Reject mediocrity, strive for holiness

“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.”

COMING UP: The saints ‘next door’

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Every Christian has a goal, a longing in their heart, a yearning to become a saint.

Yes, a saint.

It’s not about holding an important office in the ecclesiastical hierarchy or having supernatural gifts (only a few are granted these). Rather, it’s about God calling every person to follow a certain path that, if pursued, will bring out the best of the person. While few saints are actually canonized, the vast majority are, as Pope Francis calls them, “the saints ‘next door,’” those who form part of “the middle class of holiness.” In other words, most are anonymous saints, who with their good works can transform their surroundings, making them more Christian and more human.

This is the main message of Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation Gaudete et Exsultate (Rejoice and be Glad), published April 9, 2018.

Holiness does not consist in pretending to have another’s qualities but about rejoicing in one’s own and glorifying God with them. It can be forged in the activities of daily life, such as abstaining from gossiping, listening to a family member who needs help or talking to a person on the street that is in need.

Yet the fight to reach holiness has two subtle enemies: Gnosticism and Pelagianism. Gnosticism consists in having a faith trapped in subjectivism and interested solely in having a certain religious experience, in seeing oneself as someone greater for having a deep understanding of certain doctrinal aspects, in obliging others to submit to one’s own theories or in using religion “to promote [one’s] own psychological or intellectual theories” and considering the rest of the faithful as nothing more than the “ignorant masses.” But the pope reminds us that true Christian wisdom “can never be separated from mercy towards our neighbor.” It is useless to be a great theologian if these teachings don’t transform one’s daily life.

The second vice, Pelagianism, derives from a heresy that arose in the fifth century, holding that personal effort is sufficient for salvation but forgetting that Jesus calls us first — he “firsts” us (“primerea”), as Pope Francis would say. This vice brings about many bad habits of showing only social and political achievements and boasting about practical matters. “We unconsciously complicate the Gospel and become enslaved to a blueprint that leaves few openings for the working of grace,” the pope says.

Francis refreshes us in his new apostolic exhortation with the much simpler text of the Beatitudes, which stands contradictory to a society that primes individualism and competition. For the pope, this text is the “Christian identity card.” Living with simplicity and meekness, being thirsty and hungry for justice, crying to be consoled, being pure in heart and merciful, working for peace and being persecuted for righteousness are some of the aspects that make a Christian reflect Christ himself.

In the 21st century, we still have many saints that combat evil by living out this beautiful biblical passage – which is translated in attitudes such as joy, patience, apostolic audacity, the formation of communities and constant prayer – making sanctity possible in our day, as Pope Francis highlights in Gaudete et Exsultate. His exhortation that reminds us that “even amid their faults and failings, [the saints] kept moving forward and proved pleasing to the Lord.”