HOLINESS is “not about swooning in mystic rapture”, but develops through small gestures and should leave Christians in a state of “healthy unease”, a letter from Pope Francis says.
Gaudete et Exsultate (“Rejoice and be Glad”), the Pope’s third Apostolic Exhortation, published by the Vatican on Monday, combines a celebration of ordinary acts of charity with calls to radical action (there are five entreaties to avoid mediocrity) and stern admonition of both those who would render Christianity a museum, and those for whom it is a “a sort of NGO”.
At its heart is a celebration of the third and greatest of the theological virtues identified in 1 Corinthians 13. “Throughout the history of the Church it has always been clear that a person’s perfection is measured not by the information or knowledge they possess, but by the depth of their charity,” the Pope writes. Although his letter is full of examples set by the saints, the Pope urges the reader not to “grow discouraged before examples of holiness that appear unattainable”, and points instead to examples rooted in everyday life, such as the mother who refrains from gossiping, and the elderly religious who “never lose their smile”.
“If I encounter a person sleeping outdoors on a cold night, I can view him or her as an annoyance, an idler, an obstacle in my path, a troubling sight, a problem for politicians to sort out, or even a piece of refuse cluttering a public space,” he writes. “Or I can respond with faith and charity, and see in this person a human being with a dignity identical to my own, a creature infinitely loved by the Father, an image of God, a brother or sister redeemed by Jesus Christ.”
REUTERSThe Vicar General of Rome, Archbishop Angelo De Donatis, presents Pope Francis’s third Apostolic Exhortation, Gaudete et Exsultate, at the Vatican
The letter insists on the equal value of the unborn and already born. After defending the importance of “clear, firm and passionate” defence of the former, the Pope continues: “equally sacred, however, are the lives of the poor, those already born, the destitute, the abandoned and the underprivileged, the vulnerable infirm and elderly exposed to covert euthanasia, the victims of human trafficking, new forms of slavery, and every form of rejection.”
The migration crisis, which accelerated two years into his papacy, remains a prominent concern. It is not, he argues, “a secondary issue compared to the ‘grave’ bioethical questions. That a politician looking for votes might say such a thing is understandable, but not a Christian, for whom the only proper attitude is to stand in the shoes of those brothers and sisters of ours who risk their lives to offer a future to their children.”
The “lovely recognition of the dignity of each human being” must involve, for Christians, “a constant and healthy unease”, he argues. The Church must go beyond helping individuals to “seeking social change”. In this passage, the Pope seeks to correct both those who regard campaigning for social reform as “superficial, worldly, secular, materialist, communist or populist” and those for whom Christianity becomes “a sort of NGO stripped of the luminous mysticism so evident in the lives of Saint Francis of Assisi, Saint Vincent de Paul, Saint Teresa of Calcutta, and many others”. There are echoes of the warning by the Archbishop of Canterbury, that the Church must not become “a Rotary club with a pointy roof”.
While cautioning against “complaining about the failings of others”, the letter contains plenty of correction. The targets are not named — “Some Christians”, “Some Catholics” are addressed — but, against a backdrop of fierce criticism from conservative Roman Catholics (after the publication of the last exhortation, Amoris Laetitia, more than 62 scholars offered a “filial correction”), there were immediate attempts to identify them.
Some of the Pope’s harshest words are reserved for the “new pelagians”, accused of “an obsession with the law, an absorption with social and political advantages, a punctilious concern for the Church’s liturgy, doctrine and prestige, a vanity about the ability to manage practical matters, and an excessive concern with programmes of self-help and personal fulfilment”. He warns that “the life of the Church can become a museum piece or the possession of a select few.”
A section, “Two subtle enemies of holiness”, also urges the reader to guard against the “sinister” ideology of gnosticism. “When somebody has an answer for every question, it’s a sign that they are not on the right path,” the Pope warns.
In a letter that celebrates the ordinary, he remonstrates repeatedly with those who value knowledge over virtuous action: “it is not knowledge that betters us or makes us saints, but the kind of life we lead”; “We can think that because we know something, or are able to explain it in certain terms, we are already saints, perfect and better than the ‘ignorant masses’.”
There is criticism, too, of those “caught up in networks of verbal violence through the internet and the various forms of digital communication”. Even in the RC media, he notes, “limits can be overstepped, defamation and slander can become commonplace, and all ethical standards and respect for the good name of others can be abandoned. . . Here we see how the unguarded tongue, set on fire by hell, sets all things ablaze.”
When it comes to silence and contemplation, the letter contains both a call to escape harried lifestyles (“the presence of constantly new gadgets, the excitement of travel and an endless array of consumer goods at times leave no room for God’s voice to be heard”) and cautionary words.
“It is not healthy to love silence while fleeing interaction with others, to want peace and quiet while avoiding activity, to seek prayer while disdaining service,” the Pope writes. “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.”
The letter celebrates prayer and contemplation, but the concern that it can result in the neglect of practical service is a strong undercurrent. “I ask that we never regard prayerful silence as a form of escape and rejection of the world around us,” the Pope writes.
“The ultimate criterion on which our lives will be judged is what we have done for others. Prayer is most precious, for it nourishes a daily commitment to love.”