What being a saint does not mean

Insights on holiness gleamed from the pope’s new exhortation

In his apostolic exhortation Gaudete et Exsultate (Rejoice and Be Glad), Pope Francis speaks simply and concretely about the type of holiness that all baptized Christians are called to in their daily lives. Even so, within this good desire for holiness, many misconceptions arise – even among Catholic groups – making holiness seem like a privileged state reserved only for an exclusive group of believers.

To shed light on some of these misconceptions, here are a few insights gleamed from the pope’s exhortation about what holiness is not, through which he seeks to remind us of the simplicity of the Gospel.

Believing that the lives of the saints were perfect. They “amid their faults and failings… proved pleasing to the Lord,” (no. 3). It is precisely in their weaknesses and shortcomings that the saints recognize their limitations and ask the Lord for help and grace.

Desiring to have someone else’s qualities. Many Christians exhaust themselves trying to imitate certain stereotypes or qualities “not meant for them” (no. 11), instead of identifying their own gifts, seeing how through them they can glorify God and find their worth in being God’s children, not in their human capacities.

Dedicating long hours to prayer. While some people have a vocation to an intense life of prayer, like contemplative religious, “We are called to be holy by living our lived with live and by bearing witness in everything we do, wherever we find ourselves” (no. 14), the Pope says.

Trying to imitate the smallest details in the lives of the saints. “Not everything a saint says is completely faithful to the Gospel; not everything he or she does is authentic or perfect. What we need to contemplate is… their entire journey of growth in holiness,” (no. 22). The details can pertain to a specific time, a cultural situation or a type of personality.

Believing a saint has answers to all questions. Faith is a mystery enlightened by the natural light of reason. It is, however, prideful to absolutize one’s own theories and force others to submit to that way of thinking (no. 39). Those who act in this manner may as well be a “false prophet” (no. 41). Saints can have doubts but have a great faith in God which they do not entirely understand. Faith formation is important but wanting to know it all and consider the rest as the “ignorant masses” is a temptation we should all avoid (no. 45).

Believing that holiness consists in mere human works. This vice derives from Pelagianism, a heresy that downplays the role of grace (no. 54). Groups and people who fall into this mentality usually have “an obsession with the law, an absorption with social and political advantages” (no. 57). It’s a temptation to boast “about the ability to manage practical matters, and an excessive concern with programs of self-help and personal fulfilment.” Instead, it’s important to let oneself “be led by the Holy Spirit in the way of love.”

Disregarding painful situations. “Whatever weariness and pain we may experience in living the commandment of love and following the way of justice, the cross remains the source of our growth and sanctification” (no. 92). Christians who bypass the cross many times look for security “in success, vain pleasures, possessions, power over others or social status” (no. 121).

Thinking everything around me will be good. A saint accepts those difficulties he or she cannot change. It becomes necessary to be wary of “the thirst for power and worldly interests, [which] often stands in our way” (no. 91).

Thinking Christianity is simply a charity business. While the Church and Christians must consider the missionary and charitable dimensions of the faith, they cannot “separate these Gospel demands from their personal relationship with the Lord” (no. 100). The Pope invites us to look at some saints, such as St. Francis of Assisi, St. Theresa of Calcutta and St. Vincent de Paul, to whom “mental prayer, the love of God and the reading of the Gospel in no way detracted from their passionate and effective commitment to their neighbors; quite the opposite” (no. 100).

Fleeing to a safe place. Saints flee from occasions of sin but never seeks to take refuge in human securities. When this happens, the person can fall into temptations of “individualism, spiritualism, living in a little world, addiction, intransigence, the rejection of new ideas and approaches, dogmatism, nostalgia, pessimism, hiding behind rules and regulations” (no. 134). We must remember that instead. God “takes us to where humanity is most wounded, where men and women, beneath the appearance of a shallow conformity, continue to seek an answer to the question of life’s meaning” (no. 135).

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.”