Pope Francis’ new apostolic exhortation: Holiness requires working for social justice


I absolutely love Pope Francis’ new apostolic exhortation, “Gaudete et exsultate” (“Rejoice and be glad”). If you’re interested in reading a clear, compelling, concise, joyful, spiritual guide to what holiness in today’s world might entail, look no further. (You can access an electronic copy for free on the Vatican’s website or order a print copy from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.)

As the director of our diocese’s social justice and respect life office, I’m always keeping an eye out for ways that Pope Francis summons us to this essential work. In “Gaudete et exsultate,” the Holy Father describes the work of justice and compassion as central, essential elements of our call to holiness. Here are just three of his thoughts that jumped out at me. (Included after each heading is a few of the paragraph numbers in the text where he’s making each respective point.)

  1. Holiness grows through small gestures of mercy and compassion. (no. 16, 144)

Pope Francis gives a poignant little description of a woman who is striving to grow in holiness in the midst of her everyday life. She resists the temptation to gossip with a neighbor she runs into while out shopping. Exhausted at the end of the day, she listens to her child talk about “his hopes and dreams” with “patience and love.” In a moment of anxiety, she takes out her rosary and prays with faith. Later, she goes out onto the street, encounters a person in poverty and “stops to say a kind word to him.”

These small, others-centered gestures are how holiness grows in us.

My favorite paragraph in the entire apostolic exhortation, number 144, reminds us that Jesus was all about these small gestures of care:

“Let us not forget that Jesus asked his disciples to pay attention to details. The little detail that one sheep was missing […] The little detail of notching the widow who offered her two small coins […] The little detail of asking the disciples how many loaves of bread they had.” The little things add up.

  1. Holiness includes closeness to the outcast. (no. 61, 76. 98, 135)

Jesus does not give us two more formulas or two more commands, write Pope Francis, but, “He gives us two faces, or better yet, one alone: the face of God reflected in so many other faces.” We find God’s image in the faces of other people, especially in those who are most poor and vulnerable. “If I encounter a person sleeping outdoors on a cold night, I can view him or her as an annoyance,” the Holy Father writes. “Or I can respond with faith and charity, and see in this person a human being with a dignity identical to my own.” Spending time with those who are suffering – not out of some ego-centered belief that we can help solve their problems but because companionship is the way of Jesus – makes us more holy.

  1. Holiness requires working for social change, confronting a wide range of injustices. (No. 99, 101)

At the same time, holiness includes working to change social structures that oppress people. “Even if helping one person alone could justify all our efforts, it would not be enough,” Pope Francis writes, reminding us that our goal has to include “the restoration of just social and economic systems, so there could no longer be exclusion.”

This includes a “clear, firm, and passionate” defense of the innocent unborn and an equally devoted concern for the poor, the elderly, the victim of trafficking, the migrant. What a challenge to disciples on all sides of our political spectrum! The life of the unborn child and the life of the undocumented immigrant have equal demands on our consciences.

Finally, a bonus fourth point: Holiness is for everyone, not just for bishops and priests and religious sisters and brothers! “The Lord asks everything of us, and in return he offers us true life, the happiness for which we were created,” Pope Francis writes in the very first paragraph. “He wants us to be saints and not to settle for a bland and mediocre existence.” Amen! Let us pray for the Holy Spirit to guide us on our journeys toward holiness.

Mike Jordan Laskey is Vice Chancellor for the City of Camden and director of Life & Justice Ministries.