The Holy Spirit speaks with saints’ lives

The Apostles, cowering in fear, locked in the Upper Room, were waiting until the threat to their lives had subsided. While they hid, Jesus appeared to them, gave them his peace, and explained the Scriptures to them. We have all had moments where we felt overwhelmed and, just as he did with the Apostles, Jesus desires to break into these periods of fear and difficulty, strengthen us and give us a mission.

This past Sunday we received the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the Church by celebrating the Solemnity of Pentecost, recalling his action throughout history. When he created the world, God the Father breathed his Spirit over the waters of the earth and created life. Then, after he ascended into heaven, he sent his Holy Spirit to us in a new and powerful way at Pentecost, giving the Church “power from on high” (Lk. 24:49).

That same promise of power, in the form of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, is meant for each of us today. The Apostles received the gift of being able to speak in other languages, accompanied by the visible sign of a flame over them. Their words, like the Prophet Elijah’s, “burned like a torch” (Sir. 48:1) and brought many to the faith.

The Solemnity of Pentecost and the sending forth of the Apostles in power is closely tied to a theme Pope Francis writes about in his recent apostolic exhortation, Gaudete et Exsultate (Rejoice and be Glad), the theme of “Your Mission in Christ.”

Given the richness of the Pope’s document and its importance for living out the faith, I am writing about it this week and in my next column, when I will touch on two other key sections: “In Constant Prayer” and “Combat and Vigilance.”

In Gaudete et Exsultate, Pope Francis dedicates the “Your Mission in Christ” section to examine how each person, like St. Peter, has a purpose in life: to become a saint. “That mission,” the Pope explains, “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” (GE, 20).

After the Apostles received the Holy Spirit and glorified God in many languages, Peter stood up, boldly proclaimed what God was doing and called on the thousands of people gathered to repent and be baptized. In doing so, Peter was fulfilling the unique mission that God had given him. As we know from the Scriptures, Peter continued to follow his unique path to sanctity as the first Pope, eventually giving his life for the faith.

Your journey in holiness will have different features, just as every saint is unique in his or her relationship with the Lord. It could range from small things like comforting a sick child, to sharing with others the joy of the Gospel, or accompanying someone who is dying. But you can be sure that no matter the path, you will experience both Christ’s death and resurrection in a unique and personal way. Walking in the footsteps of the Lord, means allowing your heart to become more like his. You experience “the various aspects of Jesus’ 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” (GE, 20).

This journey underscores that each of our lives conveys a word from God to the world. “Every saint is a message which the Holy Spirit takes from the riches of Jesus Christ and gives to his people,” (GE, 21) the Holy Father teaches. During his earthly life, the heart of Jesus was filled with the Holy Spirit, who moved him and inspired him. After his Ascension into heaven, he poured out the very same Spirit on us. The Spirit does in us what he did in Jesus Christ. If we let him, the Holy Spirit will bring forth the virtues of Christ in our hearts and we will become living images of Christ.

While this might seem impossible, Pope Francis counsels us to focus on each saint’s entire journey of growth in holiness,” rather than getting caught up in details, where we might also encounter “mistakes and failures” (GE, 22). This is an important point for our carefully crafted social media age that promotes facades of perfection. Real life is messy, and the strength of the Gospel is the truth that Jesus loves and redeems us despite knowing our sins. One can see this in the lives of the saints in their journeys of following Jesus.

Our lost and confused world needs the word that God desires to speak through each of our lives. Open your hearts to the Holy Spirit and pray for a receptive docile heart, hear the Lord speak to your heart, “…for God all things are possible” (MT 19:26). I join Pope Francis in praying, “May you come to realize what that word is, the message of Jesus that God wants to speak to the world by your life. Let yourself be transformed. Let yourself be renewed by the Spirit…” (GE, 24).

COMING UP: Reject mediocrity, strive for holiness

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“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.”