Pope Francis recently released his Apostolic Exhortation, “Gaudete Et Exsultate,” “Rejoice And Be Glad,” (Mt 5:12). In it he contends that the call to holiness is a universal calling for all human beings. This is the most important document of the church issued on the theme of holiness since the Second Vatican Council’s “Lumen Gentium,” that called for a “universal call to holiness.”
The exhortation is divided into five chapters: one on the call to holiness, one on gnosticism and pelagianism, one on holiness and the Beatitudes, one on signs of holiness in today’s world and the last chapter on spiritual combat, vigilance and discernment.
The pope makes the case for everyday holiness, which he terms “the middle class of sainthood.” When speaking of the lives of the saints, Pope Francis speaks not of the other worldly aspect of sanctity that we often attribute to the canonized saints of the church, but a realistic, down to earth holiness.
“Not everything a saint says is completely faithful to the Gospel; not everything he or she does is authentic or perfect,” he writes. “What we need to contemplate is the totality of their life, their journey of growth in holiness, the reflection of Jesus Christ that emerges when we grasp their overall meaning as a person.”
While the document has no explicit ecumenical or interreligious content, it is certainly applicable to other Christians and all who seek to live genuinely holy lives before God. He warns against falling into the error of pelagianism, that denies the notion of original sin and views life in black and white concepts of freely choosing either right or wrong. He also warns against gnosticism, that views spiritual truth as a compendium of knowledge, usually inflexible and unalterable. These tendencies and world views are found in various ways among all Christians and other world religions. Pope Francis sees them as roadblocks to the authentic quest to live a holy life.
Pope Francis warns, “Those who yield to this pelagian or semi-pelagian mindset, even though they speak warmly of God’s grace, ‘ultimately trust only in their own powers and feel superior to others because they observe certain rules or remain intransigently faithful to a particular Catholic style from the past.’”
Pope Francis also is leery of placing too much emphasis on intellectualism rather than holiness. He explains that an overemphasis on doctrine and dogma can lead to an expression of Gnosticism that “judge others based on their ability to understand the complexity of certain doctrines.”
These age-old heresies manifest themselves as opposed to the notion of the Holy Spirit working in our lives and transforming us into a holy new creation. He says, “Still, some Christians insist on taking another path, that if justification by their own efforts, the worship of the human will and their own abilities… This finds expression in a variety of apparently unconnected ways of thinking and acting: an obsession with the law, an absorption with social and political advantages, a punctilious concern for the church’s liturgy, doctrine and prestige.”
Not infrequently, contrary to the promptings of the Spirit, the church can become a museum piece or the possession of a select few. This can occur when some groups of Christians give excessive importance to certain rules, customs or ways of acting. The Gospel then tends to be reduced and constricted, deprived of its simplicity, allure and savor.”
Each of the five chapters are laced with warnings against a rigidity that stifles the life of the Spirit, as well as encouragements to open one’s mind and heart to God’s Spirit working within all of us, drawing us to a life of holiness and integrity. Pope Francis in his Apostolic Exhortation is calling all people of good will to move away from a spiritual individualism that smacks of an exclusionary dogmatism and sectarianism toward a more welcoming communitarianism open to God’s Spirit. He says, “We are never completely ourselves unless we belong to a people. That is why no one is saved alone, as an isolated individual.”
Pope Francis’ call to universal holiness crosses all human barriers and encourages us not to flee from the world but by our ordinary lives become coworkers in repairing the world through the healing grace of the Holy Spirit.
Father Joseph D. Wallace is director, Ecumenical and Inter-religious Affairs, Diocese of Camden.