An exhortation to be holy

A few weeks ago Pope Francis published an Apostolic Exhortation entitled, “Gaudete et Exsultate”, or in English, “Rejoice and be glad”.

It is an exhortation to be holy. The Pope, from the outset, notes that this is not a doctrinal text, but a practical guide to holiness.

He comments, “Do not be afraid of holiness.  It will take away none of your energy, vitality or joy.  On the contrary, you will become what the Father had in mind when he created you, and you will be faithful to your deepest self.  To depend on God sets us free from every form of enslavement and leads us to recognize our great dignity.”

The Pope is keen to assure everyone that holiness is for all in the Church. It is not just the domain of the religious or the priests. Each one of us, he says, is to find the way of holiness appropriate to their own circumstances and vocation. Thus, for example, he speaks of the nature of holiness for a mother of a family. It is noticeable that the Pope focuses particularly on women saints, mentioning a number of them, but does want to emphasise that there are many “unknown and forgotten” women saints. He talks about the “saint next door” – a lovely phrase that captures the idea that holiness is all around us.

In particular he notes how holiness can be achieved through service to others, quoting St Teresa of Calcutta where she says, “Yes, I have many human faults and failures…  But God bends down and uses us, you and me, to be his love and his compassion in the world; he bears our sins, our troubles and our faults.  He depends on us to love the world and to show how much he loves it.  If we are too concerned with ourselves, we will have no time left for others.”

When the Pope speaks of the signs of holiness in today’s world, he offers some very insightful comments on how holiness can be concretely expressed in everyday life; in particular he highlights three spiritual attitudes that witness to the inner strength which is at the heart of holiness. He speaks of the qualities of perseverance, patience and meekness. These are signs of a constancy in one’s Christian life. He mentions also the qualities of joy and a sense of humour. These are signs of a positive and hopeful spirit, he says.

The Pope further mentions boldness and passion. This he sees as the missionary impulse in the hearts of members of the Church. Holiness will naturally lead to a sense of mission. True Christian holiness is not a retreat from the world, but an impetus for a real contribution to the good of society.

The Pope mentions finally two other qualities of what we could call “practical holiness”. Holiness is meant to be lived and experienced within community. The Pope is concerned about a purely private relationship with God. And, as expected, the Pope speaks about prayer. The disciple must spend time with the Master. However, the Pope does not overly dwell on the necessity to reach mystical heights. He wants to encourage each of us to just take time to be with God.

Towards the end of this very accessible document, the Pope speaks of the Christian life being one of spiritual combat. He warns us not to dismiss the reality of the devil as the great tempter.  True to his Jesuit background he mentions spiritual vigilance and discernment, two key elements of the spirituality of St Ignatius of Loyola.

This document is of great service to the Church. It takes the notion of holiness out of a rarefied atmosphere of mystics and extraordinary saints. It reminds us that above all else we are all called to be holy. We were created to be saints, and even now sanctity can be in evidence in our lives. We should not dismiss the idea of being holy as somehow reserved to the few. It is what every Christian is meant to be. And holiness is readily accessible to us all.

Archbishop Julian Porteous

April 22, 2018

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