Gaudete et Exsultate (GE) is a very personal call of the Holy Father to each of the faithful to live holy lives. More specifically, it is a poignant invitation to put ourselves before the Lord, for it is the Lord who calls us and the Spirit who guides us to holiness, which is our happiness (GE 64). Francis addresses the exhortation in several places explicitly to “you” including a whole section entitled “Your Mission in Christ.” Francis also includes several quotations from Scripture and elsewhere that, along with his own prose, include over 100 mentions of the word, “you.”
I point this out just to reiterate that this is a very personal exhortation, from one Christian to another, from our pastor to the whole Church composed of individuals. In reading it, one learns and is edified, certainly. But perhaps more directly than other writings of Francis or recent Popes, it is a personal challenge. In several places, Francis warns us of the danger of mediocrity and selfishness, and in other places in the exhortation, he urges us to break out of our sinful habits and to put ourselves before the Lord in prayer.
What I hope to achieve in this short essay is to introduce others to Francis’ invitation to holiness by re-presenting the words of Francis in a systematic way. In GE, Francis hints at a very robust vision of holiness, which he illustrates through many various passages. My goal here is to bring that vision of holiness to the fore and encourage also those who take a more intellectual approach to the world to a deeper appreciation of Francis’ writing.
Francis describes holiness as a journey to the heart of God, led by the Spirit, primarily through our service to others. In contrast, Francis warns us of the path of selfishness, in which men and women fail to look outside of themselves, fail to listen to God, and become corrupted into spiritual blindness and mediocrity. There are four primary ways in GE in which we can compare and contrast the life of holiness and the life of selfishness. (1) Grace; (2) Prayer; (3) Discernment; and (4) Action. Thus broadly, the arc of holiness can be shown to be God calling us and our response to that call.
The call to holiness is a grace that flows from our Baptism (GE 15). Francis reiterates what the Church taught in Lumen Gentium 40:
“The followers of Christ are called by God, not because of their works, but according to His own purpose and grace. They are justified in the Lord Jesus, because in the baptism of faith they truly become sons of God and sharers in the divine nature. In this way they are really made holy. Then too, by God’s gift, they must hold on to and complete in their lives this holiness they have received. They are warned by the Apostle to live “as becomes saints”,(219) and to put on “as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved a heart of mercy, kindness, humility, meekness, patience”,(220) and to possess the fruit of the Spirit in holiness.”
God is the one who justifies, who sanctifies, who makes Holy in Christ Jesus. And so he sends the Spirit among us to strengthen us and confirm us in that holiness. It’s important to realize that this grace does not heal all at once (GE 49, cf. Summa Theologica II-II, q. 109, a. 9, ad 1). Rather, holiness is a journey and a path. “Grace acts in history; ordinarily it takes hold of us and transforms us progressively” (GE, 50).
Francis also takes several paragraphs to re-present the teachings of the Church with regards to grace (GE, 52-56). Here, Francis reiterates that grace is absolutely God’s free gift of merciful love, which we, in no way, merit.
With regard to the reception of grace, Francis warns of certain dangers. First and most poignantly, Francis warns us of the devil himself who seeks to devour souls. The devil is not just a mythical figure who inspires fear but rather a real being against whom we must be on guard through regular prayer. We must maintain a supernatural vision of the world, through which we can truly evaluate our weaknesses. A merely empirical self-analysis would leave us vulnerable. (GE, 160-1).
The second danger is that we attempt to put human limits on grace, either by suggesting that grace is only available to those with certain intellectual predilections (modern-day gnosticism) or only those available to those who already make good decisions (modern-day pelagianism). In both cases, men and women fail to appreciate the mystery of God’s mercy. They fail to understand the depth of God’s love.
Modern-day gnostics implicitly hold that God’s grace only works in the way that they believe it to, typically in a purified form that exists only in some. Francis disagrees:
“Even when someone’s life appears completely wrecked, even when we see it devastated by vices or addictions, God is present there. If we let ourselves be guided by the Spirit rather than our own preconceptions, we can and must try to find the Lord in every human life. This is part of the mystery that a gnostic mentality cannot accept, since it is beyond its control.” (GE, 42)
Modern-day pelagians, in a more direct way, reject the transcendence of God’s grace. They see themselves absolutely and exclusively responsible for creating a better world today, in themselves and for others.
“The result is a self-centred and elitist complacency, bereft of true love. This finds expression in a variety of apparently unconnected ways of thinking and acting: 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.”
The truth is that God alone can bring about goodness in this world, particularly when he works in us and reveals to us the depth of his mercy. Francis recommends the Sacraments and the Church as an opportunity to encounter God’s mercy. Separately, he also warns us against limiting God’s grace to purely human customs and traditions. “This may well be a subtle form of pelagianism, for it appears to subject the life of grace to certain human structures.” (GE, 58).
By acknowledging our weaknesses, we can come to a fuller appreciation of God’s merciful love, and we recognize our absolute reliance on God’s grace.
The first step on the path to holiness is the reception of God’s grace into our hearts, though to be clear, even the desire to be holy is God’s grace. Francis illustrates that prayerful listening is key in this regard. Prayerful listening is the first opportunity we have to reflect on God acting in our lives, which becomes essential to the later “stages” of holiness, in discerning and acting.
Here, I want to point out some illustrative passages from GE regarding prayer and silence.
“You too need to see the entirety of your life as a mission. Try to do so by listening to God in prayer and recognizing the signs that he gives you.” (GE, 23).
Later, Francis writes, “Let us listen once more to Jesus, with all the love and respect that the Master deserves. Let us allow his words to unsettle us, to challenge us and to demand a real change in the way we live.” (GE, 66).
Finally, “Trust-filled prayer is a response of a heart open to encountering God face to face, where all is peaceful and the quiet voice of the Lord can be heard in the midst of silence. In that silence, we can discern, in the light of the Spirit, the paths of holiness to which the Lord is calling us.” (GE, 149).
While in one place Francis encourages us into habits of prayer that need not be particularly long or emotional and can take place in the midst of our daily lives, Francis makes clear that one cannot “do without” prolonged prayer too (GE, 171), to be silent, to contemplate God having already acted in their lives.
It should be no surprise then that against prayerful silence with God stands the noise and distractions of the modern-world. “The presence of constantly new gadgets, the excitement of travel and an endless array of consumer goods at times leave no room for God’s voice to be heard.” (GE, 29).
Prayer is also a necessary part of the process of discernment, in which we learn to distinguish between the things of God and worldly things. “Discernment is a grace,” Francis states (GE, 170). Discernment includes reason and the sciences–such rational thinking can truly help us identify and ignore merely illusory trends and experiences–but discernment “transcends” reason and the sciences. “We are not the ones to determine when and how we will encounter him; the exact times and places of that encounter are not up to us.” (GE 41).
Even the Church’s norms are not sufficient, in themselves, for one’s discernment, because the life of holiness is unique and personal. There is simply no way the Church could offer paths for each person given the complex ways God acts in each person’s life. Still, God offers us the Magisterium as a faithful guard of what has been taught, and as a help to us in our quest “to find in the treasury of the Church whatever is most fruitful for the “today” of salvation” (GE, 173).
Because the nature of discernment is to identify what is of God, discernment itself leads us to an encounter with God. Faced then with God, we are confronted by the possibilities of a life in Christ. Francis writes, “Discernment, then, 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.” (GE, 175).
There are two main obstacles to discernment. The first is what Francis calls “zapping,” which is a word that I had to look up. I wanted to understand the subtleties here. Google Translate translated the Arabic word as “locomotion” and it translated the Polish into “moving from channel to channel.” In short, the distracted way in which we fail to ever settle on anything is an obstacle to discernment because it prevents us from ever entering into discernment in the first place. (GE, 167).
The second obstacle to discernment is an attachment to the status quo. Discernment is much more than an intellectual exercise. It also includes the will and requires us to not merely know what is good but to hold fast to it. Francis writes, “The forces of evil induce us not to change, to leave things as they are, to opt for a rigid resistance to change.” (GE, 168). In Christ, who renews us constantly, there is true freedom.
“You” is written over 100 times in GE, and “others” is written over 75 times. The “other” entails the essential external content of holiness. Francis writes, “Just as you cannot understand Christ apart from the kingdom he came to bring, so too your personal mission is inseparable from the building of that kingdom” (GE, 25).
Discernment forms the foundation for decision-making and consequently our actions. With a ready heart, we respond to God’s call. Francis writes, “Discernment is not about discovering what more we can get out of this life, but about recognizing how we can better accomplish the mission entrusted to us at our baptism.” (GE, 174). Discernment helps us to identify the promptings of the Spirit so that we can act on them. “Often discernment is exercised in small and apparently irrelevant things, since greatness of spirit is manifested in simple everyday realities.” (GE, 169).
As I wrote above, holiness in Francis vision is synonymous with happiness, a foretaste of the beatific vision. It is a process by which we come to see the world through God’s eyes. In this way, our holiness and our service to others is the best way we demonstrate our love for God. Francis writes, “It is true that the primacy belongs to our relationship with God, but we cannot forget that the ultimate criterion on which our lives will be judged is what we have done for others.” (GE, 104).
Francis explains further, “Here I think of Saint Thomas Aquinas, who asked which actions of ours are noblest, which external works best show our love for God. Thomas answered unhesitatingly that they are the works of mercy towards our neighbour” (GE, 106).
He adds a little later, “Those who really wish to give glory to God by their lives, who truly long to grow in holiness, are called to be single-minded and tenacious in their practice of the works of mercy.” (GE, 107)
The foundation of Francis’ vision of holiness derives from a interpretation of The Final Judgment (Matthew 25) that does not attempt to explain away its Christological content. Quoting John Paul II, Francis writes, “The text of Matthew 25:35-36 is ‘not a simple invitation to charity: it is a page of Christology which sheds a ray of light on the mystery of Christ’.” (GE, 96). Profoundly but simply, the suffering of others is Christ’s suffering (GE, 37). When we serve others, we serve Christ.
When we reject our mission and fail to serve others, we fail to live in holiness. Our sinfulness can take on two primary forms. The first is when we take actions that deny the primacy of Christ in others. The second form of sinfulness is failing to take any action at all, by which I mean a “mediocre” existence that is comfortable or safe. Even our free time is the Lord’s! (GE, 30).
With regard to actions that are harmful, Francis, in fact, cites “consumerism” or “consumerist” ideologies several times in the exhortation. Consumerism isolates us from others (GE, 146). Francis writes, “Hedonism and consumerism can prove our downfall, for when we are obsessed with our own pleasure, we end up being all too concerned about ourselves and our rights.” (GE, 108).
Francis, however, also writes in very strong terms about a life of “mediocrity,” a sort of stale and dull life which implicitly rejects God’s call to holiness and to change. It can be produced through fear, as in the very visceral fear of a “danger” be it emotional, psychological, or even physical. Francis exhorts us to not let our fear and “excessive caution” cripple us (GE, 133). Mediocrity can also be produced through an attachment to the status quo or complacency (GE, 137).
In Francis’ vision, the life of holiness starts with grace, which is internalized through prayer and discernment, and culminates in our actions, love, and mercy we show to Christ in others. By the Spirit and through our love, we are transformed progressively more into saints who experience a unique closeness with God, which itself is grace. And thus the “cycle” of holiness starts again. In short, Francis’ exhortation on the call to holiness describes in practical ways the path of habitual grace, that is, the conforming of our entire being in God’s mercy and love.