Our Holy Father, Pope Francis, has written us a letter, an Apostolic Exhortation. He wrote it to us to orient us away from the world’s many distracting goals, towards the only lasting one, holiness. Far from a call to some rarefied, untouchable existence, the Pope invites us to become who we truly are, who we were created to be: an unrepeatable child of God. “The Lord … wants us to be saints and not to settle for a bland and mediocre existence” (§1).
I would like to offer an exhortation of my own: read this letter! It is not difficult, though it will challenge you. It will not be “over your head”, but it may put your nose out of joint. Stick with it. Read these words from your Papa. He wants what’s best for you. I offer these words on the first two chapters of this letter from the position of a fellow striver, a simple Catholic woman, who is neither a theologian nor a consecrated religious. I have tried to read, study and receive this exhortation as I believe it was intended, as an encouragement along the Way. Pope Francis’ words are frequently and famously misconstrued. I am no papal apologist, but have prayerfully addressed some of the more challenging points, trying to keep in mind they were written by our shepherd, who desires the best for his sheep.
Chapter 1: The Call to Holiness
We are never completely ourselves unless we belong to a people. (§6)
Father Joseph Gatto, my former pastor and now Reverend Rector of the Buffalo diocesan seminary, is known to say, “Ducks need ducks,” meaning that if we are to live this Christian life, we need to paddle along with some dear brothers and sister ducks who are also trying to live it. Pope Francis seems to take this one step further, in essence saying that in order to be the people God created us to be, we need to belong to a people. We are created for community and no matter how strongly we may desire to go at life alone, recreating the desert experience in the midst of the world, this will rarely have the result of fostering holiness. The sacrificial giving required of family life, or whatever type of service to His people which Jesus calls us to, is what created both the canonized saints of the Church and those that Pope Francis calls the “saints next door,” who make up the “middle class of holiness,” as French writer Joseph Malègue described them (§7).
The important thing is that each believer discern his or her own path, that they bring out the very best of themselves, the most personal gifts that God has placed in their hearts (cf. 1 Cor 12:7), rather than hopelessly trying to imitate something not meant for them. (§11)
Our Holy Father is asking us to live a life pursuing virtue and turning away from vice in the situations of our everyday life, authentically being who God has called us to be, not imitating someone else, or some lifestyle that falls short of His unique call on our life. Living a sacramental life in the Church, a life of prayer and community, we press onward along our little way, doing our best despite our weaknesses, faults, and failings. When we fall, we simply get up again saying, “Lord, I am a poor sinner, but you can work the miracle of making me a little bit better” (§15). Through “small gestures” done with love and faithfulness, we will daily grow closer to our Lord. Through apostolic activity among people, and prayer in solitude, and everything in between, we can and will become saints, step by step. The key is a commitment to prayerfully and sacrificially follow those steps the Holy Spirit lays out for us. “You cannot grow in holiness without committing yourself, body and soul, to giving your best …” (§25). The “middle class of holiness” is not satisfied with mediocrity. We aim to love like Jesus in every small gesture, act of charity and hour of prayer.
This full commitment to holiness of life requires us to disconnect from the usual mode of living in the world today. “How can we fail to realize the need to stop this rat race and to recover the personal space needed to carry on a heartfelt dialogue with God? Finding that space may prove painful but it is always fruitful” (§29). Our Holy Father encourages us that our time will be better spent with these “small gestures” than with our cell phones. To the off-putting idea of disconnecting from the world’s fleeting happiness to reconnect with God, Pope Francis encourages us saying:
Do not be afraid of holiness. It will take away none of your energy, vitality or joy. On the contrary, you will become what the Father had in mind when he created you, and you will be faithful to your deepest self. To depend on God sets us free from every form of enslavement and leads us to recognize our great dignity. (§32)
Do not be afraid to set your sights higher, to allow yourself to be loved and liberated by God. (§34)
Chapter 2: Two Subtle Enemies of Holiness
In what I found the most challenging part of the letter, Pope Francis enters into a discussion of two ancient heresies which are apparently alive and kicking: Gnosticism and pelagianism/semi-pelagianism. For the purposes of this letter Pope Francis describes Gnosticism as, “one of the most sinister ideologies because, while unduly exalting knowledge or specific experience, it considers its own vision of reality to be perfect … [by seeking] to domesticate the mystery” (§40). He goes on to describe a type of know-it-all Christian who is certain of every shade and subtlety of the faith. This rigidness fails to recognize ways that “God is present” where we might only see wreckage and sin. I’m not sure where Church teaching on a person’s state of grace, and the dictatorship of relativism comes in to play here, but I can say that I was convicted by this section.
Being a revert to the faith I know that I was, by all objective truths, in a state of abject mortal sin when I returned. This prodigal daughter was as prodigal as they come. And yet, by God’s grace alone, He brought me home. How this grace was active is part of the mystery my gnostic-tending mind would like to tidy up, but can’t, and shouldn’t. I simply need to let go and trust that “God is present” and active everywhere. The Church is the font of His mercy and grace. How that all works is up to God, and really in most instances none of my business! Lord, preserve me from the heresy of Gnosticism!
As opposed to the Gnostic belief in a sort of exaltation of the intellect, the pelagians and semi-pelagians look, not to grace and mercy, but to their own will and effort. These folks “’ultimately trust only in their own powers and feel superior to others because they observe certain rules or remain intransigently faithful to a particular Catholic style.’ When some of them tell the weak that all things can be accomplished with God’s grace, deep down they tend to give the idea that all things are possible by the human will, as if it were something pure, perfect, all-powerful, to which grace is then added” (§49).
Ouch. Sometimes when things aren’t going the way I had expected they would, I grasp at this futile form of control, which apparently is another heresy I am guilty of! The Church teaches about many virtues, habits of doing good, that will aid us in our Christian walk. One such virtue which is often ignored is liberality. Jesus teaches that the Christian walk is a narrow way. Though clearly narrow enough, these two heretical tendencies make it narrower, sinning against this virtue of liberality. Liberality allows the use of the entire narrow way, the whole width of the path. Gnosticism and pelagianism build a balance beam down the narrow path. It’s narrow enough! Why would we do this to ourselves and to each other? Pope Francis says we do this because we lack humility. I do this because I lack humility.
We are called to walk humbly in union with God, step by step, small gesture by small gesture, not trying to figure out anyone else’s walk, or judge anyone else’s motives. Chapter 2 is harsh. Pope Francis is quite possibly calling a whole wide swath of Christianity heretics. That’s harsh. But Jesus was the harshest with the Pharisees. He wanted so much more for them and from them. For those of us blessed to be walking this path of Christianity, we must not fall into these tendencies which dry up grace and cut off mercy. A “will lacking humility” leads us to the heresies of Gnosticism and pelagianism. This leads to a Church that “can become a museum piece or the possession of a select few,” instead of the giant field hospital for the many that Pope Francis envisions.
“… hence, love is the fulfillment of the law.” (Romans 13:10)
In the “hierarchy of virtues” in this call to holiness, the first, the utmost, and what could well be the lived as the only, is love. “In other words, amid the thicket of precepts and prescriptions, Jesus clears a way to seeing two faces, that of the Father and that of our brother. He does not give us two more formulas or two more commands. He gives us two faces, or better yet, one alone: the face of God reflected in so many other faces” (§61). How we respond to these “faces,” in each “small gesture” on our path to holiness, witnesses to our love or lack of it.
At the end of this chapter, Pope Francis asks us to do a little examination of conscience to discern “before God” whether or not these two grace and mercy killing heresies are present in our lives. Doing so may be a bit painful, but it will be simultaneously liberating and simplifying. The narrow path is not a balance beam. The precepts of the Church are not numerous enough to fill the book of Leviticus. We’re called to love, to pray, to sacrifice, to be in community, to be holy. This is a good thing. Rejoice and be glad!