The Pope’s new exhortation, Gaudete et Exsultate – or, in English, “Rejoice and Be Glad” – is a delight from beginning to end. The name recalls the pastoral document from Vatican II, Gaudium et Spes – in English, “Joy and Hope,” although the formal English name of the document is a little stuffy, “The Church in the Modern World.” Francis’s new outcry is a wellspring of insight and challenge and joyful confidence.
Even its name delights. Exsultate means “rejoice.” But there’s a different word embedded within it: exsul means “exile.” The joyful and confident teaching of the Church about welcoming immigrants goes back to Abraham at Mamre and Moses asking that we remember, followed by centurial updates. But when people look for the modern version of this ancient teaching, we usually start with an exhortation from Pope Pius XII, Exsul Familia Nazarethena – in English, “the exile family from Nazareth.”
Exile and exultation are, at first glance, opposites. But in practice, they often run together with great tenacity. The exile family from Nazareth was, one might say, the first identified miracle of healing performed by Jesus after his birth. Centuries before, Egypt had welcomed Israel and Joseph and their descendants, but then enslaved them. The moral code laid out by Moses has 613 details; but underneath, the most basic moral law was, “Don’t be like the Egyptians.”
Remember what they did, and make the opposite choice. So when Jesus and his family followed the way of Joseph and Jacob, south to Egypt as refugees, the Lord gave Egypt a second shot at hospitality, and this time Egypt got it right. The flight south from the slaughter around Bethlehem was not a time of exultation; but the event ended with the healing of Egypt – good reason for exultation.
The Pope’s new outcry (sorry: his “apostolic exhortation”) is built largely around the Beatitudes and the sermon about the Last Judgment – the six precepts. St. Augustine’s doorway into Scripture is this same sermon about the Last Judgment: whatsoever you do for my brother or sister in need, you do for me. As the bishop of Hippo, Augustine urged his community to welcome the refugees who were scrambling to cross the Mediterranean in rickety floaty things that resembled boats, risking their lives on the turbulent water to escape slaughter in the smashed city behind. But Augustine didn’t urge them to take on a burden; he urged them to accept a joyful gift. Are you a little jealous of Zacchaeus, who wanted to see the Lord, and climbed a tree to see over the crowd – and not only saw Jesus, but ended up hosting him for dinner? Don’t be jealous, Augustine cries out. Do the same! You still have to climb a tree to see Jesus; many people set eyes on him, but see only a dangerous foreigner or someone with dark skin. But he’s here, and he wants to have dinner at your house! In fact, he wants to move into your neighborhood, and put his tent-scene there! Let him! Be gentle, because exiles are in great pain. But still, just under the surface, here is such an invitation to exultation!
Gaudete! Embrace the Church in the Modern World, with confidence and unshakable unquenchable testable unbreakable chipped-but-intact wide-eyed toddling JOY!
Exsultate! We were in exile, broken-hearted. But the Lord of Exiles hunted us up and found us out. Maybe he’ll whirl us away to somewhere else, or maybe he’ll stay here. But where he is, is Home. Exsules filii Hevae! Exsultate! Exiles! Exult!