In the pontificate of Francis, Bishop of Rome, there are a number of accusations which perpetually plague the peace of the people of God. So and so insists that the Holy Father is too vague while such and such declares that he is too nefariously definitive. This man says he is far too liberal in his religion and that newspaper says that he is still trapped in the old Catholic ‘conservatism.’ Still another says that the Pope is too public with his thoughts and someone else that he is too hidden in his machinations. But there is one thematic constant among all those who hear the Holy Father’s words; there is one label for the Successor of Peter which even I do not call into question or dispute: this Pope is terrifying. I might even call him a madman. I would certainly call him a fanatic.
Now Pope Francis is not the first madman which the Catholic Church has had to endure; neither will he be the last. The Holy Church of Christ has had her fair share of radicals and ravagers. More than her fair share, she has had a positive embarrassment of them. Perhaps the first to enunciate this indifferent insanity was St. Paul, who declared that the wisdom of the Cross is lunacy to the world, and therefore to whatever of the world is still within us. In this regard, the Holy Father is like any of the other madmen who have sat upon an episcopal throne (even the throne of St. Peter), which the Church must endure from time to time with teeth gritted like a man having his shoulder put back into place. But there is one degree of great separation between this new revolutionary and all those who came before, a distinction which, if ignored, makes him far more perplexing (and no less disturbing): this madman has a Twitter.
That is to say, this man, who is so clearly univocal in vision, so immovable in intention, so relentless in his conviction, is perhaps more powerful than any who came before could ever have imagined becoming. The Argentinian pontiff can reach all of us, into our ears down to our hearts, at any moment of every day. And his words betray his singular madness, the one object of his relentless attention that, while said in this way or that depending upon the moment, is always screaming like a missile through the surface of our minds and exploding in our souls: you must be holy.
The Pope is certainly not the first to tell us to be holy. He is the first to be able to tell us to be holy with nothing but a click. His reach, hitherto unfathomable to any in his chair, is the eyes of practically every man and woman on the earth. And his message is the most disturbing which can be broadcast; his rallying cry is the unnerving anthem of the kingdom of light, a light which is blinding to us and burns our eyes and from which we desire to turn away. Everyone knows he is a fanatic; everyone knows he is mad. What everyone does not know is that he is a fanatic for our sake, that he is a man mad with love. People are rightly disturbed by the Pope, as they were right to be disturbed by the Lord who came before him. The Pope is obsessed with the holiness of each of us, and he is willing to break the back of the Church to accomplish it. Anyone who is not afraid is not paying enough attention.
I am convinced that this is the entire motivation behind the publication of the Holy Father’s latest exhortation, Gaudete et Exsultate. The Latin indeed means “rejoice and be glad,” but I would have titled it, “Tremble and Be Terrified.” Not because of any sort of doctrinal or pastoral error on the Roman Pontiff’s part– I remain convinced that the former is impossible and the latter laughable– but because of the sheer audacity of the demands the Successor of Peter has placed upon us. The Pope has torn asunder the common view of holiness. He is not the first to do it; he will not be the last. But his approach is perhaps the most distressing.
Pope Francis is not satisfied with us. He says, in fact, that we should not be satisfied with us. We have relegated holiness to certain moments or dutiful occasions; the Pope will have none of that. He will not abide the nonsense that equivocates holiness with ministries or parish events. It is not just that he will not accept that holiness is reserved to those with a collar or in a cloister; we could nod along with such a sentiment. The thing is that neither will he accept that holiness is a thing of ministry, of recognition, of involvement in a very particular set of activities. No, he says to you and to me, holiness– being set apart by, for, and with, God– is for us, the mere mortals, the everymen, the average and unremarkable, in every moment of our regular lives. To believe, to preach, to live otherwise, is unacceptable, which in this case is naturally a synonym for heretical.
It was on Pentecost that I heard an abysmal homily. Father was remarking upon the Pope’s exhortation and its declaration of the need for the holiness. Now the mention of a papal document in a homily is a rarity in itself, which caused my ears to perk up. What Father said has not stopped echoing in my mind and will not for some time, and it was this: that Father saw the Pope’s exhortation to holiness in the bereavement ministry, and the ushers, and the altar servers, and the soup kitchen, and the choir. Look around, he said, and you see this wonderful work you are doing: this is holiness.
I must wonder if Father had really read with any attention the Pope’s exhortation because he had so blithely disarmed it. Father had lapsed into that tired neo-clericalism that has been rebuked again and again by the Roman Pontiffs and bishops, but never as it has been by this Pontiff: it was the clericalization that does not say that, in order to be holy, one must be a priest but one must certainly act like a priest. Of course, the whole point of the matter of a “universal call to holiness,” which we hear often endorsed and rarely explained, is precisely that one need act nothing like a priest in order to become holy (a synonym, it must be remembered, for “lover of God”). The power and purpose of the Gospel, of all the Church’s sacraments and prayers, is that we everyday people can become holy by doing precisely what we are always doing but doing it with renewed intent.
To put it rather strangely (and, therefore, accurately), the crux of the teaching is really this: You go to work; you must work alongside God. You go to the movies with friends; your entertainment must be for God. You have lunch with your family; your meals must be in thanks to God. You drink beer and smoke cheap cigars; the smoke should rise as an offering to God and the beer be a reminder that he has made strong drink to cheer the hearts of men. You read the newspaper; you must read with the eyes of God. You tend the house; your house must be a little church of God. You love your children; your children must be raised as children of God.
The universal call to holiness is a play on words which we have refused to recognize. We see the phrase and think that universal merely means “all of us,” and the old desire to make laymen into pseudo-priests simply absorbs it. That nefarious impulse takes a hold of the word, “universal,” and says, “To be holy is to be collared; you must all act like you are collared!” But that is only the first meaning of the word and it is only of categorical and not imperative importance. The second and far more necessary meaning of “universal” is immediately obvious to anyone who knows its etymology. Universal does not merely mean everyone but everything. A call to universal, or cosmic, or worldwide, or all-encompassing, holiness, is not simply a statement about who is meant to be holy. Far more importantly, as it turns out, it is a declaration about what is meant to be holy. And the answer to the question, “What of ours should be holy?” is that not one thing is excluded.
This is the Pope’s pronouncement from the opening page of his exhortation. Our Lord Jesus demands everything of us, he declares. The Son of God refuses to let us settle for a bland and mediocre existence. Every moment must be filled with His life, His presence, His love. We are not asked to be holy on Sundays but on all days. Holiness is not expected of special groups but of all Christians, of those who will never set foot in a parish meeting or bake a pancake breakfast. This project of holiness, of love of God and neighbor, requires all our effort. Nothing less will do.
And so we arrive at the great terror of the reign of the Roman Pontiff. Endowed with the powers of modern machinery, he reaches us everywhere. He speaks to us everywhere. Wherever we go, he meets us. It is in the age of the Internet that a new meaning has been added to the old word ‘catholic.’ In the old world, it indeed meant all-encompassing; only in the new can it also mean all-present. A thousand messages might meet us through the day in our blinking little screens, and nine hundred ninety-nine would lead us astray. But one voice is heard in a still, small whisper, and in its determination, it will not relent.
Pope Francis terrifies because he is a recurring reminder, a sudden shock, a daily demand, for my definitive defeat by Christ at every moment. He cannot be muzzled or muted or bargained or bribed. “Holiness!” We may hate this drumming refrain, we may resist it or renounce it or call it absurd. The one thing we cannot do is avoid it. The Pope’s words come for us all.
I end with a reflection upon the biblical text with which the Holy Father begins his exhortation. There is insufficient space to go into it as I would like and so I will have to wait for another essay which I may never write to really do it justice. St. John tells us that the Lamb breaks open the fifth seal and immediately he saw beneath the altar of heaven. We know that the altar of God’s Presence is many things: chiefly, it is Christ; it is also Calvary. This symbolism is readily apparent to the Catholic, made obvious for him at every Mass. That Christ is the altar and the sacrifice which please God eternally should come as no surprise to any of us. But it is what is under the altar of God that strikes my chest with holy fear.
Beneath the altar of God, the one and only altar that is Christ, St. John sees the souls of the saints. The beloved disciple sees those who have been slain for the Word of God and their witness to Him. It is true that St. John sees the martyrs. But martyrdom is not a mere matter of the shedding of blood for Christ; it is above all the fulfillment of the love of Christ over one’s own life, own self, own everything. Every Christian is to be a martyr, whether he is asked to be by the barrel of a gun or the withering of old age. With that realization, it is unambiguous what the Pope means us to understand: we are the souls upon which the altar of God is built. It is over us and with us that Christ’s sacrifice for sins is offered. From all eternity, Christ has built His altar upon the souls of the saints.
It is fitting, then, that our Church first offered her Liturgies on the tombs of the holy dead. Having seen Christ build upon their souls, she modeled her own altars by building upon their bodies. Our Holy, Catholic, Apostolic Church, continues this today by putting within all her altars the relics of saints. In those relics are the reminder of holiness, but far more than that: in those relics are our brethren gone before us, with whom and in whom we are inseparably united to God in Christ. In setting the saints beneath our altars, the Church fixes all of us who are in the unbreakable communion of saints firmly in place as the hallowed ground of Calvary. Every altar on earth cries out to us: be holy, as I am holy. It is our daring privilege and trembling responsibility to reply, “Amen.”
Joe Dantona is a convert living in eastern Ohio. He studied political science, history, and theology. He divides his free time between entertaining his wife and kids with dad jokes and getting distracted while reading good books.