Pope Francis has done it again! In a style which has characterized the five years of his Pontificate, he gave to the world on 9 April, his latest Apostolic Exhortation, a 103-page document on ‘holiness’ entitled ‘Gaudete et Exsultate’, (‘Rejoice and Be Glad’); though an Apostolic Exhortation ,is less authoritative than a papal encyclical, it is nevertheless an important papal teaching. At the very outset of this path-breaking exhortation, Pope Francis makes clear that “it is not meant to be a treatise on holiness” but a “ modest goal to repropose the call to holiness in a practical way for our own time, with all its risks , challenges and opportunities”.
True to his words Pope Francis demystifies holiness and makes it a human endeavor which is within the grasp of all and not the prerogative of only a few, “To be 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. 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.” This powerful statement in a way sets at rest the doubts of those who may think that ‘holiness’ is beyond one’s reach. Referring to the witnesses of holiness he says, “ these witnesses may include our own mothers, grandmothers or other loved ones.” Adding for good measure , “within these various forms, I would stress too that the “genius of woman” is seen in feminine styles of holiness, which are an essential means of reflecting God’s holiness in this world. Indeed, in times when women tended to be most ignored or overlooked, the Holy Spirit raised up saints whose attractiveness produced new spiritual vigour and important reforms in the Church”.
In a very practical but profoundly spiritual way, Pope Francis elaborates the ‘earthiness’ of holiness. He emphasizes, “ Holiness is not based on prayer alone but on also serving those in need and in self-control”. In doing this he is simply reiterating the words and example of Jesus who took on the peddlers of religion of his time, denounced the empty and meaningless rituals and loud, ostentatious prayers when one’s heart was still ‘made of stone’. Pope Francis cites an everyday example, “a woman goes shopping, she meets a neighbour and they begin to speak, and the gossip starts. But she says in her heart: ‘No, I will not speak badly of anyone’. This is a step forward in holiness.” He continues , “later, at home, one of her children wants to talk to her about his hopes and dreams, and even though she is tired, she sits down and listens with patience and love. That is another sacrifice that brings holiness.” Adding, “later she experiences some anxiety, but recalling the love of the Virgin Mary, she takes her rosary and prays with faith. Yet another path of holiness. Later still, she goes out onto the street, encounters a poor person and stops to say a kind word to him. One more step.”
Holiness is being a contemplative in action. Throughout the exhortation, Pope Francis spares no efforts to expound on this core dimension of Christianity; expanding on the situation of meeting a homeless person on a cold night, the Pope says, “ If I encounter a person sleeping outdoors on a cold night, I can view him or her as an annoyance, an idler, an obstacle in my path, a troubling sight, a problem for politicians to sort out, or even a piece of refuse cluttering a public space. Or I can respond with faith and charity, and see in this person a human being with a dignity identical to my own, a creature infinitely loved by the Father, an image of God, a brother or sister redeemed by Jesus Christ. That is what it is to be a Christian! Can holiness somehow be understood apart from this lively recognition of the dignity of each human being ?” He elaborates this further saying, “I like to contemplate the holiness present in the patience of God’s people: in those parents who raise their children with immense love, in those men and women who work hard to support their families, in the sick, in elderly religious who never lose their smile.”
Pope Francis is consistent in this exhortation as in all his teachings of the need and importance of assimilating and proclaiming through our lives the values of the Kingdom, “Just as you cannot understand Christ apart from the kingdom he came to bring, so too your personal mission is inseparable from the building of that kingdom: ‘Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness’ (Mt 6:33). Your identification with Christ and his will involves a commitment to build with him that kingdom of love, justice and universal peace. Christ himself wants to experience this with you, in all the efforts and sacrifices that it entails, but also in all the joy and enrichment it brings. You cannot grow in holiness without committing yourself, body and soul, to giving your best to this endeavour.For him kingdom values are synonymous with a world in which love, justice and peace abound and are sustained.
He is not afraid of taking on two ‘pseudo- holiness’, which seem to be prevalent among certain sections of the laity, “I would like to mention two false forms of holiness that can lead us astray: gnosticism and pelagianism. They are two heresies from early Christian times, yet they continue to plague us. In our times too, many Christians, perhaps without realizing it, can be seduced by these deceptive ideas, which reflect an anthropocentric immanentism disguised as Catholic truth . Let us take a look at these two forms of doctrinal or disciplinary security that give rise “to a narcissistic and authoritarian elitism, whereby instead of evangelizing, one analyses and classifies others, and instead of opening the door to grace, one exhausts his or her energies in inspecting and verifying. In neither case is one really concerned about Jesus Christ or others”. He goes on to spell out the dangers of both.
Holiness for Pope Francis is being a person of the Beatitudes. He unequivocally states that, “the Beatitudes are like a Christian’s identity card. So if anyone asks: “What must one do to be a good Christian?”, the answer is clear. We have to do, each in our own way, what Jesus told us in the Sermon on the Mount. In the Beatitudes, we find a portrait of the Master, which we are called to reflect in our daily lives.In Chapter 3 in a very meaningful and earthy way he explains each of the Beatitudes in a highly contextualized manner. He challenges all, “ Let us listen once more to Jesus, with all the love and respect that the Master deserves. Let us allow his words to unsettle us, to challenge us and to demand a real change in the way we live. Otherwise, holiness will remain no more than an empty word ” .
Throughout the exhortation and particularly in the section on the Beatitudes, Pope Francis is convinced that working for justice is an important dimension of holiness. “Jesus offers a justice other than that of the world, so often marred by petty interests and manipulated in various ways. Experience shows how easy it is to become mired in corruption, ensnared in the daily politics of quid pro quo, where everything becomes business. How many people suffer injustice, standing by powerlessly while others divvy up the good things of this life. Some give up fighting for real justice and opt to follow in the train of the winners. This has nothing to do with the hunger and thirst for justice that Jesus praises. He spells this out further, “ True justice comes about in people’s lives when they themselves are just in their decisions; it is expressed in their pursuit of justice for the poor and the weak. While it is true that the word “justice” can be a synonym for faithfulness to God’s will in every aspect of our life, if we give the word too general a meaning, we forget that it is shown especially in justice towards those who are most vulnerable: “Seek justice, correct oppression; defend the fatherless, plead for the widow” (Is 1:17).
When the exhortation was released a few days ago, some of the key world media highlighted the statement that Pope Francis makes criticizing Christians who focus on just one issue like ‘abortion’ to the detriment of others like the care of migrants and refugees. “ 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. We cannot uphold an ideal of holiness that would ignore injustice in a world where some revel, spend with abandon and live only for the latest consumer goods, even as others look on from afar, living their entire lives in abject poverty”.
Pope Francis also seems to take on those –particularly Bishops and religious superiors who prefer to live ensconced in their ‘comfort zones’ with an exclusive ‘church-compound mentality’. They prefer to maintain the ‘status quo’. “ We need the Spirit’s prompting, lest we be paralyzed by fear and excessive caution, lest we grow used to keeping within safe bounds. Let us remember that closed spaces grow musty and unhealthy. When the Apostles were tempted to let themselves be crippled by danger and threats, they joined in prayer to implore parrhesía: “And now, Lord, look upon their threats, and grant to your servants to speak your word with all boldness” (Acts 4:29). As a result, “when they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken; and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God with boldness” (Acts 4:31).”
These are the ones who are afraid to play a prophetic role; to take visible and vocal stands on the burning issues of today; these are the ones who succumb to the temptations of the desert: power, position, pride, possessions, and privileges. “ Like the prophet Jonah, we are constantly tempted to flee to a safe haven. It can have many names: individualism, spiritualism, living in a little world, addiction, intransigence, the rejection of new ideas and approaches, dogmatism, nostalgia, pessimism, hiding behind rules and regulations. We can resist leaving behind a familiar and easy way of doing things. Yet the challenges involved can be like the storm, the whale, the worm that dried the gourd plant or the wind and sun that burned Jonah’s head. For us, as for him, they can serve to bring us back to the God of tenderness, who invites us to set out ever anew on our journey.”
Pope Francis writes much more: on discernment, on the need and importance of being in constant prayer, of the role of Mary in our lives. This Apostolic Exhortation is not merely a must read by all adherents of the Catholic faith , but it needs to be topic of the Sunday homilies, the discussions in our Catholic Associations; above all it needs to be assimilated and mainstreamed everywhere ! If one reads this document carefully, one is bound to have a ‘conversion’ experience; it is hard-hitting yet steeped in faith. It puts in place the scribes, Pharisees; the Pilates and Herods of our time. Given what is happening in India, today the exhortation can be truly motivational for the Church in India to involve herself prophetically and unconditionally with the struggles and the sufferings of the poor and marginalized of the country today. The point is whether we have the ‘holiness’ to act in the here and now!
Pope Francis exhorts all, “ we are inspired to act by the example of all those priests, religious, and laity who devote themselves to proclamation and to serving others with great fidelity, often at the risk of their lives and certainly at the cost of their comfort. Their testimony reminds us that, more than bureaucrats and functionaries, the Church needs passionate missionaries, enthusiastic about sharing true life. The saints surprise us; they confound us, because by their lives they urge us to abandon a dull and dreary mediocrity.” Gaudete et Exsultate’ is a courageous and prophetic call to get out of our mediocrity and comfort zones and BE HOLY! Let us rejoice and be glad!
13 April 2018
*( Fr. Cedric Prakash SJ, works with the Jesuit Refugee Service on Advocacy and Communications, in the Middle East. He is based in Beirut, Lebanon. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org )(Published on 16th April 2018, Volume XXX, Issue 16)