The moderator of spiritual formation for the Jefferson City diocese offers the following insights into holiness, based on the teaching of Pope Francis.
In his apostolic exhortation “Gaudete et Exsultate,” (Rejoice and Be Glad), our wonderful Pope Francis provides us with very sound and practical advice on achieving a life of holiness in our modern world.
In it, he reminds us that the call to holiness is universal.
He stresses that holiness is incompatible with individualism, dogmatism and sectarianism.
This exhortation, the fourth pontifical document issued forth since he became the bishop of Rome, is the Catholic Church’s most significant magisterial text on holiness since “Lumen Gentium,” (“Light to the Nations”), the Second Vatican Council’s dogmatic constitution on the Church, which also insisted on the “universal call to holiness.”
Prayer and action
Our pontiff writes that holiness is not based on prayer alone, but also on serving those in need and in practicing self-control.
He encourages us to hear and act upon the call to holiness in practical ways for our own time, with all of its risks, challenges and opportunities.
Offering very sensible guidelines, he instructs us to be mindful of our everyday behaviors ... Are we regularly judging others? Must we stop gossiping? Are we being mean-spirited, harboring resentments and withholding forgiveness?
Pope Francis also takes into account our modern world with its social media, and cautions against slandering others or lashing out in anger, which may seem easier and less sinful when doing so online.
He offers concrete examples: “A woman goes shopping, she meets a neighbor and they begin to speak, and the gossip starts. But she says in her heart: ‘No, I will not speak badly of anyone.’”
Pope Francis commends this and teaches us that little steps such as these bring us closer to holiness.
He continues, “Later at home, one of her children wants to talk to her about his hopes and dreams, and even though she is very tired, she sits down and listens with patience and love. That is another sacrifice, which brings holiness.
“Later, she experiences some anxiety, but recalling the love of our Blessed Mother, she takes her Rosary in hand and prays with faith.” Yet another path to holiness.
Later still, she goes out onto the street, encounters a poor person and stops to say a kind word to him. One more step.
Expanding on the situation of meeting a homeless person on a cold night, the Pope says: “I can view him or her as an annoyance ... or I can respond with faith and charity, and see in this person a human being with a dignity identical to my own.”
Francis implores us to remember that this is what it means to be a Christian!
It would seem that Pope Francis is inviting us to think of holiness as a journey, one we must embark on in our ordinary daily lives, a step at a time. One humble step at a time.
In response to Pope Francis’ teaching, one can’t help but reflect on a Doctor of the Church, St. Thérèse of Lisieux, “the Little Flower,” who spoke of her “Little Way.”
Thérèse understood that to be a disciple of Jesus Christ means to seek holiness of life in the ordinary and in daily life.
Trappist monks taught me that to be holy, one must learn to live ordinary daily life with extraordinary love.
“Blessed are they”
Pope Francis continues his reflection on holiness by reflecting on the Beatitudes.
A beatitude is a supreme blessing. When Christ says, “Blessed are they,” He seems to be saying, “Oh how happy you could be if only you embrace these Beatific values and live your life out of these virtues.”
Pope Francis is reminding us of the importance of imitating Christ and in so doing, embracing His beatific vision.
The Beatitudes are Jesus’ idea of holiness. To be holy, then, is to be poor in spirit, to be meek, to be a peacemaker, to hunger and thirst for righteousness.
And then in particular, Pope Francis highlights, Blessed are the merciful. Mercy has been a theme of his pontificate, and Francis says it has two aspects: helping and serving others and forgiveness and understanding.
Once more, the Little Flower comes to mind who teaches us; “Miss no single opportunity of making some small sacrifice, here by a smiling look, there by a kindly word; always doing the smallest right and doing it all for love.”
Beware of two extremes
In this exhortation and in a precise way, Pope Francis goes on to caution against two heresies, which unfortunately, like many heresies, come and go throughout the ages.
He warns that Gnosticism and Pelagianism are prevalent in our modern world.
Gnosticism would have us believe that in order to be saved, we must be in possession of some sort of secret knowledge, “to have all of the answers.”
This heresy suggests there is no need to be charitable or merciful, but only to have right belief. Pope Francis reminds us that what we know may be important, but our deeds are very important, too.
He teaches that those who have answers for everything are on the wrong path. “Know-it-alls,” he adds, are very troubling because “knowing it all is not going to save you.”
Perhaps it may seem a bit paradoxical, but in my own life, I must admit that the wisest and holiest folks I have personally known are most often monastics — women and men — and they tend toward the questions, not the answers. They are intent on exploring the very depths of the questions, and living in mystery.
In this same light, as I often say in homilies, “I would rather know the Shepherd than the Psalm.”
Pelagianism is the sense that we are not dependent on the grace and mercy of God to save us, but rather, can earn salvation by our own efforts.
A Pelagianist believes he or she is doing it all alone.
Pope Francis warns that Pelagianists become absorbed with social and political advantages and have an obsessive preoccupation with Liturgy, doctrine and the Church’s prestige.
Our Pope advises us that Pelagianism robs us of humility.
This is a dire warning and one would be wise to heed. After all, another Doctor of the Church, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, says the three most important virtues are humility, humility, and humility.
St. Bernard also taught that “humility is always the key that opens the door to begin the journey to God.”
This brings to mind the ancient Hebrew rabbis, who taught that in order to hear the Word of God, a person has to get very close to the “humus.”
This Latin word humus means soil, and it is of course, the same root that gives us the word humility.
In other words, one must not be too proud or puffed up or one will not hear the Word of God.
In His image
“So the last shall be first, and the first last.” (Matthew 20:16).
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “Rejoice and be glad.”
Pope Francis teaches us that to pursue a life of holiness in the ordinary and the everyday will bring us to the fullness of Gospel joy and to the experience of the Good News in our Christian lives.
We will indeed, rejoice and be glad. After all, “The Kingdom of God is at hand!”
Our pontiff also instructs us to remember that we are not called to be holy like some other person, but rather, to find our own paths and to seek holiness in our own true and authentic selves.
This universal call to holiness is also our own unique call, and this path to holiness is the path to true and lasting happiness, security and contentment.
Our “True Selves,” which is a term Thomas Merton uses, is that utterly and unique reflection of the Imago Dei within each of us, and which each one of us is called to reflect to the world.
The Imago Dei (“image of God”) is a theological term, applied uniquely to humans. The term has its roots in Genesis 1:27, which states that God created woman and man in His own image.”
This universal call to holiness, then, must be lived out of our true and authentic selves, found in conforming to and imitating Jesus Christ.
Finally, we recall that this word “holy” in its Old English and German origins is related to whole.
This brings to mind the instruction of Christ: “Love the Lord your God with your whole heart and with your whole soul and with your whole mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matthew 37-40).
Brothers and sisters, we are called to make this journey of holiness together, to share the road and our journeys with one another in Christian charity and mercy ... in right belief and right action as well.
The universal call to holiness reveals the roadmap to heaven, and in the end ... holiness reveals that the road to heaven is heaven.
Fr. Flatley is pastor of Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary parish in Vienna and Holy Guardian Angels parish in Brinktown.