Click here if you don’t see subscription options
Gerard O’ConnellApril 09, 2018
 Pope Francis greets the crowd during his general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican April 4. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)  Pope Francis greets the crowd during his general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican April 4. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

“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.”

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Henry Brown
6 years ago

I want to thank Pope Francis for speaking up for the Unborn,
reminding Gnostics that God is in charge
and reminding all of, for are we not neo-Pelagians,
that Grace alone brings us God.

Pancho Mulongeni
6 years ago

Regarding the unborn. We can protect them, but what about protecting the mothers as well. We still have countries where women are dying to give birth. Honduras, is a case in point - if the mother's life is at risk, there is no legal way to save her and the baby. We need to continuously engage and follow the Pope's example to steer clear of being rigid and assuming all is clear cut in such moral dilemmas.

Tim Donovan
6 years ago

With respect, I believe that it's our clear responsibility.to protect the lives both of innocent unborn human beings as well as pregnant. women. The violence of abortion has been legal in our nation for all reasons up until the point when the unborn infant (or fetus, which means "young one" in latin ) is viable. Although I was only 11 years old in 1973 when the Supreme Court issued the companion cases of Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton, from what I understand about history, many Americans were misled into supporting legal abortion on demand because of a mistaken view that there were many pregnant women whose lives were threatened. The late Surgeon General and prominent pediatric surgeon Dr. C. Everett Koop once,noted that it was entirely possible, given advances in modern medical technology, to sustain the lives of both the unborn baby/fetus and the pregnant woman, by bringing the unborn baby to the point in gestation when he or she can be delivered early (prior to 40 weeks) with a good chance of surviving early delivery, while also sustaining the mother's life. I don't believe it is "rigid" to desire that all be done by obstetricians to attempt to save the lives of both the unborn human and the pregnant woman. Ireland since 1983 has had a constitutional amendment that recognizes the equal right of both the unborn and his or her mother. I fully realize that in impoverished nations such as Honduras that health care for pregnant women isn't up to the standards of our nation and other developed Western nations. However, I think that both our government and the Church (including the many people of different faiths who are pro-life) have the responsibility to train physicians who have the necessary skills to maintain the lives of both mother and child.

Jim MacGregor
6 years ago

It is refreshing to hear a pope teach this kind of Christian message. I am not a historian, but this may be a first papal Christian message since John XXIII, Leo the Great, and Gregory the Great.

I have now had the opportunity to read the letter. I am overwhelmed by the strong Christian message, solidly based in Scripture, His homiletics associated with each of the beatitudes are the warmest, richest, and most encouraging one that I have read (i.e., in Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, Luther, Henry, Edwards, and Piper. One quote that struck me as a neat introduction to the Beatitudes is this:
"It is a sign of the fidelity born of love, for those who put their faith in God can also be faithful to others. They do not desert others in bad times; they accompany them in their anxiety and distress, even though doing so may not bring immediate satisfaction. " ...
"In the Beatitudes, we find a portrait of the Master, which we are called to reflect in our daily lives. The word “happy” or “blessed” thus becomes a synonym for “holy.” It expresses the fact that those faithful to God and his word, by their self-giving, gain true happiness. Although Jesus’ words may strike us as poetic, they clearly run counter to the way things are usually done in our world. Even if we find Jesus’ message attractive, the world pushes us towards another way of living. The Beatitudes are in no way trite or undemanding, quite the opposite. We can only practise them if the Holy Spirit fills us with his power and frees us from our weakness, our selfishness, our complacency and our pride."

Bobby English
6 years ago


Saint Francis De Sales for example, was known to use the discipline (self-flagellation, using a whip, rod, or lash), as well as an iron belt and hair-shirts.

Saint John Marie Vianney was known for his austerities in fasting, as well as frequent use of the discipline.

Saint Jose Maria Escriva often wore a cilice (a band of chain links with small prongs, typically worn around the upper thigh).

Other Saints who were known to use exterior mortifications include; Saint Veronica Giuliani, Saint Margaret Mary Alacoque, Mother Teresa, Saint Dominic, Saint Louis De Montfort, Padre Pio, Saint Maximilian Kolbe, and many others. The list is simply too long to detail here. Such practices were also common-place among many religious orders throughout history until the mid-twentieth century, and was even practiced by many lay people living in the world.

Father Bourdaloue:

“The great advantage of the religious life is the self-abnegation it demands from the Christian, the mortification of the senses, the carrying of the cross; this is the aspect under
which it must be regarded. To take any other view of it is a departure from the truth, and consequently a delusion. I do not wish anything to be concealed from young people who entertain the purpose of retiring into a religious House, who feel called by God to take this step. I would not have anything disguised by being depicted in bright but deceptive colors; let them see all that is entailed by their choice, set before them everything in its true light, and point out to them the thorns wherewith the way they are entering is strewn. For, as a matter of fact, what else is the religious life but the Gospel carried into practice, practiced as perfectly as possible? And what is the Gospel itself if not a rule that enforces self-renunciation, continual warfare against one’s self, the death and the destruction of self?”



According to Saint Alphonsus, the principle purpose of penance and mortification is to “restrain the inordinate inclinations of self-love”. It is with this perspective that we must begin – for, as the saint says, “self-love is the most deceitful of all enemies”. While it is true that the world and the “devil” are powerful enemies, the saint tells us that the flesh is a more formidable foe, because it originates from within.

“A domestic enemy,” says St. Bernard, “is the worst of foes”.

The saint later writes of a monk who was once asked why he mortified his body with so much fasting and austerities. The monk replied;

“I only chastise what chastises me.”

It is to this end that we must approach the topic of penance and mortification, that is; to the flowering of love, true love, love that is willing to go against one’s human nature for comfort in order to be conformed to the Beloved.

Saint Teresa of the Andes:

“ [The religious] must ascend Calvary. There she will immolate herself for souls. Love crucifies her; she dies to herself and to the world. She is buried, and her tomb is the Heart of Jesus; and from there she rises, is reborn to a new life and spiritually lives united to the whole world.”

Saint Alphonsus De Ligouri:

“Hence St. Paul exclaimed, that he wished for no other delight or glory than the Cross of the Redeemer…Again he says, that the crucifixion of the flesh is the test by which the true lovers of Jesus Christ may be known…As the indulgence of the body by sensual pleasures is the sole and constant study of worldlings, so the continual mortification of the flesh, is to the saints, the only object of their care and of their desires… Worldlings go in search of sensual gratifications, but the followers of Christ seek only corporal austerities”.

Saint Jose Maria Escriva:

“To defend his purity, St. Francis of Assisi rolled in the snow, St. Benedict threw himself into a thorn bush, St. Bernard plunged into an icy pond… You… what have you done?” [...] “If you realize that your body is your enemy, and an enemy of God’s glory since it is an enemy of your sanctification, why do you treat it so softly?”

Saint Teresa of Avila:

“You have entered religion not to indulge the flesh but to die for Jesus Christ. If we do not resolve to disregard the want of health, we shall do nothing. What injury will death do us? How often have our bodies molested us? Shall not we mortify them in return?”

Saint Alphonsus De Ligouri:

“St. John saw all the saints with palms in their hands. From this passage we learn that all the elect must be martyrs, either by the sword of the tyrant or by the voluntary crucifixion of the flesh.”

Our Lady to Ven. Mary of Agreda:

“Hence thou wilt understand the ignorance and error of mortals, and how far they drift from the way of light, when, as a rule, nearly all of them strive to avoid labor and suffering and are frightened by the royal and secure road of mortification and the Cross. Full of this deceitful ignorance, they do not only abhor resemblance to Christ’s suffering and my own, and deprive themselves of the true and highest blessing of this life but they make their recovery impossible, since all of them are weak and afflicted by many sins, for which the only remedy is suffering.”

Saint Jean Marie Vianney:

“Oh, how bitterly shall we regret at the hour of death the time we have given to pleasures, to useless conversations, to repose, instead of having employed it in mortification, in prayer, in good works, in thinking of our poor misery, in weeping over our poor sins; then we shall see that we have done nothing for Heaven. Oh, my children, how sad it is! Three-quarters of those who are Christians labor for nothing but to satisfy this body, which will soon be buried and corrupted, while they do not give a thought to their poor soul, which must be happy or miserable for all eternity.”

Saint Alphonsus De Ligouri, True Spouse of Jesus Christ:

“To preserve her soul and body free from stain, she must also chastise her flesh, by fasting, abstinence, by disciplines and other penitential works. And if she has not health or strength to practice such mortifications, she ought at least to bear in peace her infirmities and pains, and to accept cheerfully the contempt and ill-treatment that she receives from others.”


These were the words of the angel at Fatima, calling the world to begin doing penance once again. Indeed, the call to penance and conversion has been the constant appeal of Marian apparitions throughout history, but especially within the past hundred years,
which have seen more apparitions than any other century in Christian history. As Our Lady of Fatima implored from us;

“Sacrifice yourselves for sinners, and say many times, especially when you make some sacrifice: O Jesus, it is for love of You, for the conversion of sinners, and in reparation for the sins committed against the Immaculate Heart of Mary.”

Thus we see that penance and mortification not only have a sanctifying effect on the individual, but also on the Roman Catholic Church as a whole. The more a person’s life is patterned after the life of our Redeemer–Who’s greatest work entailed the greatest sacrifice–the more he will make up what is lacking in the body of Christ, as Saint Paul tells us. Our Lord instructs Saint Faustina in this regard;

Jesus to Saint Faustina:

“You will save more souls through prayer and suffering than will a missionary through his teachings and sermons alone.”


Although the dramatic nature of corporal penances, such as hair shirts and cilices, may attract much attention, the saints offer us a word of caution, especially for beginners who may be more lured by the senses to seek sensory penances. While exterior penances can be an important compliment to one’s spiritual progress, they are nonetheless of a secondary rank to interior mortifications, whereby we deny our will; our attachments, our preferences, our appetites, our ego, our desires for comfort. These interior mortifications are considered by the saints to be the most meritorious, since they directly cut at the root of self-will and self-love. Wearing a chain or walking barefoot on rocky ground may help to quiet the passions of the flesh, but if a person is filled with pride and vainglory, such practices will only serve to further inflate his defects, thinking himself pious for such performances. Love and humility must be present, as well as obedience to the Divine will.

Saint Teresa of Avila said that interior mortifications are

“the means by which every other kind of mortification may become much more meritorious and perfect”.

As Our Lord told Saint Faustina;

“The greatest works are worthless in My eyes if they are done out of self-will, and often they are not in accord with My will and merit punishment rather than reward. And on the other hand, even the smallest of your acts, done with the confessor’s permission is pleasing in My eyes and very dear to Me.”

In fact the saints have strong words for those who perform corporal penances without mind of eradicating their self-will and attachments. Evidently many in religious life fall victim to this temptation.

Saint John of the Cross:
“The ignorance of some is extremely lamentable; they burden themselves with extraordinary penances and many other exercises, thinking these are sufficient to attain union with divine Wisdom. But such practices are insufficient if these souls do not diligently strive to deny their appetites. If they would attempt to devote only half of that energy to the renunciation of their desires, they would profit more in a month, than in years with all these other exercises… I venture to say that without this mortification, all that is done for the sake of advancement in perfection and in knowledge of God and of oneself is no more profitable than seed sown on uncultivated ground (that is, only producing weeds). Accordingly, darkness and coarseness will always be with a soul until its appetites are extinguished.”

Saint Alphonsus De Ligouri:

“There are some religious who perform a great many exercises of devotion, who practice frequent Communion, long meditations, fasting, and other corporal austerities, but make no effort to overcome certain little passions for example, certain resentments, aversions, curiosity, and certain dangerous affections. They will not submit to any contradiction; they will not give up attachment to certain persons, nor subject their will to the commands of their Superiors, or to the holy will of God. What progress can they make in perfection? Unhappy souls! They will be forever imperfect.” [...] “Even works of piety must be always undertaken with a spirit of detachment; so that whenever our efforts are unsuccessful we shall not be disturbed, and when our exercises of devotion are prohibited by the Superior we shall give them up with cheerfulness. Self-attachment of every kind hinders a perfect union with God. We must therefore seriously and firmly resolve to mortify our passions, and not to submit to be their slaves.”

It is thus that if a soul is considering taking on a new penance, it would do well to reflect whether the penance will serve to quiet its disorders, or inflame them. For example, a soul with a subtle appetite for pride might do well to seek those mortifications that are opposed to this vice, such as; seeking humiliations, remaining silent when accused, never speaking about himself, and keeping hidden any austerities he may have permission to practice. As Saint John reminds us, we must concentrate our efforts on our weakest traits, for in freeing ourselves of its slavery, we will be able to make rapid progress in love. We must especially lay the axe to the dead roots of self-love, which can manifest itself in even the smallest of things, whether it is attachments to sensible objects, such as; items of clothing, one’s cell, food prepared a certain way, a pen, etc., or greater interior attachments, such as; pleasure in the praise of others, excessive desires for spiritual consolations or sweetness in prayer, attachment to one’s own opinion, desire for physical comforts, attachments to particular friendships, etc. Saint John in fact laments at how few there are who advance beyond this first stage in their battle against the seven-headed beast of the Apocalypse;

“It is most regrettable that many, on entering this battle against the beast, are even incapable of severing the first head through denial of the sensible objects of the world.”

Diary of Saint Faustina:

“My daughter, you give Me most glory by My special delight. This sacrifice is pleasing to Me and full of sweetness. I take great pleasure in it; there is power in it.”patiently submitting to My will, and you win for yourself greater merit than that which any fast or
mortification could ever gain for you. Know, My daughter, that if you submit your will to Mine, you draw upon yourself

If corporal penances are inferior, then why practice them?

When asked whether corporal penances are necessary–since interior mortification are superior–Saint Alphonsus replies;

“Some will say that perfection does not consist in the mortification of the body, but in the abnegation of the will. To them I answer with Father Pinamonti, that the fruit of the vineyard does not consist in the surrounding hedge; but still if the hedge be taken away, you will seek in vain for the produce of the vine.”

In other words, like many things in Catholicism, it is not “either-or”, but “both-and”. Although the one may take precedence over the other, both are necessary nonetheless.

As Saint John of the Cross says;

“he who inculcates loose doctrine regarding the mortification of the flesh, should not be believed though he be confirmed in his preaching by miracles.”

In a fit of rage, Satan once mocked Saint Faustina;
“What have you gotten out of your mortification and out of your fidelity to the rule? What use are all these efforts? You have been abandoned by God!”

Evidently, all her efforts and austerities were infuriating to him.

Letters of Catherine Benincasa:

“Penance to be sure must be used as a tool, in due times and places, as need may be. If the flesh, being too strong, kicks against the spirit, penance takes the rod of discipline, and fast, and the cilice of many buds, and mighty vigils; and places burdens enough on the flesh, that it may be more subdued. But if the body is weak, fallen into illness, the rule of discretion does not approve of such a method.”

Diary, Saint Faustina:

“Interior mortification take the first place, but besides this, we must practice exterior mortification, strictly determined, so that all can practice them. These are: on three days a week, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday, there will be a strict fast. Each Friday, all the sisters – each one in her own cell – will take the discipline for the length of the recitation of Psalm 50 and all will do this at the same time; namely, three o’clock; and this will be offered for dying sinners. During the two great fasts, ember days and vigils, the food will consist of a piece of bread and some water, once a day.”

Saint Alphonsus De Ligouri:

“If we read the lives of the saints and see the works of penance that they performed, we shall be ashamed of the delicacy and of the reserve with which we chastise the flesh… Our pilgrimage on earth will not be of long duration: our home is eternity, where he who has practiced the greatest mortifications during life shall enjoy the greatest glory.”

Saint Teresa of the Andes, age 17:

“I don’t know what to do to get the priest to allow me to mortify myself. I have so many desires to fast, to wear hair shirts, since I see it is necessary for me to mortify not only my will, but also my body. My Jesus, give me permission to do penance. My Mother, inspire the priest to grant me permission.”

Saint Bernard:

“If we are cruel in crucifying the flesh, you by sparing it are far more cruel.”

What is the best of all the external penances?

According to the Roman Catholic Church, the chief external penance that anyone can perform is fasting. There is no other external penance that so effectively cuts at the root of self-love as fasting does. It is chief of all penances, and should thus be given primacy of place in the religious life. This is not to say that one cannot request permission for additional penances as well. We just advise caution, again, noting that the best penances are not necessarily the most dramatic ones. Little hidden penances can be helpful in the spiritual life as well. For example, Saint Faustina made such requests as spending extra
time kneeling in front of the Blessed Sacrament, reducing meal rations by half, and reciting certain prayers with arms extended outwards or prostrate on the floor.

Padre Pio often asked permission to be excused from table to remain in prayer. We have included below just a small sampling of the many recommendations given by the saints;

Saint Faustina:

“I recall that I have received most light during adoration which I made lying prostrate before the Blessed Sacrament for half an hour every day throughout Lent.”

Saint Faustina:

But I also came to recognize the great virtues of some sisters who always asked for the poorest things from the vestiary. I admired their spirit of humility and mortification.

Saint Therese:

“When some one knocks at our door, or when we are rung for, we must practice mortification and refrain from doing even another stitch before answering. I have practiced this myself, and I assure it is a source of peace.”

Saint Teresa of the Andes:

“I found another way to mortify myself before going to sleep: putting my weight on the tips of my toes, causes additional pain. And also, but not omitting any little act for Jesus”.

Saint Jean Marie Vianney:

“Oh, how I like those little mortifications that are seen by nobody, such as rising a quarter of an hour sooner, rising for a little while in the night to pray! but some people think of nothing but sleeping. There was once a solitary who had built himself a royal palace in the trunk of an oak tree; he had placed thorns inside of it, and he had fastened three stones over his head, so that when he raised himself or turned over he might feel the stones or the thorns. And we, we think of nothing but finding good beds, that we may sleep at our ease. We may refrain from warming ourselves; if we are sitting uncomfortably, we need not try to place ourselves better; if we are walking in our garden, we may deprive ourselves of some fruit that we should like; in preparing the food, we need not eat the little bits that offer themselves; we may deprive ourselves of seeing something pretty, which attracts our eyes, especially in the streets of great towns.”

Saint Alphonsus:

“In the lives of the ancient Fathers we read of a large Community of nuns who never tasted fruit or wine. Some of them took food only once every day; others never ate a meal, except after two or three days of rigorous abstinence: all were clothed and even slept in haircloth. I do not require such austerities from religious of the present day: but is it too much for them to take the discipline several times in the week ? to wear a chain round some part of the body till the hour of dinner? not to approach the fire in winter on some day in each week, and during novenas of devotion? to abstain from fruit and sweet meats? and, in honor of the Mother of God, to fast every Saturday on bread and water, or at least to be content with one dish?”

What if I am too weak or ill?

The saints remind us that penances should never interfere with one’s ability to perform their duties.

Saint Alphonsus counsels us;

“If you cannot chastise your body by positive rigors, abstain at least from some lawful pleasures….If denied lawful pleasures, the body will not dare to seek forbidden indulgence; but if continually gratified by every innocent enjoyment, it will soon draw the soul into sinful gratifications.”

Weakness and illness is in itself a great treasure in religious life. Saint Maximilian once stated that the infirmary is the place where the greatest work of God is carried out. Therefore, there is much reason to be content if all we are capable of is suffering. As Saint Faustina tells us;

“Poor indeed is a convent where there are no sick sisters.”

It is in illness when rapid progress can be made in the spiritual life, and numerous souls saved. In this sense, external penances should only be regarded as an interm measure for when we are healthy, keeping the flesh at bay until we become ill again, and the floodgates of grace open to us.

Likewise, the saints also offer a word of caution about tending too much to the health of the body.

St. Joseph Calasanctius says;

“Woe to the religious who loves health more than sanctity.” Saint Teresa of Avila even said it was a temptation by Satan to be concerned for one’s own health in religious life. According to the saint, it is the superior’s duty to tend to the bodily needs of the nuns, not the nuns themselves. “Let our Superiors, to whom the charge belongs, look after our bodies; let our only care be to hasten to our Lord’s presence”.

Saint Teresa of Avila:

“When [satan] sees us a little anxious about our bodies, he wants nothing more than to convince us that our way of life must kill us, and destroy our health. Even if we weep, he makes us afraid of blindness. I have passed through this, and therefore I know it. But I know of no better sight or better health that we can desire, than the loss of both in such a cause. Being myself so sickly, I was always under constraint, and good for nothing, till I resolved to make no account of my body nor of my health; even now I am worthless enough…But when it pleased God to let me find out this device of Satan, I used to say to the latter, when he suggested to me that I was ruining my health, that my death was of no consequence. When he suggested rest, I replied that I did not want rest, but the cross…My health has been much better since I have ceased to look after my ease and comforts.”

Saint Faustina:

“Although I wish and desire to do so, I cannot practice big mortifications as before, because I am under the strict surveillance of the doctor. But I can practice little things: first-sleep without a pillow; keep myself a little hungry; every day, with my arms outstretched, say the chaplet which the Lord taught me; occasionally, with arms outstretched, for an indefinite period of time pray informally.”

Saint Bernard:

“small indeed must be the spiritual progress of the religious who is continually seeking physicians and remedies; who is sometimes not content with the prescription of the ordinary physician; and who, by her discontent, disturbs the whole Community.”

Saint Alphonsus De Ligouri:

“If bodily weakness renders us unable to practice corporal austerities, let us at least learn…to embrace with joy the infirmities with which Almighty God visits us. If borne with patience, they will conduct us to perfection better than voluntary works of penance”.

St. Syncletica used to say, that

“as corporal maladies are cured by medicine, so the diseases of the soul are healed by the infirmities of the body.”





E.Patrick Mosman
6 years ago

Pope Francis is once again parsing the gospels by picking, choosing parts of the Gospels while ignoring others that support Catholic Catholic teachings that do not line up with his revision of morality to one's own to "subjective conscience".
A few examples:
When Pope Francis replied "Who am I to judge?" which is essentially a direct repudiation of Jesus's instructions to his Apostles "Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained." John 20-23
Just as the apostles were to carry Christ’s message to the whole world, so they were to carry his forgiveness or not, In other words to be judges.

On Hell,there are in the gospels a number of references to hell one of which is quoted below:
Matthew 25:41
Verse Concepts
"Then He will also say to those on His left, 'Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels;
Pope Francis is reported to have denied the actuality of hell despite these numerous references.

The Pope also resorts to labeling those who in the past have lived and died for their Faith over the centuries as heretics as followers of Gnosticism and Pelagianism if they did not or do not today proscribe to his revisionists ideas of what are Christ's teaching and those of the Catholic Church.
One answer to Pope Francis is readily available in
then Cardinal Ratzinger's address "Conscience and Truth",his 1991 presentation to the American Bishops in Dallas Texas.
The full address can be found online
The following summarizes the conclusions;
Cardinal Ratzinger touched on the correct understanding of conscience," "Conscience is understood by many to be sort of deification of subjectivity, a rock on which even the magisterium can founder. It claimed that in the light of conscience no other reason applies. Finally, conscience appears as the supreme level of subjectivity; but conscience is an organ, not an oracle; it requires growth, exercise and development."
For those who hold that one's own subjective conscience is infallible, superior to all others and that the Church Authority cannot impose restrictions on those whose conscience brings them to decisions contrary to the Church's teachings, Cardinal Ratzinger points out the obvious error in this rationalization by the following "It is of course undisputed that one must follow a certain conscience or at least not act against it. But whether the judgment of conscience or what one takes to be such, is always right, indeed whether it is infallible, is another question. For if this were the case, it would mean that there is no truth - at least not in moral and religious matters, which is to say, in the areas which constitute the very pillars of our existence. For judgments of conscience can contradict each other. Thus there could be at best the subject's own truth, which would be reduced to the subject's sincerity."

And last Pope Francis has yet but probably will try to find a quote in the Gospels that confirm his intention to surrender to the Chinese and make the Communist Great Leader Co-Pope of the now underground Catholic Church in China.

Jim MacGregor
6 years ago

I disagree with your assessment. This is an excellent piece of scripturally-based commentary and homiletic on the Beatitudes. The scriptural selections that I see support his discussion which is not specifically Catholic (a relief for many readers of this fine letter!), but rather Christian with applications of Jesus' teaching to the world we live in.. I see no bias or bigotry in the letter - Catholic or otherwise - to detract from understanding Jesus' message.

E.Patrick Mosman
6 years ago

It is obvious that you have misunderstood my comment as I did not suggest any bias or bigotry on the part of Pope Francis, only that he is very selective in his use of quotes from Holy scripture which as you pointed out refer to a Christian(could be Church of England, or any other assorted protestant belief system) and his disregard for Christ's teachings on hell and judgment. A close reading of his writing almost rules out the need for a Pope or a Church, simply read the bible and follow a few of Christ's teachings and you are saved.

Jim MacGregor
5 years 12 months ago

Thank you for the considered reply. It focuses more than many posts on areas that others may find problematic, but do not express clearly.

Let me comment without sounding like a "reply" or "counter." That is not my intent.

RE: "A close reading of his writing almost rules out the need for a Pope or a Church, simply read the bible and follow a few of Christ's teachings and you are saved."

" ... almost rules out the need for a Pope or a Church ... " Yes. That is what probably attracts many Christians (and me) to this Pope and this writing. He writes as if there is a universal Church whose head is Jesus. There is such a Church. Jesus tells us He founded a Church (eg. Matthew 16:18), and Paul elaborated repeatedly on this in various forms (eg. 1 Corinthians 12:27).

"... follow a few of Christ's teachings and you are saved." Admittedly, there are denominations and individuals who believe like this. I do not believe that this teaching will be found in "main stream" Christian churches. I certainly do not.

OBTW "... or any other assorted protestant belief system..." has a pejorative connotation that I believe Pope Francis did not reflect in His writing.

The latest from america

A student works in his "Writing Our Catholic Faith" handwriting book during a homeschool lesson July 29, 2020. (CNS photo/Karen Bonar, The Register)
Legally, the students at St. John Bosco are considered homeschooled. But their in-person school days, during which the students wear uniforms, are much like those at any other small school.
Laura LokerApril 17, 2024
In a speech at his weekly general audience, Pope Francis said that the cardinal virtue of temperance “lets one enjoy the goods of life better.”
Pope FrancisApril 17, 2024
Organizers of the archdiocese‘s restructuring process have pointed out that there are far more seats available in the pews in the city than people attending Mass, and there are more funerals than baptisms.
Elizabeth Cullinan's literary output was not prodigious—but her memorable characters and close attention to the Irish-American culture in which she lived made her a prominent fiction writer in the '70s and '80s.
James T. KeaneApril 16, 2024