“Holiness is the most attractive face of the Church,” Pope Francis says in his new apostolic exhortation, Gaudete et Exsultate. How true that is! Think, for example, how Mother Teresa drew people all over the world to her ministry because of her holy love for the sick and dying.
The Holy Father’s new document is meant “to repropose the call to holiness in a practical way for our time.” The world needs saints and this apostolic exhortation encourages every person to respond to that need.
He begins by insisting that being holy “does not require being a bishop, a priest or a religious. We are frequently tempted to think that holiness is only for those who can withdraw from ordinary affairs to spend much time in prayer. That is not the case.”
Instead, Pope Francis describes holiness as simple and within reach. “We are all called to be holy by living our lives with love and by bearing witness in everything we do, wherever we find ourselves,” he explains.
The Holy Father’s call should sound familiar to those of us in the Archdiocese of Denver, since it echoes the challenge Saint John Paul II gave to the young people at World Youth Day in Denver 25 years ago and at subsequent gatherings.
His message to the youth preparing for the Cologne gathering exemplifies this challenge. “Dear young people, the Church needs genuine witnesses for the new evangelization: men and women whose lives have been transformed by meeting with Jesus, men and women who are capable of communicating this experience to others. The Church needs saints. All are called to holiness, and holy people alone can renew humanity.”
In Gaudete et Exsultate, Pope Francis also brings home the unique and divinely planned impact of saints. “Each saint is a mission, planned by the Father to reflect and embody, at a specific moment in history, a certain aspect of the Gospel,” he writes.
Holiness is also simple, the Pope explains. The “Father’s plan is Christ, and ourselves in him. In the end, it is Christ who loves in us, for ‘holiness is nothing other than charity lived to the full.’”
And when our hearts are filled with charity, we see the world and others with different eyes. We are able to see holiness as attainable for great sinners, for the weak and vulnerable; it is not reserved to “the righteous” alone, as the Pharisees of Jesus’ day believed.
Pope Francis also rightfully emphasizes that our charity cannot be selectively applied. For instance, he urges believers to consistently defend human life, noting that the human dignity of an unborn child and a refugee are the same.
My fellow bishop and friend, Bishop James Conley of Lincoln, makes an excellent observation in his April 13 column that I can also affirm from my decades of pro-life activity. He writes, “I have rarely, if ever, encountered Catholics who only take seriously the lives of the unborn. When I encounter pro-life people in this country, I notice that they are also the people running parish food pantries, giving sandwiches to the homeless even while they are praying at abortion clinics, adopting foster children, and caring for their neighbors. In my experience, commitment to protecting the dignity of the unborn spills over into the rest of our lives …” This is exactly the kind of consistent charity that Pope Francis is encouraging in Gaudete et Exsultate.
Pope Francis’ exhortation also contains other gems, like his examination of the Beatitudes as the pathway of holiness, and a section on prayer being the indispensable fuel that inflames our hearts with love for Christ and others.
There is much to unpack in Gaudete et Exsultate, which is a letter written to the Church with love and intended to help us grow in holiness. I pray that every Catholic will take to heart the challenge of becoming a saint, relying on God’s grace to achieve what is otherwise impossible.
To quote one of Pope Francis’ favorite theologians, León Bloy, when all is said and done, “the only great tragedy in life, is not to become a saint.”