Our Holy Father, Pope Francis, has given us a great treasure on the subject of holiness in his new Apostolic Exhortation, Gaudete et Exsultate. Its title is taken from the concluding words of our Lord in the Beatitudes from His Sermon on the Mount, "rejoice and be glad" (Mt 5:12). The Pope emphasizes that Jesus explained what holiness is all about in the Beatitudes which truly are the basis of Christian identity. Pope Francis considers joy as the distinctive mark of holiness for he states that in the Beatitudes, "The word 'happy' or 'blessed' [thus] becomes a synonym for 'holy.' It expresses the fact that those faithful to God and His word, by their self-giving gain true happiness." The title of the exhortation, Rejoice and be Glad, is so fitting during this Easter season.
Rejoice and be Glad is not meant to be a treatise on holiness, containing definitions and distinctions helpful for understanding this important subject, or a discussion of the various means of sanctification. The Pope states that his "modest goal is to repropose the call to holiness in a practical way for our time, with all its risks, challenges and opportunities. For the Lord has chosen each one of us to be holy and blameless before him in love' Eph (1:4)."
It is significant to note that in his exhortation Pope Francis quotes the famous words of Léon Bloy, "The only great tragedy in life, is not to become a saint." Léon Bloy, a convert, author and mystic, falls in the company of the great French Catholic literary revival authors of the ninetieth and twentieth centuries, such as George Bernanos, François Mauriac, Julian Green and Charles Péguy. The words which the Pope quotes are from Bloy's novel, The Woman Who Was Poor, which is a powerful story of the development of spiritual discernment deriving from poverty and degradation. The words fit in very well with the overall theme of the Pope's exhortation which is that sanctity is part of the fabric of all lives, not just those of religious and those who are called to live in monasteries. As the Pope observes, "To be holy does not require being a bishop, a priest or a religious. We are frequently tempted to think that holiness is only for those who can withdraw from ordinary affairs to spend much time in prayer. This is not the case. We are all called to be holy by living our lives with love and bearing witness in everything we do, wherever we find ourselves."
Pope Francis outlines five signs of holiness which fit the framework offered by the Beatitudes. These five signs correspond to the celebration of the Eucharist, the celebration of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, personal devotions, individual methods of prayers, personal sacrifices, spiritual direction and other forms of spirituality personal to each particular person. The Pope stresses that these five signs are not the sum total of a model of holiness but are great expressions of the love of God and neighbor which are particularly important in view of the limitations and dangers of today's culture. The signs are: 1. Perseverance, patience and meekness; 2. Joy and a sense of humor; 3. Boldness and passion; 4. In community; 5. In constant prayer. Reading through and reflecting on these five signs in the Pope's exhortation is a wonderful reflection on how we communicate with God and how we communicate God to others in our everyday lives and preoccupations. They are not only for the mystic but for each of us. Earlier in the exhortation, Pope Francis gives a good example of how the signs are manifested when he explains, "This holiness to which the Lord calls you will grow through small gestures. Here's an example: 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.' This is a step forward in holiness."
Rejoice and be Glad reflects very well the spirit and counsel of another great spiritual classic, Introduction to the Devout Life, written during the seventeenth century by a significant Bishop and Doctor of the Church, St. Francis de Sales. This influential work was meant to reach all walks of life to which St. Francis ministered, from the poorest peasant to those involved in court affairs. St. Francis de Sales emphasized that holiness was the basic call to everyone and that it had to be lived appropriately in the state of life in which one found him or herself. He stated, "When God created the world He commanded every tree to bear fruit after its kind; and even so He bids Christians – the living trees of His Church – to bring forth fruits of devotion, each one according to his kind and vocation. A different exercise of devotion is required of each – the noble, the artisan, the servant, the prince, the maiden, and the wife; and furthermore such practice must be modified according to the strength, the calling, and the duties of each individual." The message of Pope Francis is the same as St. Francis de Sales, holiness and the call to sanctity is to be lived by everyone and the same joy abides in those who live accordingly.
The reference of Pope Francis in his Apostolic Exhortation to Léon Bloy is not the first time he has made reference to him in his papal teaching. In fact, he referred to the words of Bloy in his first homily as Pope when he stated, "When one does not profess Jesus Christ – I recall the phrase of Léon Bloy – 'Whoever does not pray to God, prays to the devil.' When one does not profess Jesus Christ, one professes the worldliness of the devil." Pope Francis' quote of Bloy is very significant in Rejoice and be Glad, not only because of the Pope's emphasis on prayer but also because of this emphasis on the devil in this exhortation. Pope Francis realizes that while God calls us to be happy in Him, the devil distracts us in order that we might find unhappiness. The Pope states, "We should not think of the devil as a myth, a representation, a symbol, a figure of speech or an idea. This mistake would lead us to let down our guard, to grow careless and end up more vulnerable. The devil does not need to possess us. He poisons us with the venom of hatred, desolation, envy and vice. When we let down our guard, he takes advantage of it to destroy our lives, our families and our communities." The reality of the devil and the destruction and unhappiness which he reaps is a constant theme of the teaching of Pope Francis. It is only by being in communion with God that we avoid the devil’s wiles.
The Pope likewise makes reference to two subtle enemies of holiness which he often refers to in his teaching. These are the ancient heresies of gnosticism and pelagianism which continue to be present among us especially in modern times. Pelagianism is the conviction that the individual is radically autonomous and fails to recognize that, at the deepest level of being, one derives from God. Gnosticism goes even further. It is the conviction that the person is liberated from being flesh and blood and that the provident hand of the creator can no longer be recognized. The fundamental identity of the human person is lost in such a world separated from its ultimate meaning. The Pope reminds us of the presence of these errors among us today which lead us away from our fundamental identity and call to holiness. They truly are tools of the devil at which he is very effective.
Just as Pope Francis refers to the deception of the devil in his Apostolic Exhortation, so does St. Francis de Sales in his Introduction to the Devout Life. St. Francis expounded, "The devil takes advantage of sadness to tempt the good, striving to make them sorrowful in their virtue as he strives to make the wicked rejoice in their sins, and as he can only tempt us to evil by making it appear attractive, so he can only tempt us away from what is good by making it appear unattractive. He delights to see us sad and despondent because he is such himself for all eternity and wishes everyone to be as he is." The devil truly does not want us to rejoice and be glad.
We do have a great treasure in Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation, Rejoice and be Glad. It is not a lengthy document and is written in a manner, so particular to Pope Francis, which is easy to read and understand. It presents us with the call to sanctity which leads to joy within our lives. It reminds us that this call is for everyone. It contains the same message as St. Francis de Sales’ Introduction to a Devout Life but is put in the context of today's day and age. The Pope reminds us in a vivid manner that "the only great tragedy in life is not to become a saint" and that "whoever does not pray to God, prays to the devil." Rejoice and be Glad is a very much needed exhortation for our times and for each of us.
Most Reverend Gerald M. Barbarito
April 27, 2018