Jesus’ charge to his disciples in Matthew 5:48, “So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” His declaration formed the longstanding and consistent Catholic Church teaching that holiness is a universal call for everyone. Sainthood is not meant to be reserved for priests and nuns. St. Francis de Sales’ Introduction to the Devout Life, Lumen Gentium, and the writings of St. Josemaria Maria Escriva acted as watershed writings that helped me understanding the catholicity of holiness. Now, I have another work to add to this tremendous list—Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation Gaudete Et Exsultate.
Maintaining the traditional claim that holiness for both laity and ordained alike, Francis communicates this message in a fresh manner that still adheres to traditional Catholic teaching. Below are key points from the exhortation that stood out to me and believe echo important wisdom and truth for all.
- Universal Call to Holiness: The pontiff’s aim in writing Gaudete Et Exsultate is clearly indicated from the beginning, “My modest goal is to re-propose the call to holiness in a practical way for our own time, with all its risks, challenges, and opportunities” (#2). Pope Francis goes on to describe sanctity as a process that is available to all—referring to the need for “saints next door”. Salvation is a communal endeavor and not meant to compartmentalize individuals in isolation. The Argentinian pope declares, “In salvation history, the Lord saved one people. We are never completely ourselves unless we belong to a people. That is why no one is saved along, as an isolated individual” (#6).
I am reminded by J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring as the best fictional analogy for humanity’s journey towards holiness. Although Frodo is the primary ring-bearer he is surrounded by a cadre of helpmates in his journey to destroy the One Ring. In similar fashion, while you may be the primary character in your unique quest towards sanctity, God provides coworkers [your spouse, family, friends, and the saints] to assist.
- Progressive Nature of Holiness: Along with sanctity involving a fellowship, the universal call to holiness involves a journey across the timeline of your life. Pope Francis states in Gaudete Et Exsultate #50, “Grace acts in history; ordinarily it takes hold of us and transforms us progressively.” In other words, it takes time to become a saint! Processes contain both blessings and challenges. On one hand, God mercifully affords humanity multiple opportunities to repent and seek his will. However, the journey of life sometimes becomes difficult and we oftentimes yearn for union with God in Heaven before our earthly affairs complete. The drudgery of life is exhausting and temptations of the world constantly allure and assault us. How may be combat these continual attacks? Communicate with the Holy Trinity. “Prayer is most precious, for it nourishes a daily commitment to love,” the Argentinian pontiff writes (#104).
- Realness of Holiness: Sainthood is not meant to be an ephemeral experience. Instead, holiness involves raw, concrete living with our neighbors’ best interests at heart. To quote St. John Paul II from his Apostolic Letter Novo Millenio Ineunte, “If we truly start out anew from the contemplation of Christ, we must learn to see him especially in the faces of those with whom he himself wished to be identified.” Jesus Christ advised us in Matthew 25:40 “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.”
Pope Francis unabashedly stated, “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 square” (Gaudete Et Exsultate, #98). How easily do we pigeonhole holiness within the walls of a church or within the realm of the Scriptures? Most of humanity work within the world and face opportunities to be charitable to others on an hourly basis.
Throughout the work week, I struggled mightily with anger and contempt towards co-workers who differed in their approach and willingness to assist customers in need. When I allowed anger to color my outlook on justice I don a metaphorical judge’s robe–such sentiment is not healthy for my spiritual well-being. After a frustrating day at work, I called my brother for support. His first reply upon hearing my concerns were, “Matt, are those people still children of God?” Humbly, I had to retracted a bit on my anger and cede to his point. “Yes, of course they are!” I emphatically admitted. This moment coupled with Pope Francis’ charge to be holy in everyday situations helped re-frame my mindset.
4. Surprise of Joy: Together with realizing that holiness is meant to be a tangible experience with love of God and neighbor, Pope Francis reminded me that humor and joy are key components to holiness. He states, “Far from being timid, morose, acerbic or melancholy, or putting on a dreary face, the saints are joyful and full of good humor. Though completely realistic, they radiate a positive and hopeful spirit. The Christian life is ‘joy in the Holy Spirit’ (Rom. 14:17), for the ‘necessary result of the love of charity is joy; since every lover rejoices at being united to the beloved…the effect of charity is joy'” (Gaudete Et Exsultate, #122).
In the midst of seemingly harrowing situations saints wear the face of joy. Holy men and women unite themselves to the Holy Spirit through constant prayer and reliance on God. Francis urges, “Hard times may come, when the cross casts its shadow, yet nothing can destroy the supernatural joy that ‘adapts and changes, but always endures, even as a flicker of light born of our personal certainty that, when everything is said and done, we are infinitely loved.’ That joy brings deep security, serene hope and a spiritual fulfillment that the world cannot understand or appreciate” (Gaudete Et Exsultate, #125).
The Lord desires us, his children, to be joyful and fulfilled in this life–and the next. Reading Gaudete Et Exsultate helped remind me that the simple joy of holiness is our ultimate aim in this reality. Sainthood is a calling for all–not the few– and it is possible, but it takes time and the grace of God!