“Holiness is the most attractive face of the Church,” Pope Francis declares in a new apostolic exhortation. In it, he reminds Christians, “The Lord asks everything of us, and in return he offers us true life, the happiness for which we were created. He wants us to be saints and not to settle for a bland and mediocre existence.”
Introducing the 104-page document, “Gaudete et Exsultate” (“Rejoice and Be Glad”), Francis says his “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.” He reminds believers that “the Lord has chosen each one of us ‘to be holy and blameless before him in love’” and that “the call to holiness is present in various ways from the very first pages of the Bible.”
In the new exhortation, Francis emphasized that the following of Christ—the path to holiness—is “a way of life,” not an intellectual exercise.
In the new exhortation, Francis emphasized that the following of Christ—the path to holiness—is “a way of life,” not an intellectual exercise. This has been the consistent theme and spiritual underpinning of his entire Petrine ministry. As priest, bishop and now pope, he has always sought “to live the Gospel” as Jesus asked. From the first day of his pontificate he has emphasized action over theological discussion; he has insisted that Jesus calls us “to live” the Gospel, by putting into practice in daily life the beatitudes and the words of Jesus in the chapter 25 of Matthew that refer to feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger.
He stated this theme clearly in his first apostolic exhortation, “Evangelii Gaudium” (“The Joy of the Gospel,” Nov. 2013), which is the programmatic document for his pontificate. He brought this out powerfully in the encyclical “Laudato Si’” in 2015, which was a call to action to care for our common home. He did so again in his second exhortation, “Amoris Laetitia” (“The Joy of Love”), released in 2016 following the synod on the family, where in chapter 4 he spelled out what “love in marriage” means by unpacking St. Paul’s hymn to love (1 Cor 13). He affirmed it again strongly in the Jubilee Year of Mercy (2016-2017) when he taught that mercy “is the beating heart of the Gospel” and showed how this can be put into practice in daily life through the spiritual and corporal works of mercy. He asserts it forcefully again today in his third exhortation, where in chapter 3 he unpacks, in a way that can be easily understood by all believers, even without sophisticated theological education, what it means for a Christian to live the Beatitudes and the demands of Matthew 25 in daily life.
His message is clear: Christ has explained in simple terms what it means to follow him, but “the doctors of the law” have complicated it with their legalism and casuistry and have placed “heavy burdens” on people’s shoulders with their closed theology and moral teaching. He wants to free Christ’s teaching from these shackles, and this has upset not a few cardinals, bishops, priests, lay intellectuals and faithful, who have claimed, especially following “Amoris Laetitia” and the Jubilee of Mercy, that Francis’ approach creates confusion about church teaching, especially in the field of morality.
In today’s exhortation, Francis appears to respond to such critiques and concerns. He does so in chapter 2 by exposing “two subtle enemies of holiness,” or ancient heresies, that many of them appear to have fallen into: Gnosticism, which reduces Christ’s teaching to a cold and harsh logic that seeks to dominate everything; and Pelagianism, which tends to give the idea that all things are possible to human will and downplays the grace of God. Francis responds to his critics again in chapter 3 by pointing to “the ideologies” that strike at the heart of the Gospel and lead Christians into “two harmful errors”: the first error is found in those Christians who “separate these Gospel demands from their personal relationship with God,” the second is found in those believers who “find suspect the social engagement of other Christians, seeing it as superficial, worldly, secular, materialist, communist or populist,” or who “relativize it as if there are more important matters” or assert that “the only thing that counts is one particular issue or cause that they themselves defend.”
The Universal Call
Francis writes, “I would like to insist primarily on the call to holiness that the Lord addresses to each of us, the call that he also addresses, personally, to you: ‘Be holy, for I am holy.’”
He recalled that the Second Vatican Council stated this clearly in the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church when it taught that “all the faithful, whatever their condition or state, are called by the Lord—each in his or her own way—to that perfect holiness by which the Father himself is perfect.”
Francis insists that “each believer discerns his or her own path, that they bring out the very best of themselves, the most personal gifts that God has placed in their hearts (cf. 1 Cor 12:7), rather than hopelessly trying to imitate something not meant for them.”
“We are all called to be witnesses,” he writes, “but there are many actual ways of bearing witness.”
We have to do, each in our own way, what Jesus told us in the Sermon on the Mount.”
Francis writes, “Jesus explained with great simplicity what it means to be holy when he gave us the beatitudes,” which are “the Christian’s identity card.” He asserts that “If anyone asks: what must one do to be a good Christian?” then “the answer is clear. We have to do, each in our own way, what Jesus told us in the Sermon on the Mount.”
In addition to unpacking the meaning of each of the beatitudes, Francis also says that Jesus expands on “blessed are the merciful” in chapter 25 of Matthew, which speaks about feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger and visiting the imprisoned. This call, Francis says, “offers us one clear criterion on which we will be judged.”
Francis seems to offer a response to his critics by highlighting two ideological errors of contemporary believers. He points first to the error of separating the demands of Matthew 25 from “personal relationship with the Lord, from openness to his grace.”
By doing so, he says, they reduce Christianity to “a sort of N.G.O. stripped of the luminous mysticism so evident in the lives of Saint Francis of Assisi, Saint Vincent de Paul, Saint Teresa of Calcutta and many others” for 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.”
Francis next addresses a “harmful ideological error” that 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.”
Francis emphasizes that “our defense 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,” he writes. “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.”
“The saints next door”
While the church recognizes through the processes of beatification and canonization “exemplary imitations of Christ,” Francis urges believers “to be spurred on by the signs of holiness that the Lord shows through the humblest members of God’s people,” what he calls “the saints next door.”
Pope Francis highlights especially “feminine styles of holiness” as “an essential means of reflecting God’s holiness in this world.” He notes that “in times when women tended to be most ignored or overlooked, the Holy Spirit raised up saints whose attractiveness produced new spiritual vigor and reforms in the church.” Francis, who has frequently emphasized the need to give women a greater role in the church, has appointed women to some key positions in the Vatican and has also set up a commission to study the diaconate for women.
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 mentions Saints Hildegard of Bingen, Bridget, Catherine of Siena, Teresa of Avila and Thérèse of Lisieux, but adds that he was also thinking of “all those unknown or forgotten women who, each in her own way, sustained and transformed families and communities by the power of their witness.”
Francis emphasizes that “to be holy does not require being a bishop, a priest or a religious.” Indeed, he says, “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.”
He reminds believers that the call to holiness comes with baptism and that “in the church, holy yet made up of sinners, you will find everything you need to grow towards holiness.”
Avoiding two “false forms of holiness”
Pope Francis also addresses “false forms of holiness that can lead us astray: Gnosticism and Pelagianism.” He says the “Gnostics think that their explanations can make the entirety of the faith and the Gospel perfectly comprehensible. They absolutize their own theories and force others to submit to their way of thinking.”
But “when somebody has an answer for every question, it is a sign that they are not on the right road,” he says. Indeed, “someone who wants everything to be clear and sure presumes to control God’s transcendence.”
Gnosticism gave way to another heresy that lives on today, he argues: Pelagianism. This holds that “it is not knowledge that betters us or makes us saints, but the kind of life we lead.” Pelagians speak warmly of God’s grace but “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.”
But Pope Francis insists we cannot “claim to say where God is not, because God is mysteriously present in the life of every person, in a way that he himself chooses, and we cannot exclude this by our presumed certainties. Even when someone’s life appears completely wrecked, even when we see it devastated by vices or addictions, God is present there. If we let ourselves be guided by the Spirit rather than our own preconceptions, we can and must try to find the Lord in every human life.
If we let ourselves be guided by the Spirit rather than our own preconceptions, we can and must try to find the Lord in every human life.
“We cannot claim that our way of understanding this truth authorizes us to exercise a strict supervision over others’ lives,” he writes, reminding believers that “in the Church there legitimately coexist different ways of interpreting many aspects of doctrine and Christian life; in their variety, they ‘help to express more clearly the immense riches of God’s word.’”
“For those who long for a monolithic body of doctrine guarded by all and leaving no room for nuance,” he says, “this might appear as undesirable and leading to confusion.”
He insists, however, that “doctrine, or better, our understanding and expression of it, is not a closed system, devoid of the dynamic capacity to pose questions, doubts, inquiries… The questions of our people, their suffering, their struggles, their dreams, their trials, and their worries, all possess an interpretational value that we cannot ignore if we want to take the principle of the incarnation seriously.”
As much of the debate over doctrine and church teaching has unfolded online, both in social media and in more organized Catholic media, Francis sounds a note of concern for how Christians engage in these spaces. He warns that “Christians too can be caught up in networks of verbal violence through the internet and the various fora of digital communication.”
He notes that “even in Catholic media, limits can be overstepped, defamation and slander can become commonplace and all ethical standards and respect for the good name of others can be abandoned. The result is a dangerous dichotomy, since things can be said there that would be unacceptable in public discourse, and people look to compensate for their own discontent by lashing out at others.”
He writes, “It is striking that at times, in claiming to uphold the other commandments, they completely ignore the eighth, which forbids bearing false witness or lying, and ruthlessly vilify others.”
Signs of holiness in the world
In Chapter 4, Francis speaks of the “signs of holiness in the world.” He calls them “spiritual attitudes” that he believes “are necessary if we are to understand the way of life to which the Lord calls us.” One sign of holiness, Francis says, is “joy and a sense of humor.”
Another consists in “boldness and passion,” in an “impulse to evangelize and to leave a mark in this world” and in not allowing oneself to be paralyzed by fear. He told believers that “God impels us constantly to set out anew, to pass beyond what is familiar, to the fringes and beyond. He takes us to where humanity is most wounded...God is not afraid! He is fearless! He is always greater than our plans and schemes. Unafraid of the fringes, he himself became a fringe. So, if we dare to go to the fringes, we will find him there; indeed, he is already there.”
One sign of holiness, Francis says, is “joy and a sense of humor.”
Another sign of holiness is “constant prayer,” the pope writes, describing holiness as “a habitual openness to the transcendent, expressed in prayer and adoration.”
Francis devotes the fifth and final chapter of the exhortation to “spiritual combat, vigilance and discernment.” He reminds Christians that we are not dealing merely with a battle against “the world and a worldly mentality” or “our human weaknesses and proclivities,” we are also engaged “in a constant struggle against the devil, the prince of evil” over whom Jesus was victorious.
He warns believers against thinking of the devil as “a myth, a representation, a symbol, a figure of speech or an idea” rather we should see him as one “who poisons us with the venom of hatred, desolation, envy and vice.” It is necessary always to be “alert” and “trustful” in God who gives us the powerful spiritual weapons to overcome the devil.
Francis concludes by focusing on “discernment” which, he says, “is necessary not only at extraordinary times” when one has “to resolve grave problems and make crucial decisions” but is also “a means of spiritual combat for helping us to follow the Lord more faithfully. We need it at all times.”