Why Talk About Holiness
Angelo De Donatis
Presentation of 'Gaudete et Exsultate'
The Pope’s Apostolic Exhortation ‘Gaudete et Exsultate’ on the call to holiness in today’s world was presented on Monday morning, 9 April , in the Holy See Press Office. The following text is a translation of a discourse given at the presentation by the Vicar General of His Holiness for the Diocese of Rome, discussing the first and last chapters of the Document.
Why an Apostolic Exhortation on the call to holiness? Isn’t this ecclesial language, to some extent, addressed to ‘experts in the field’ (i.e. religious)? In fact the word “holiness” is today considered rather antiquated by the same contemporary world that the Exhortation would like to address. Who today would use this word to express the aspirations of one’s heart, for oneself and for one’s daily existence?
These brief considerations, which perhaps express the thought of many people, tell us immediately what challenge the Exhortation faces. Thus it shows the perennial timeliness of Christian holiness, presenting its contents, as narrated in Scrip- ture, in such a way as to propose holiness as a desirable goal for everyone’s own human journey, as a call that God addresses to each one. Pope Francis sums it up in this way: holiness is “true life, the happiness for which we were created” (Gaudete et Exsultate, n. 1). The opposite of holiness is not, first and foremost, a life of sin, so much as settling “for a bland and mediocre existence” (n. 1). Being Christian means receiving from God the gift of a beautiful life, rich in meaning, full of flavour, setting out on a journey that renders one “more alive, more human” (n. 32). To counter the harm of being lulled into experiencing or accepting a meaningless reality so as to confine oneself in one’s own fragment of existence, God offers a path of courageous and humanizing holiness, to live out in the sequela of Christ and in the framework of interpersonal relationships. God is the Holy One thrice over, and he pours out upon mankind his selfsame divine life: “For I am the Lord your God ... be holy, for I am holy” (Lev 11:44). He transforms mankind’s existence to mirror more and more His own image and likeness.
It is obvious that with this Exhortation Pope Francis would like to focus attention on what is decisive and essential in Christian life and to help us to maintain a broad vision, against the temptation to narrow our view or lose sight of the horizon, being satisfied with “just getting by”. One’s membership in the Lord Jesus and the Church would dissolve and become devoid of meaning should one deviate from the straight trajectory of holiness, and fatally go off in search of “other things”, of that which has nothing to do with building the Kingdom of God.
The objective of the Exhortation is not to offer, “a treatise on holiness, containing definitions and distinctions”. Instead, Pope Francis writes that, his “modest goal is to repropose the call to holiness in a practical way for our own time, with all its risks, challenges and opportunities” (n. 2). The Second Vatican Council already emphasized this universal call vehemently, reaffirming the fact that it is addressed to all: “Strengthened by so many and such great means of salvation, all the faithful, whatever their condition or state — though each in his own way — are called by the Lord to that perfection of sanctity by which the Father himself is perfect” (Lumen Gentium, n. u). The Pope takes up and re-emphasizes this conciliar point, updating it and making it more understandable and attractive for the people of today.
Of the themes the Pope touches upon, I will comment on the first chapter, “The call to holiness” and the last, “Spiritual combat, vigilance and discernment”.
With regard to the first chapter, I wish to develop four fundamental points that represent four dimensions of the call to holiness. First and foremost, the Pope wishes to tell us that holiness is not a dimension apart from the life we live every day, but is precisely our very existence lived in an extraordinaiy manner, because it is made beautiful by the grace of God, by the action of the Holy Spirit received in Baptism. The fruit of the Spirit is indeed a life lived in joy and love, and holiness consists in this. There are no particular conditions: holiness is not a prerogative of those who dedicate a lot of time to prayer or theological study or to exercising a particular ministry in the Church, but is that God-given new life that is practically possible for eveiyone “in everything we do, wherever we find ourselves” (GE, n. 14). Francis recalls the words of Vietnamese Cardinal Van Thuán, in the long days of his imprisonment, who chose to “live the present moment, filling it to the brim with love” (n. 17). The Pope deliberately offers examples of holiness found in ordinary life: “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” (n. 7). They are the saints “next door”, or “the middle class of holiness” (n. 7; title of a book by Joseph Malègue). For this reason Pope Francis at a certain point changes style and directly addresses his interlocutors, the readers, to tell them that holiness, which is the true and happy life, is really possible even for you: “Let the grace of your baptism bear fruit in a path of holiness. Let everything be open to God; turn to him in every situation. Do not be dismayed, for 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” (n. 15; but the reference to you is also mentioned in nn. 10, 14, etc.). The Council, in the previously cited passage, said that everyone is called, “each in his own way”. It is not a matter of copying the works of saints, because ultimately each person has his or her own life and place in the world; but rather, “led by God’s grace, we shape by many small gestures the holiness God has willed for us” (n. 18). Even if my life falls into sin or failure, the call to holiness reaches wherever I may be with a chance to start anew, a chance for redemption.
Another point: holiness is not possible alone. Individualism and feigned self-sufficiency do not lead to true life. We need others; we need to feel that our life is included in that of the People of God, on whom the Spirit of God pours his holiness. God does not save us as isolated individuals, but as he wished to reveal by entering into a popular dynamic, into the “life and history of a people”, the Pope writes (n. 6); thus our path of approaching the Lord and of growing in the faith is also possible only within “the complex fabric of interpersonal relationships present in a human community” (n. 6). Here Francis cites the homily for the inauguration of Pope Benedict’s Petrine ministry: “I do not have to carry alone what, in truth, I could never carry alone”: the holy People of God “are there to protect me, to sustain me and to carry me” (n. 4); in the Church you will find the witness of others, of canonized saints, of humbler people, “in their daily perseverance” (n. 7); in the Church “you will find everything you need to grow towards holiness ... scripture, the sacraments, holy places, living communities, the witness of the saints and a multifaceted beauty that proceeds from God’s love” (n. 15). In the People of God there is a masculine and a feminine way of living holiness, both “essential means of reflecting God’s holiness in this world” (n. 12). And yet, “outside the Catholic Church and in very different contexts, the Holy Spirit raises up ‘signs of his presence which help Christ’s followers’” (n. 9, quoting Novo Millennio Ineunte). Clearly, Christian spirituality is essentially communitary, ecclesial, profoundly different and distant from an elitist vision or from an individual heroism of holiness.
The source from which holiness springs is the Lord Jesus, the goal towards which it strives is the transformation of history into the Kingdom, of God. This is a central point. The Pope writes that every person who comes into this world needs “to see the entirety of his or her life as a mission" (cf. n. 23). When I ask myself: ‘why was I born? Why am I alive and what use is life? What is my contribution to the growth of this world?’, I am asking myself about my mission. So, “each saint is a mis- sion” (n. 19), that is, he or she is an envoy of the Father in order to incarnate and make Christ, the new man, present in the world. Jesus is indeed the wellspring of all holiness: all the Holy Spirit does is to replicate today, in us, the features of Christ’s face. However, each one in a different way: there are saints who replicate His hidden life in Nazareth, others His closeness to the least; spouses become sacraments of the Bridegroom Christ, priests the sacrament of Christ the Good Shepherd.... “The contemplation of these mysteries ... leads us to incarnate them in our choices and attitudes” (n. 20). On the other hand, Christ was sent for the Kingdom. For this reason, Francis says, again addressing each of us, his readers: you too “cannot grow in holiness without committing yourself, body and soul, to giving your best to this endeavour” (n. 25).
Christian holiness is not separate from the commitment to human history — on the contrary! Saints are formidable revolutionaries, because they are determined, to wager themselves completely on the mission entrusted to them by the Father. They know that those who lose their life for the Kingdom, find it, like Jesus. As Francis emphasized in EvangeliiGaudium (nn. 87-92), the Incarnation and the Cross cannot be removed from Christian spirituality, perhaps to devote oneself to a god of personal wellbeing, detached from human events, from the suffering flesh of his children. There is no Christian holiness where spirituality is disconnected from history, and in the name of a vague communion, perhaps one with “harmonizing energies”, one forgets the communion with other human beings and the search for the face of the other; one forgets fraternity and the revolution of tenderness. We are entrusted with the task of accepting this call to holiness, accomplished by imitating Jesus and endeavouring with him to transform human history. “May you come to realize what that word is, the message of Jesus that God wants to speak to the world by your life. Let yourself be transformed” (n. 24).
This proposal to lead a life of Christian holiness tends to gradually conform man to Christ by unifying and integrating his life. Prayer and action in the world, times of silence and times of service, family life and work commitments, can all “be accepted and integrated into our life in this world, and become a part of our path to holiness” (n. 26). Seeking moments of solitude and silence, away from life’s feverish pace, is the basis of this inner unification under God’s gaze. In this personal space, at last in contact with the truth of ourselves, we can experience a sincere dialogue with the Lord and allow ourselves to be permeated by him. “Do not be afraid to set your sights higher, to allow yourself to be loved and liberated by God. Do not be afraid to let yourself be guided by the Holy Spirit. Holiness does not make you less human, since it is an encounter between your weakness and the power of God’s grace” (n. 34).
Allow me to add a few words on the final chapter, bccause it is a very important part of the Exhortation. The title explains that the path to holiness involves a battle and calls for an approach of constant vigilance. In order to live it we must ask for the gift of discernment. The battle is against “a worldly mentality”, against our disorderly “human weaknesses and proclivities”, but also against “the evil one” (nn. 159-161). Pope Francis, as we know, speaks of him often and in the Exhortation emphasizes that when we speak of the Enemy we are not only dealing with “a myth, a representation, a symbol, a figure of speech or an idea” (n. 161), but “a personal being who assails us” (n. 160). In the Our Father the final invocation is in fact “deliver us from evil”. The Enemy’s goal is that of separating us from God, of making us pass from the experience of the forgiven sinner, one who has received mercy (sin as the place of the liberating and humanizing encounter with God’s mercy), to that overturning of our reality as children of God which is corruption (nn. 164-165). Here it is important to exercise great vigilance, because the corrupt are those who experience “a comfortable and self-satisfied form of blindness”, where everything “appears acceptable” (n. 165). Here Satan “disguises himself as an angel of light”, even deceiving and isolating us in the most radical self-referentiality (n. 165).
What are we to do? The Pope invites us to ask for the gift of discernment. This grace of the Spirit is transformed into a permanent gaze upon reality: what is in our heart (our thoughts, feelings and desires, there, where God inspires, attracts and consoles ...) and the reality that surrounds us, where the Spirit acts by giving rise to what the Council calls “signs of the times” (Gaudium et Spes, n. 11). "Discernment" is truly a key word of this Pontificate because it expresses the spiritual style and manner by which Jesus' disciples and the community are called to interpret matters of life, to decide by choosing.God’s will, to create his Kingdom in the world. It is not just a matter of intelligence or common sense, nor of using the contribution of human sciences (psychology, sociology ...), considering them as resolved. Discernment transcends all this, because, by placing ourselves in silence and in prayer before the Lord, with an attitude of total openness, we are prepared “to listen: to the Lord and to others, and to reality itself, which always challenges us in new ways”. It is only when we “have the freedom to set aside our own partial or insufficient ideas, our usual habits and ways of seeing things”, that we are “truly open to accepting a call that can shatter our security” (n. 172). Pope Francis, for example, asks “all Christians not to omit, in dialogue with the Lord, a sincere daily ‘examination of conscicnce’” (n. 169), thereby creating in our personal life a space of solitude and prayer, where we can read and understand our own life, welcoming God’s call.
“The gift of discernment has become all the more necessary today”, because we are “immersed in a culture of zapping” wherein “we can easily become prey to every passing trend” (n. 167).
I conclude by quoting a beautiful verse inscribed on the tomb of Saint Ignatius of Loyola, which Pope Francis recalls in a footnote to describe the life lived in the constant attitude of discernment: Non coerceri a maximo, contineri tamen a minimo divinum est, “Not to be confined by the greatest, yet to be contained within the smallest, is truly divine”.
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