On the Apostolic Exhortation Gaudete et Exsultate

Author: Paola Bignardi and Gianni Valente

On the Apostolic Exhortation Gaudete et Exsultate

Paola Bignardi and Gianni Valente

The Pope’s Apostolic Exhortation ‘Gaudete et Exsultate’ on the call to holiness in today’s world was presented on Monday morning, 9 April [2018], in the Holy See Press Office. The following texts are translations of discourses given at the presentation by Italian journalist Gianni Valente, addressing the second chapter, and Paola Bignardi, former president of Italian Catholic Action, examining the third and fourth chapters.

For Ordinary People

Paola Bignardi

The first thing that is striking in the Apostolic Exhortation Gaudete et Exsultate is the determination with which it sustains that holiness pertains to ordinary people, who have an ordinary everyday life made up of the simple things that form the framework of everyone’s existence. Hence a holiness that is not meant for a few heroes or exceptional people, but which represents the ordinary way of living the ordinary Christian existence. The result of this is said at the outset: if there is no vocation or existential condition incompatible with the call to holiness, then Christian life is not possible outside of this exigent and fascinating context: Christian life cannot be fully realized if not in the perspective of holiness; there is no middle ground or discounted compromise.

This rule is presented in the third and fourth chapters of the document. The Christian identity card stems from the Beatitudes and from what Pope Francis calls ‘The great criterion” proposed in Chapter 25 in the Gospel of Matthew: concrete mercy toward the poor.

The Beatitudes present the Christian identity card, because in it we find the portrait of the Master, which Christians are called to reflect in their daily lives (n. 63). The word “happy”, or “blessed”, is a synonym for “holy”. Those who live in self-giving because they live in accordance with the word of Jesus are holy and achieve true beatitude.

Pope Francis warns, however, against the temptation to consider the Beatitudes as lovely poetic words: they run counter to the ways of the world and delineate another way of living. Suffice it to read the simple declension made at the end of the description of each of them: holy are they who are poor of heart; holy are they who react with humility and meekness; holy are they who know how to mourn with others; holy are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness; holy are they who see and act with mercy; holy are they who keep their heart free of all that tarnishes love; holy are they who sow peace all around them; holy are they who accept daily the way of the Gospel, even though it may cause them problems.

The “great criterion” translates the Beatitudes in a concrete way, above all that of mercy. The example that is given at n. 98 is really very concrete and demonstrates the distinction between being and not being Christians. “If I encounter a person sleeping outdoors on a cold night” (n. 98), I can consider him or her an unexpected annoyance or recognize in him a human being with a dignity like my own, like me infinitely loved by the Father: the boundary between being and not being Christian passes through my attitude.

In the Beatitudes we find the portrait of the Lord Jesus and they cannot be lived if not by preserving an intense union with him. But neither on the path of holiness are those who are wary of social engagement “seeing it as superficial, worldly, secular, materialist, communist or populist” (n. 101); and, the text concludes: “we cannot uphold an ideal of holiness that would ignore injustice in [the] world”. Because if holiness is to experience love, the gift of self as lived by the Lord Jesus, to the very end, in a radical and total way, then one cannot pass by a brother or sister distracted and indifferent; and to do to this the Christian would need the Lord Jesus to make him capable of loving as He loved.

Living holiness means accomplishing in one’s own life that unity through which we pass from contemplating the Lord’s face to the concrete gesture of charity, and from that gesture to the face.

The fourth chapter outlines five great manifestations of love for God and for neighbour; five current forms, because holiness has different concrete forms at different times. The document is an instrument for seeking out the forms of holiness for today. The five characteristics proposed are meant to be measured with some of the dangers and limitations of today’s culture: “a sense of anxiety, sometimes violent, that distracts and debilitates; negativity and sullenness; the self-content bred by consumerism; individualism and all those forms of ersatz spirituality — having nothing to do with God — that dominate the current religious marketplace” (n. 111).

For this reason, steadfastness and interior solidity are needed in order to resist the aggressiveness within us, the temptation to participate in those modem forms of violence such as those found on the web, in order to avoid being influenced by the evil that subtly nestles into interpersonal relationships and poisons them....

A holy person lives with joy and has a sense of humour; his joy is not carefree and superficial, but is a joy born out of knowing he is infinitely loved and which is expressed in fraternal communion. Holiness moreover, is parrhesia, is apostolic courage, is the capacity to dare, to experiment, to take the initiative, to move toward novelty. It is daring to go toward the peripheries and the fringes, to discover that the Lord has preceded us. “Jesus is already there, in the hearts of our brothers and sisters, in their wounded flesh, in their troubles and in their profound desolation. He is already there” (n. 135). Holiness is a journey to undertake as a community, as so many saints give witness, including the Trappist monks of Tibhirine, who prepared as a community for martyrdom. Community life — in the family, in the parish, in the religious community — “is made up of small everyday things” (n. 143). The life of unity that Jesus wished for in his farewell discourse passes through small everyday gestures.

Lastly, holiness is prayer, offered in silence, by allowing oneself to look to the Lord, by allowing the warmth of love and tenderness to be nourished by Him; it is “contemplation of the face of Jesus, died and risen”, which “restores our humanity” (n. 151). Holiness is allowing oneself to be transformed by the Lord and by the power of his Spirit. Thus, today too, the way of holiness is the way of joy.


Two False Forms

Gianni valente

In the second chapter of the Apostolic Exhortation Gaudete et Exsultate the Pope focuses on what he defines as “two false forms of holiness that can lead us astray: gnosticism and pelagianism”. Thus, once again, the Pope refers to the names of these “two heresies from early Christian times” which, he determines, “continue to plague us” (n. 35)

In seeking to convey what gnosticim and pelagianism have to do with a Papal text on the call to holiness, it is helpful to begin with the very nature of holiness, with how holiness is lived and considered in the Church and in her teachings.

In this Exhortation too, the Pope reiterates in many ways and in many passages that holiness comes from God. It is a fruit of the gift of grace in the life of the Church. This means that holiness is not the result of one’s own effort; it is not a mountain to be climbed alone. It means that one cannot create strategies or pastoral programmes to “produce” holiness. It means above all that it is Christ himself who initiates and perfects holiness. For this reason holiness is the Church’s treasure: because if there are saints it means that Christ is living, and continues to act in them, to caress and to change their lives, and we can see the effects of this. And again because of this it is also true that the “deceptive ideas” that follow in the wake of pelagianism and gnosticism are an obstacle to the universal call to be holy: indeed, they propose once again, in various forms, the age-old deception of pelagianism or that of gnosticism: namely, they conceal or remove the necessity of Christ’s gracc, or they empty the real and free dynamic of its action.

Saint Augustine wrote that the malicious error of the pelagians of his time was to insist on identifying Christ’s grace “in his example, and not in the gift of his presence”. According to Pelagius, the fifth-century monk from whom the ancient heresy takes its name, the nature of all human beings was not harmed by Adam’s sin, and therefore all were always capable of choosing good and avoiding sin by simply exercising their own willpower. Pelagius claimed that Christ had come above all to provide a good example, and was to be followed as a Teacher of life in order to learn how to cultivate one’s moral virtue. But this aim could be achieved by counting on one’s own strengths and by doing without him, his gift and the assistance of his grace.

On this point the Apostolic Exhortation Gaudete et Exsultate is placed in the midst of the many pronouncements with which the ecclesial Magisterium has instead always repeated that in the real condition in which all human beings find themselves, one can neither be holy nor live a just life in Jesus’ footsteps without the intervention of Christ’s grace, without being embraced by his spirit in a mysterious but real way.

Among other things, Pope Francis quotes the second Council of Orange which already in 529 had stated that “Even the desire to be cleansed comes about in us through the outpouring and working of the Holy Spirit”. He also cites the Catechism of the Catholic Church to remind us that ‘this is one of the great convictions that the Church has come firmly to hold”, given that “it flows from the heart of the Gospel” (CCC, n. 55). However it is important to always confront manifestations of the pelagian attitude which infiltrates even the most ordinary customs of ecclesial life.

The Apostolic Exhortation identifies the pelagian imprint in all those who “ultimately trust only in their own powers”, and when they want to show they are faithful to “a particular Catholic style” {EG, n. 49), in reality they believe that “everything depends on human effort” and is even “channelled by ecclesial rules and structures” (n. 59).

The Pope writes that the universal call to holiness is instead addressed directly to those who recognize that in every step of life and faith there is always a need for grace. Because — as the text reads — “in this life human weaknesses are not healed completely and once for all by grace” (n. 49). And the work of grace does not make us super-human, but “acts in history; ordinarily it takes hold of us and transforms us progressively” (n. 50).

The other “deceptive idea” identified by the Pope should also be likened to an ancient counterfeiting of Christian newness, that of the ancient gnostic doctrines that often absorbed the words and truths of the Christian faith in their conceptual systems, but in so doing have, from the inside, stripped the Christian advent of its historical significance.

According to gnostic theories, salvation consisted in a process of self-divinization, a journey of knowledge in which the subject had to become aware of ‘the divine’ he already had within. The Christian faith meanwhile, acknowledges that for humankind, salvation and happiness are God’s freely given gift which reaches man externally, from outside himself.

For that matter, the narratives of those who are called to holiness, and also of those already canonizcd as saints, are also strewn with facts, encounters, concrete circumstances in which the working of grace becomes perceptible, and touches and changes their lives. In a way similar to that which happened to the first disciples of Christ, who in the Gospel were even able to note the hour of their first encounter with Jesus.

Instead, the Pope writes, the gnostic mentality always chooses the route of abstract and formal reasoning, and thus seeks to dominate, “to domesticate the mystery” (n. 40). And this, even in the Church, is the path often taken by those who are impatient, who do not humbly wait for the mystery to be revealed, because — as the Apostolic Exhortation states — they cannot stand the fact that “God infinitely transcends us; he is full of surprises. We are not the ones to determine when and how we will encounter him; the exact times and places of that encounter are not up to us” (n. 41).

The Apostolic Exhortation cautions that today too a gnostic spirit can seep into the life of the Church each time she wants to disregard the concrete and gratuitous features with which grace operates, and takes the way of abstraction, which continues to “disembody the mystery” (cf. n. 37). As, for example, what happens when a prevailing presumption reduces ecclesial membership to “a set of ideas and bits of information” to be mastered (n. 36), or to the “ability to understand the complexity of certain doctrines” (n. 37). And if Christianity were reduced to a set of messages, of ideas, so too would be the idea of Christ or the idea of grace, regardless of its genuine work; so inevitably the Church’s mission would be reduced to propaganda, to marketing, that is, to seeking ways to spread those ideas and convince others to support them.

The Apostolic Exhortation also points out other traces of the gnostic mentality that can also be found in ecclesial circles, such as the elitism of those who feel they are superior to the multitudes of the baptized, or scorn for imperfections, for those who fall, for those whom the ancient gnostics would have defined as “carnal”.

However, in response to these phenomena of ecclesial self-withdrawal, the Apostolic Exhortation does not initiate cultural battles against neo-gnostics and neo-pelagians. The Pope prays that the Lord himself may free the Church from the new forms of gnosticism and pelagianism that can hinder many “along the path to holiness” (n. 62).

The intent of the entire document is not that of stigmatizing the new forms of pelagianism and gnosticism, but only that of inviting all to seek each day the face of the holy scattered among the People of God, and to recognize them as the authentic and effective sign of the presence of Christ’s mercy.

L'Osservatore Romano
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20 April 2018, page 4

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