VATICAN CITY – Pope Francis released an apostolic exhortation in which he aims to “repropose” the universal call to holiness — which he says is the mission of life for every person.
Published April 9, Gaudete et Exsultate, or “Rejoice and be Glad,” is Francis’ third apostolic exhortation. It is subtitled “On the call to holiness in the contemporary world.”
The 44-page exhortation explains that holiness is the mission of every Christian, and gives practical advice for living out the call to holiness in ordinary, daily life, encouraging the practice of the beatitudes and performing works of mercy.
Francis mentioned the holiness “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,” he said. “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.’”
Francis said that all Catholics, like the saints, “need to see the entirety of your life as a mission,” and explained that this is accomplished by listening to God in prayer and asking the Holy Spirit for guidance in each moment and decision.
“A Christian cannot think of his or her mission on earth without seeing it as a path of holiness,” he stated, explaining that this path has its “fullest meaning in Christ, and can only be understood through him.”
Using the words of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, Francis wrote that “holiness is nothing other than charity lived to the full.” As a result, the measure of our holiness stems not from our own achievement, but “from the stature that Christ achieves in us.”
Therefore, Pope Francis said, to walk the path of holiness requires prayer and contemplation alongside action; the two cannot be separated.
The pope also touched on what he calls the “two enemies of holiness” — modern versions of the heresies of Pelagianism and gnosticism — saying that these lead to “false forms of holiness.”
In the modern form of gnosticism, Francis said, one believes that faith is purely subjective, and that the intellect is the supreme form of perfection, not charity.
This can lead Catholics to think that “because we know something, or are able to explain it in certain terms, we are already saints,” he said, when really, “what we think we know should always motivate us to respond more fully to God’s love.”
In contemporary Pelagianism, he said the common error is to believe that it is by our own effort that we achieve sanctity, forgetting that everything in fact “depends not on human will or exertion, but on God who shows mercy (Rom. 9:16).”
The pope explained 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,” and that even our cooperation with the gift of divine grace is itself “a prior gift of that same grace.”
Some may be asked, through God’s grace, for grand gestures of holiness — as can be seen in the lives of many of the saints, Francis said — but many people are called to live the mission of holiness in a more ordinary way, and in the context of their vocation.
However large or small one’s call seems, Francis said, acts of charity are always undertaken “by God’s grace,” not as people “sufficient unto ourselves, but rather ‘as good stewards of the manifold grace of God’ (1 Peter 4:10).”
The pope offered several practical recommendations for living out these “small gestures.” In addition to the frequent reception of the sacraments and attendance at Mass, he said that in the beatitudes Jesus explains “with great simplicity what it means to be holy.”
He also said that a way to practice holiness is through the works of mercy, though he warned that to think good works can be separated from a personal relationship with God and openness to grace is to make Christianity into “a sort of NGO.”
The saints, on the other hand, show us that “mental prayer, the love of God and the reading of the Gospel” in no way detract from “passionate and effective commitment to their neighbors.”
The pope highlighted several qualities he finds especially important for living holiness in today’s culture, including perseverance, patience, humility, joy, a sense of humor, boldness and passion.
Boldness and passion, he said, are important in order to avoid despondency or mediocrity, which he said can weaken us in the ongoing spiritual battle against evil.
In the journey toward holiness, “the cultivation of all that is good, progress in the spiritual life and growth in love are the best counterbalance to evil,” he said, emphasizing that the devil is not a myth or an abstract idea, but a “personal being that assails us.”
“Those who choose to remain neutral, who are satisfied with little, who renounce the ideal of giving themselves generously to the Lord, will never hold out” against temptation, he stated.
“For this spiritual combat, we can count on the powerful weapons that the Lord has given us: faith-filled prayer, meditation on the word of God, the celebration of Mass, Eucharistic adoration, sacramental Reconciliation, works of charity, community life, missionary outreach.”
About the importance of prayer on the path to holiness, the pope said that though “the Lord speaks to us in a variety of ways, at work, through others and at every moment … we simply cannot do without the silence of prolonged prayer.”
“Naturally, this attitude of listening entails obedience to the Gospel as the ultimate standard, but also to the Magisterium that guards it,” he stated, “as we seek to find in the treasury of the Church whatever is most fruitful for the ‘today’ of salvation.”
Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the United States bishops’ conference, praised the exhortation in a statement released Monday, saying: “In this exhortation, Pope Francis is very clear — he is doing his duty as the Vicar of Christ, by strongly urging each and every Christian to freely, and without any qualifications, acknowledge and be open to what God wants them to be — that is ‘to be holy, as He is holy’ (1 Pet 1:15). The mission entrusted to each of us in the waters of baptism was simple — by God’s grace and power, we are called to become saints.”