April 29, 2018
Archbishop Paul S. Coakley
In Pope Francis’s recent and very approachable Apostolic Exhortation, “Gaudete et Exsultate” (Rejoice and Be Glad), the Holy Father reflects on the call to holiness in today’s world. But, it’s probably not what you think. It’s not a theoretical treatise. It’s a pastor’s reflection born out of lived experience. “My modest goal,” he writes, “is to repropose the call to holiness in a practical way for our own time.” It is very practical!
While acknowledging the importance of beatification and canonization, which we have become very familiar with through our recent experience with Blessed Stanley Rother, the Holy Father highlights the importance of everyday witnesses of holiness.
“These witnesses may include our own mothers, grandmothers or other loved ones. Their lives may not always have been perfect, yet, even amid their faults and failings, they kept moving forward and proved pleasing to the Lord.” Pope Francis affirms that, “Very often it is a holiness found in our next-door neighbors, those who, living in our midst, reflect God’s presence. We might call them ‘the middle class of holiness.’”
We are all called to holiness, each in our own way.
In striving to refocus the Church on its essential missionary dimension, the Second Vatican Council proposed the universal call to holiness as a central teaching.
Pope Francis writes, “Holiness is the most attractive face of the Church.” The holiness of individuals and Christian communities are the most credible and compelling testimonies to the truth and power of the Gospel. If we are to be an evangelizing Church each of us must be striving to grow in holiness, to become the saint that God calls us to be.
Most of us probably think that holiness is for someone else: “It’s not for me.” But, the Holy Father debunks that saying, “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.”
We need not be intimidated by the call to holiness. Holiness is essentially God’s work in us. He gives us the grace that we need to become a saint. “Let the grace of your baptism bear fruit in a path of holiness,” the pope says.
“In the Church, holy, yet made up of sinners, you will find everything you need to grow toward holiness. The Lord has bestowed on the Church the gifts of scripture, the sacraments, holy places, living communities, the witness of the saints and a multifaceted beauty that proceeds from God’s love, ‘like a bride bedecked with jewels’ (Is 61:10).”
Each Christian is called to holiness. Each Christian is called to mission. The two cannot be separated. The Holy Father writes something that has caused me to stop and think. He does not say that each of us has a mission. Rather he says, “Each saint is a mission, planned by the Father to reflect and embody, at a specific moment in history, a certain aspect of the Gospel.”
He goes on to say, “Every saint is a message that the Holy Spirit takes from the riches of Jesus Christ and gives to his people.” No wonder there is such a rich variety of saints in the history of the Church. They reflect the inexhaustible riches in Christ and in the Church.
The remainder of this exhortation provides practical guidance about the call to holiness in today’s world. He cautions us about certain trends in the Church and society. There is an extended reflection on the Beatitudes, about which Pope Francis says, “The Beatitudes are like a Christian’s identity card.” In the Beatitudes we find a portrait of Jesus that we are called to reflect in our own lives.
The Holy Father writes of the necessary balance in every Christian life between prayer and the activity that sanctifies. “We are called to be contemplatives even in the midst of action and to grow in holiness by responsibly and generously carrying out our proper mission.”
As we would expect from Pope Francis, he speaks compellingly of the works of mercy. “If we seek the holiness pleasing to God’s eyes, this text offers us one clear criterion on which we will be judged. ‘I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me (Mt 25:35-36).’”
Unfortunately, many of us have been influenced by negative stereotypes that distort our images of saints. To this, the Holy Father responds: “Do not be afraid of holiness. It will take away none of our 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.”
Or again, “Do not be afraid to set your sights higher, to allow yourself to be loved and liberated by God. Holiness does not make you less human, since it is an encounter between your weakness and God’s grace. For in the words of Leon Bloy, when all is said and done, ‘the only great tragedy in life, is not to become a saint.’”