Last month, Pope Francis released an Apostolic Exhortation entitled “Gaudete et exsultate.” A little different from a papal encyclical—a formal document addressing a universal church teaching—an apostolic exhortation presents a reflective discourse on an important topic. The topic of this letter is On the Call to Holiness in Today’s World. The title translates: “Rejoice and be glad.”
He begins by considering the faces of saintly people that each of us have encountered in our lives: parents or grandparents who were selfless in their patience and compassion, men and women who work hard, serve humbly, and contribute honorably, elderly religious who never seem to lose their smile, or a next door neighbor who exudes kindness and inspires us to be better. He calls them “the middle class of holiness.” Sometimes referred to as “anawim,” or faithful remnant, these holy souls exist in every generation; often poor and meek, they are bearers of faith and signs of heroic virtue to those that know them. If you can, identify a few of them in your life and honor them by imitating their attitude–that will lead to your own holiness.
Francis references The Beatitudes as a hallmark of sanctity and juxtaposes those who embrace their characteristics with those that are modern gnostics or pelagians (those obsessed with law, absorbed with social and political advantage, punctiliously concerned for liturgy, doctrine, and prestige, vain about managing practical matters, or excessively concerned with personal fulfilment). Admitting that holiness is not an easy endeavor, he reminds us that God’s challenge for us to be perfect in one Gospel account is translated differently in another. Whereas Matthew writes, “Be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect,” Luke writes, “Be merciful as your heavenly father is merciful.” Mercy is the heartbeat of the Gospel message and those who possess it are walking the path of glory.
My take-away from him, in this document, and my pass-along to you, is that we also can obtain holiness. For a priest like me it means to be a contemplative-in-action, one who allows the Holy Spirit to accompany him both in solitude and in service (prayer and work). For someone like you, it might mean something a little different. If a busy young parent, it may mean balancing patience, discipline, perseverance, tender guidance, and good example. If a retired grandparent, it may mean slowing down and joyously dedicating time to things you didn’t do in the past and to people who need your wisdom, insight, and experience of your years.
Wherever we find ourselves on life’s journey, the pursuit of holiness includes taking time to interact with the Lord, offering some heartfelt dialogue and discernment—and then transforming our prayer into action. It also includes openness to seeing the face of Christ in the world: in acquaintances and in strangers. Perhaps most especially, it means allowing ourselves to be led by the Holy Spirit, who makes us both courageous and humble. If we do these things to our ability, even realizing that we will do them imperfectly, we will move closer to rejoicing and gladness. As part of the middle class of holiness, we will find ourselves on the path to God.