My brothers and sisters, I have wonderful news! Pope Francis wrote us a letter. You can read it here for free or you can purchase a copy here! I enjoyed it and I highly recommend you read it!
So, what’s this all about?
Well, Pope Francis gets right to the heart of what it means to be a disciple: we are called to holiness. Wait, me holy? Yes! Keep reading.
What is holiness? To be holy doesn’t mean you need to wear a monastic habit and swoon in mystic rapture (96). Pope Francis tells us that holiness is faithfully living the life God created for you and for me. He warns us not to get stuck in a bland, mediocre existence or a life marked by hedonism and consumerism (1, 108).
But I cannot be holy! Look at me! Look at my life! Pope Francis reminds us that we are all sinners. In a 2013 interview with the editor of Civiltà Cattolica, he was asked, “Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?” After a rather pregnant pause, he replied, “I am a sinner whom the Lord has looked upon.”
We are all sinners, but by the grace of God, we experience forgiveness and healing and yes, we can live a holy life. You see, the Easter story is the story of God who does not give up us despite everything we’ve gotten wrong, we get wrong and we will get wrong. The Easter story is about a God who stubbornly pursues us despite our sinfulness. Through the Incarnation, the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, God restores creation – He sanctifies creation. Easter is a reminder that God looks at you and me and says, “yes!”
To understand how to be a Christian, how to be holy, Pope Francis tells us we needn’t look any further than the Gospel (63-94). In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gives us the Beatitudes (Mt 5:3-12; Lk 6:20-23) which are a portrait of the Father whose love and mercy we are called to reflect in our own lives.
But how can I tell if I’m living a transformed life that emulates the Beatitudes? Jesus tells us that too. In Matthew 25 (vv. 31-46), Jesus gives us the metrics for living a holy life, what Pope Francis calls “the great criterion” (95). “for 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 visited me, I was in prison and you came to me,” (rsv-ce vv. 35-36).
It is love that holds the power transform our lives into holy lives. It is love that transforms our piety into holy action. It is love that reflects the love of the Father and helps us to see Jesus reflected in the faces of those around us. Without a lived faith marked by love, we risk Jesus saying to us, “I never knew you,” (Mt 7:23).
Don’t panic! Keep it simple. Holiness can be found all around us and very often right next door. Pope Francis tells us that holiness is found in, “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 neighbours, those who, living in our midst, reflect God’s presence,” (7).
But Pope Francis warns us about some of the great challenges that undermine our encounter with the risen Jesus – forces that strive to distract us and to prevent us from living lives transformed by God’s mercy. He tells about the two ancient and ever-present enemies of holiness – modern versions of the heresies of Pelagianism and Gnosticism, saying that these lead to “false forms of holiness” (35).
In the modern form of Gnosticism, he said people believe that faith is purely subjective and that the intellect is the supreme form of perfection. This can lead Catholics to think that “because we know something, or are able to explain it in certain terms, we are already saints,” (45).
In the modern form of Pelagianism, he said the common error is to believe that it is by our own effort that we achieve sanctity. This can lead Catholics to forget that everything in fact “depends not on human will or exertion, but on God who shows mercy,” (Rom. 9:16), (48).
The pope reminds us that “the Church has repeatedly taught that we are justified not by our own works or efforts, but by the grace of the Lord, who always takes the initiative,” (52).
He goes on to remind us that spiritual warfare is real. Jesus equips us powerful weapons for battle: faith-filled prayer, meditation on the word of God, the celebration of Mass, Eucharistic adoration, sacramental Reconciliation, works of charity, community life, and missionary outreach (162). But he warns us that worship and prayer alone or following certain ethical norms are not enough to give glory to God. He writes, “It is true that the primacy belongs to our relationship with God, but we cannot forget that the ultimate criterion on which our lives will be judged is what we have done for others,” (104).
To cultivate our spiritual growth, he encourages us to persevere with patience and meekness (112-121). He encourages us to experience joy and to face life with a good sense of humor (122-128). He encourages us to live our Christian lives boldly and passionately (129-139). He reminds us that we are not alone and that real growth in holiness happens within community (140-146). He also encourages us to develop an active prayer life in which we not only speak with the Lord, but we also listen (147-157).
What does he mean by developing a “spirit of prayer” (147)? He recommends we develop the Scriptural habit to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thes 5:16-18) and gives us examples from the lives of the saints. He goes on to say that through a prayerful study of Scripture we find Jesus in the Eucharist, “where the written word attains its greatest efficacy, for there the living Word is truly present,” (157).
Finally, he teaches us that our spiritual growth is aided by discernment – to understand whether something is coming from the Holy Spirit or from the devil (166). To put it simply, discernment is a prayerful and thoughtful spiritual exercise to determine whether something comes from God or from the devil (for more information see “Introduction to Discernment of Spirits”).
Am I blessed? Do I find consolation: courage, strength, inspiration, joy, peace (echoing St. Paul’s fruits of the Holy Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, (Gal 5:22-23))? Or do I feel desolation: anxiety, sadness, fear, restlessness, dryness or emptiness? To learn a little more about consolation and desolation, read my post “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord!”
With so many technological distractions consuming all of our time, it is more important than ever to develop the practice of discernment.
Central to discernment is a daily examination of conscience (169). An examination of conscience is not just about reflecting on my shortcomings today. That is important of course, but a daily examen is also about trying to see God’s presence in our lives. Pope Francis teaches us that, “Discernment, then, is not a solipsistic self-analysis or a form of egotistical introspection, but an authentic process of leaving ourselves behind in order to approach the mystery of God, who helps us to carry out the mission to which he has called us, for the good of our brothers and sisters,” (175).
Gaudete et exsultate is a powerful reminder that we are made for so more! We are all called to a life of holiness! Can we get there? Yes and no. On our own, we could never accomplish it. Only by the grace of God are we capable of such an undertaking in this increasingly secular world. As Jesus reminds us, “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible,” (Mt 19:26).
So what are you waiting for?
Jesus, I trust in you!