of holiness.” (126) Though I re-read it hoping that he had snuck an Easter joke into the text.
4. Two Ecclesiological Takeaways
As an ecclesiologist, at a first impression there are two big ecclesiological take-aways. First, once again, look to the footnotes. As in past statements, Francis continues to draw upon and lift up for the wider church teaching statements from national and regional conferences of bishops, this time from New Zealand, West Africa, Canada, Latin America (although this is the 2007 Aparecida document that Pope Francis helped draft!), and India. This seems to me a clear indication of Pope Francis’s attempts to see the episcopal conferences as true expressions of episcopal teaching authority.
Second, I’ve been working for a while on questions of ecclesial holiness and ecclesial sinfulness; my book, Stumbling in Holiness: Ecclesial Sin and Sanctity, is coming out from Liturgical Press this fall, so I was looking forward to this text with a great deal of excitement. And while Francis is more interested in this letter in talking about how the call to holiness is lived out in our personal, individual lives, there are some great reminders of the communal nature of Christian holiness, including a whole section (140-146) on the fact that “growth in holiness is a journey in community, side by side with others.” (141) He also lifts up the example of holy communities long past and recent, like the martyrs of Korea and Japan, and the Trappists of Tibhirine, Algeria (depicted in the movie Of Gods and Men). In my book, I argue that just as we remember individual holy women and men, both the famous and the ordinary, we should also lift up the stories of particular holy communities, particular holy churches that demonstrate through their lives together the healing and elevation of our social life that is an anticipation of the reign of God. So from my perspective, it’s exciting and humbling to read the pope thinking about something similar today.
So in conclusion — avoid the temptation to focus only on the juicy bits and the twitter-storm of “unguarded tongues, set on fire by hell” (!) that is likely to result. If you’ve never read Chapter Five of Lumen Gentium, go read that too. And then read and re-read this document to meditate on how to “become what the Father had in mind when he created you, and you will be faithful to your deepest self.” (32) Rejoice and be glad!