By Bishop Joseph Kopacz
“That my joy will be in you and your joy may be complete.” (John 15, 11)
These were the words of Jesus in last Sunday’s Gospel when he was preparing his disciples for his radical separation from them on the Cross. In the same conversation he invites them into divine friendship and instructs them – or maybe pleads with them – to “love one another as I have loved you.” 15,12-14) This passage is the ideal pathway into Pope Francis’ recently published exhortation on holiness, Gaudate et Exultate. The remainder of this column is an overview of this gift of Pope Francis to the Church and to the world.
Pope Francis awakens the Holy Spirit within each believer. “With this exhortation I would like to insist primarily on the call to holiness that the Lord addresses to each of us, that he also addresses personally to you.” (10) He reminds us that we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, (Hebrews 12,1) both living and with the Lord in eternity who pray for us and give witness to all that God can accomplish in our lives. “I like to contemplate the holiness present in the patience of God’s people. In those parents who raise their children with immense love., in those men and women who work hard to support their families, in the sick, in elderly religious who never lose their smile. In their daily perseverance I see the holiness of the Church militant. 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.” (7)
By virtue of our faith and baptism we are all called to be witnesses, but there are many actual ways of bearing witness. “The power of the Holy Spirit enables you to do this and holiness in the end is the fruit of the Holy Spirit in your life.” (14) In fact, “every saint is a message which the Holy Spirit takes from the riches of Jesus Christ and gives to his people.” (21)
“This should excite and encourage us to give our all and to embrace that unique plan that God willed for each of us from eternity.” (13) “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you and before you were born I consecrated you.” (Jer. 1,5) Pope Francis acknowledges that with all of the din and zapping, allurements and distractions of our modern world, holiness can be a difficult road to walk but nothing is impossible with God. “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.” (35)
Pope Francis looks upon the Church and the world with the loving heart and mind of Jesus Christ and exposes the threats to growth in holiness. He speaks of a modern-day Gnosticism whose adherents want everything to be clear and controlled to the point of controlling God’s transcendence. “Gnosticism by its very nature seeks to domesticate the mystery, whether the mystery of God and his grace or the mystery of others’ lives.” (40-41)
On the other hand, there is modern day Pelagianism that attributes everything to human will and work. Traditionally, this has been known to be a “bootstrap theology” by which we can earn or even buy our way into heaven. In opposition to this profound error, Pope Francis speaks of pure gift. “His friendship infinitely transcends us; we cannot buy it with our works; it can only be a gift born of his loving initiative. This invites us to live in joyful gratitude for this completely unmerited gift.” (54) “But thanks be to God who has given the victory over sin and death through our Lord, Jesus Christ.” (1Cor 15,57)
Pope Francis then breaks open for us the wisdom of the Beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount. “Blessed are the”… or “Happy are”…becomes a synonym for holy are. It expresses the fact those faithful to God and his word, by their self-giving, gain true happiness. Over several pages Francis offers God’s wisdom in the light of the Cross and Resurrection which often is persecuted, mocked or ignored. The values of the world in every age are a strong current against the wisdom of God, but blessed are we when we swim against it out of love for God and our brothers and sisters. (65-95)
Pope Francis also sees clearly the signs of holiness in the Church and in the modern world. Consider those who live with perseverance, patience and meekness in the face of the world’s violence, coldness and indifference. Why? Because “if God is for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8,31) This conviction is the source of peace and joy of all the saints and holy people. (122)
The face of holiness is also seen in the joy and humor of many. Though completely realistic, they radiate a positive and hopeful spirit. If we allow the Lord to draw us out of our shell and change our lives, then we can do as Saint Paul tells us, “Rejoice in the Lord always; I say it again, rejoice”. (Phil 4,4) Living with boldness and passion is yet another feature of holiness in our times, grounded in the promise of the Lord to be with until the end of time. (Mt 28,20) Boldness, enthusiasm, the freedom to speak out, apostolic fervor, are all signs of the Spirit of God at work, a light in the darkness.
How often, Pope Francis says, are we tempted to stay close to the shore, whereas the Lords directs us to set out into the deep? Like the prophet Jonah, we are constantly tempted to flee to a safe haven. The saints and saintly people know that this is not the path to holiness. “Be not afraid.” The fourth dimension of holiness in our time is to know that we are called to live in community, minimally where two or three are gathered where people cherish the little details of love, whether this is in friendship, family, Church communities or in the workplace.
Saint John of the Cross told one of his followers. “You are living with others to be fashioned and tried.” (104) Relationships can be crucibles where the challenge to love one another becomes real. As the poet says. “Love can crown you and crucify you.” Lastly, there is the call to constant prayer. “I do not believe in holiness without prayer” are the straightforward words of our Holy Father. (147) Unless one sits at the feet of the Lord, as did Mary and “let him warm you more and more with his love and tenderness, you will not catch fire.” (151)
Prayer finds its ultimate fulfillment in the Mass where together the Word of God becomes “a lamp for our steps and a light for our path. (Ps 119) and where the Eucharist, the Bread of Life is communion with the Lord and one another, strength for the journey and the pledge of eternal life.
This is only a taste of this exhortation on holiness which is truly is a light for our path. It is a teaching by which we can raise up our hearts and minds to God and to our neighbor in order to fulfill God’s plan for each of our lives. Thank you, Pope Francis. “Come, Holy Spirit. Fill the hearts of your faithful.”
The exhortation is available online at the Vatican’s website
By Bishop Joseph Kopacz