“Even when life is devastated by vices and addictions, God is present” says Pope in new exhortation

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On Monday, 9 April, the Solemnity of the Annunciation, Pope Francis released the third apostolic exhortation of his pontificate entitled “Gaudete et Exsultate” (Rejoice and be glad!). The exhortation focuses on holiness in everyday life. Pope Francis says: “Even when someone’s life appears completely wrecked, even when we see it devastated by vices or addictions, God is present there.” He exhorts us all “to find the Lord in every human life.” Ricardo da Silva looks at the exhortation and offers some reflections on its content.

Gaudete et Exsultate (GE), which means “Rejoice and Be Glad”, addresses “the call to holiness in today’s world”.  The document was signed on 19 March, the Solemnity of Saint Joseph, but it is surely not mere coincidence that the official release of the relatively short 44-page reflection coincides with the Catholic church’s Solemnity of the Annunciation on 9 April. A day where we celebrate the loving faith-response of Mary as the angel Gabriel announced that she was to bear the son of God, Jesus, in her womb. In fact, the Pope explicitly dedicates this work to the Virgin commending her as “that woman who rejoiced in the presence of God, who treasured everything in her heart, and who let herself be pierced by the sword” (§176).

There are five chapters in the exhortation. I will take a brief look at each of the chapters.

Chapter One: Everyone is called to Holiness without exception: an old call revisited

Those familiar with Catholic teaching will find many resonances between GE and the seminal Dogmatic Constitution of the Church, Lumen Gentium (LG), a key document for the role of the laity in the Church which came out of the watershed council, Vatican II. Pope Francis warns that GE is “not meant to be a treatise on holiness” – a sort of academic appraisal of holiness; instead “the goal is to re-propose the call to holiness in a practical way for our own time, with all its risks, challenges and opportunities” (§2).

As in LG, the Pope calls us to see the ordinariness of being holy. Holiness is not something achieved only by those officially recognised and canonized saints, unattainable for the average person of faith. He calls us to look to the example of “the saints next door” in their “daily perseverance” (§6-7).

The opening paragraphs remind us of something we have heard before, but often quickly forget: they evoke nostalgia and waken a renewed desire to a realistic, very personal, liveable and entirely conceivable holiness. We really can achieve holiness in our lives without making too many grand, demanding and seemingly impossible gestures. It is a matter of knowing ourselves lovingly created into being by God and to see our daily toils, troubles, struggles and existence as part of God’s work in us.

Here, holiness is not a call to a perceived super-human reality; too often characterized by an action-less silence and contemplation that removes us from the world or by a night-to-day transformation; rather it is about embarking upon a process and growing in a life that embraces prayer and service in equally important measure. This is a tell-tale sign of a Jesuit pope, as he shows the importance of becoming a contemplative in action, a key trait of the spirituality of Saint Ignatius of Loyola, the Jesuits’ founder.

Chapter Two: Gnosticism and Pelagianism: old demons at play in today’s Church

We live in a world and a church still plagued by Gnosticism, priding itself still more in knowledge bought by facts and concrete evidence and paying little respect to routine in-the-flesh experience. The Gospels are filled with reminders of God’s love and place this fundamental attitude above and ahead of any man-given law – always (cf §60). Thus, the pope calls us to wake to the fears we wrought and the pain we cause, ourselves and others, when we “reduce Jesus’ teaching to a cold and harsh logic that seeks to dominate everything” (§39).

Citing John Paul II, he issues a strong warning to those who consider themselves learned in Church matters: calling them to see “the limits of reason” (§43), and to resist the temptation “to feel somehow superior to other members of the faithful” (§45). We are encouraged to see the gift of theological knowledge as an opportunity for greater mercy and understanding of people as they find themselves in their very real, messy and complex life-situations. He urges the learned not to misuse their academic familiarity and expertise to frightfully exercise power over people and tighten criteria to exclude God’s people from God’s ever-present and ever-loving mercy. He warns against burdening people with feelings of shame and unworthiness. Calling on his namesake, the pope shows how Francis of Assisi “recognised the temptation to turn the Christian experience into a set of intellectual exercises that distance us from the freshness of the Gospel” (§46).

Alongside the warning of the dangers of a life controlled by rational proscriptions, Pope Francis speaks against a growing ‘DIY tendency’ at play in our world, one that suggests that we can save ourselves by our own bootstraps. We seem to live too focussed on our own strengths and to ignore or even condemn our own (and others) incapacities, failings and shortcomings.  This lacking ability to recognise God’s grace as superior and prior to our actions is known as the heresy of Pelagianism. Don’t get it wrong! It is not that we are called to wait upon God with our hands folded – it is that we are called to see the abilities of our hands as a gift from God, first and foremost, and that everything is possible by God’s super-abundant grace alone.

Thus, the pope speaks firmly against “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” (§57).  He responds unsympathetically to those who inflexibly impose what they deem to be essential rigours on the faithful: “we cannot claim that our way of understanding this truth authorises us to exercise a strict supervision over others’ lives” (§43), and again: “[o]nce we believe that everything depends on human effort as channelled by ecclesial rules and structures, we unconsciously complicate the Gospel and become enslaved to a blueprint that leaves few openings for the working of grace” (§59).

Chapter Three: The Beatitudes: a manifesto for Christian life       

In the third part, the pope shows that the great model of holiness and example that Christian’s ought to emulate if they wish to attain holiness is that of Jesus Christ himself. He takes each of the beatitudes given in the Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew, carefully showing how today’s Christian can re-interpret and practise them in her/his present day and in so doing, become Christ to others. To Latin Americans, the strong emphasis on the poor, the anawim of God (§74) and especially of God’s special care for those most disenfranchised and even despised in our societies, and the call to serve them with utmost justice, will be familiar to the calls given by the theologies of liberation. “We forget that it [justice] is shown especially in justice towards those who are most vulnerable” (§79). It would be a worthwhile exercise to take these sections for personal reflection and prayer in the next few weeks.

A first reading of this section has left me with two strong impressions. Firstly, that we are called to constant growth and greater patience of and with ourselves and others. There is a decidedly uncondemning approach and an overwhelmingly human appeal, as has become the familiar and commonplace style of Pope Francis. We are to bear ourselves and others with ever-greater patience and not to run from pain or personal difficulties or to shun vulnerability. The bishop of Rome calls us to hear St Thérèse of Lisieux, who said that “[p]erfect charity consists in putting up with others’ mistakes, and not being scandalized by their faults.” Speaking of those who are homeless and marginalized we are called to “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”. We are all God’s children without difference or discrimination (§98).

What is most striking in this third part is the pope’s criticism of how we are often too ready to see some matters of social justice as more important, trumping or holding greater weight than others. In particular, he shows the disproportion when it comes to protecting the rights of the unborn and other “‘grave’ bioethical concerns” as compared to “the situation of migrants” often relativised and seen as a “lesser issue”.  He is scathing about the injustices more readily committed in the lives of society’s poorest people: “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” (§101-102).

Chapters Four and Five: The marks of holiness and how to recognize holiness today

Pope Francis seldom asks us to do something without giving very practical indications of how we might go about heeding his counsels. Thus, in the final part of the exhortation he outlines five qualities that we can look out for when searching for examples of holiness in the world. He says that we ought to pray for and cultivate these within ourselves. They are perseverance, patience and meekness (§112-121); joy and a sense of humour (§122-128); boldness and passion (§129-139); community (§140-146) and prayer (§147-157). My attention was drawn to the pope’s insistence on holiness as a communal achievement and not as something left to a select few: “[g]rowth in holiness is a journey in community, side by side with others” (§141).

Another concept that is synonymous with this papacy is that of “the gift of discernment” – again the great gift of Saint Ignatius to the church. The pope deals with the deceits of “the devil, the prince of evil” (§159) and calls especially the young to “avoid the verbal violence that demeans and mistreats others” (§116)  so prevalent in our Internet-driven culture and “a culture of zapping” that causes them to “easily become prey to every passing trend”. To remedy this, we are called to the grace of discernment which 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)

Read the full text of Gaudete et Exsultate

Image: Vatican News


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    “Even when life is devastated by vices and addictions, God is present” says Pope in new exhortation