Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB
“Let us be spurred on by the signs of holiness that the Lord shows us through the humblest members of that people which “shares also in Christ’s prophetic office, spreading abroad a living witness to him, especially by means of a life of faith and charity”. We should consider the fact that, as Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross suggests, real history is made by so many of them. As she writes: “The greatest figures of prophecy and sanctity step forth out of the darkest night. But for the most part, the formative stream of the mystical life remains invisible. Certainly the most decisive turning points in world history are substantially co-determined by souls whom no history book ever mentions. And we will only find out about those souls to whom we owe the decisive turning points in our personal lives on the day when all that is hidden is revealed”.
Gaudete et Exsultate, #8
Jesus made his own the call to holiness that God addressed to the people of the first covenant: “You shall be holy; for I the Lord your God am holy” (Leviticus 19:2). He repeated it continually by word and by the example of his life. Especially in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:1-12), he left to the Church a code of Christian holiness. The Beatitudes found there are a recipe for this holiness.
Holiness is a way of life that involves commitment and activity. It is not a passive endeavour, but rather a continuous choice to deepen our relationship with God and then allow this relationship to guide all our actions in the world. Holiness requires a radical change in mindset and attitude. The acceptance of the call to holiness places God as our final goal in every aspect of our lives. This fundamental orientation towards God even envelops and sustains our relationship with other human beings. As we are sustained by a life of virtue and fortified by the gifts of the Holy Spirit, God draws us ever closer to himself and to that day when we shall see him face to face in heaven and achieve full union with him.
Here and now, we can find holiness in our personal experience of putting forth our best efforts in the workplace, patiently raising our children, and building good relationships at home, at school and at work. If we make all of these things a part of our loving response to God, we are on the path of holiness.
A saint is a friend of God who takes the Beatitudes seriously in his or her life. Each of us is called to become God’s friend. We grow in friendship with God as we do with others: by being present to God, talking with God and being generous with God. For this purpose, the Church encourages devotion to the saints. Many people still think that sainthood is a privilege reserved only for the chosen few. Actually, to become a saint is the task of every Christian –we could say it’s the task of everyone!
At times we may think that the saints are merely eccentrics that the Church exalts for us to imitate – people who were unrepresentative of and out of touch with the human scene. It is certainly true that all saints are “eccentric” in its literal sense, for this word means “outside the centre.” They deviated from the centre, from usual practice, from the ordinary ways of doing things, from the established methods. Another way of looking at the saints is to say that they stood at the radical centre.
We need the example of these holy women and men who had no moderation but only exuberance! They were people with ordinary affections who took God seriously and were therefore free to act with exuberance. Not measured or moderate, the saint’s response to God’s extravagant love is equally immoderate, marked by fidelity and total commitment. G.K. Chesterton once said of them, “[such] people have exaggerated what the world and the Church have forgotten.”
The Roman Catholic Church canonizes certain saints, placing them on a list (canon) of those given the seal of its approval, after long study and a process of discernment. There are far more saints who are not in the canon than are in it; also, many a saint in the canon receives little or no veneration from people today, for it is always the people who finally decide that someone is, for them, a hero. And if there was ever an age when young men and women needed authentic heroes, it is our age. The Church understands that saints, their prayers, their lives, are for people on earth – that sainthood, as an earthly honour, is not coveted by the saints themselves.
The true defense or apology of Christian faith, the most convincing demonstration of its truth against every denial, is the saints and the beauty that their faith has generated. Today, for faith to grow, we must encounter the saints and holy ones and enter into contact with what is beautiful and good. This is the vocation and mission of the Saints and Blesseds in the Church. Every crisis that the Church faces, every crisis that the world faces, is a crisis of holiness. Holiness is crucial because it is the real face of the Church.
When he was elected Pope in 2013, Jesuit Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio chose the name Francis for this very reason: as pontiff he has embraced the mission of Francis of Assisi: to “rebuild” the Church in a time of crisis in the sense of a spiritual reform that has God at its center. Over the past five years, Pope Francis has re-proposed the call to holiness in a practical way for our own time, with all its risks, challenges and opportunities.” This past spring, he gave to the Church a marvelous Apostolic Letter entitled Gaudete et Exsultate. The starting point is “the call to holiness” made to all. From here we go on to a clear identification of “two subtle enemies” that tend to turn holiness into elitist, intellectual or voluntary forms. Then it gives the Gospel Beatitudes as a positive model of holiness consisting in following the way “in the light of the Master” and not a vague religious ideology. Next it describes some characteristics of holiness in the current world: patience and meekness, humor, courage and fervor, community life and constant prayer. The exhortation concludes with a chapter dedicated to the spiritual life as “combat, vigilance and discernment.”
Personal holiness as mission
For Pope Francis, holiness is not the imitation of abstract models and ideals. References to ordinary holiness are simple, near and popular: a “little holiness.” Francis has often referred to Therese of Lisieux, recalling her life of holiness. He takes her writings with him on his apostolic voyages and has canonized her parents. In the homily given at the Mass celebrated in Tbilisi, Georgia, on October 1, 2016, he quoted the autobiographical writings of Therese of the Child Jesus where she “shows her ‘little way’ to God, ‘the trust of a little child who falls asleep without fear in her Father’s arms,’ because ‘Jesus does not demand great actions from us, but simply surrender and gratitude.’”
But holiness is also tied to the single individual: holiness is living out one’s own vocation and mission on the earth: “Each saint is a mission” (GE 19). Holiness itself is a mission. There is no abstract ideal. Francis had written with fiery words in Evangelii Gaudium: “I am a mission on this earth; that is the reason why I am here in this world. We have to regard ourselves as sealed, even branded, by this mission of bringing light, blessing, enlivening, raising up, healing and freeing. All around us we begin to see nurses with soul, teachers with soul, politicians with soul, people who have chosen deep down to be with others and for others.” (EG 273).
Joy and holiness
Pope Francis’ call to holiness is open to the invitation to the simple joy of the Gospel quoted at the beginning of the exhortation: “Rejoice and be glad” (Matt 5:12). The invitation to evangelical joy sounded out already in the first exhortation of Francis that had as its title Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”). And the magisterial documents Laudato Si’ and Amoris Laetitia also make appeals to praise and joy. Which joy is Pope Francis speaking about? Joy for Pope Francis is the “spiritual consolation” that St. Ignatius speaks of, the “interior joy that stimulates and attracts celestial reality and the salvation of the soul, giving it tranquility and peace in its Creator and Lord” (Spiritual Exercises, 316).
The very title Gaudete et Exsultate also recalls Gaudete in Domino (GD) written by Blessed Paul VI, on May 9, 1975. Pope Paul wrote, “We can experience joy which is properly spiritual, the joy which is a fruit of the Holy Spirit. It consists in the human spirit’s finding repose and a deep satisfaction in the possession of the Triune God, known by faith and loved with the charity that comes from Him. Such a joy henceforth characterizes all the Christian virtues. The humble human joys in our lives, which are like seeds of a higher reality are transfigured” (GD, III).
Nor can we forget the words of St. John XXIII during the solemn opening of the Second Vatican Council on October 11, 1962, entitled titled Gaudet Mater Ecclesia (Rejoice, Mother Church!). The connections between Gaudete et Exsultate and the other magisterial texts of Pope Francis, as well as those of Bergoglio, the pastor in Argentina, help us to understand that the exhortation is the mature fruit of a reflection the pope who truly understands and lives Gospel joy.
Pope Francis reminds us in his beautiful Apostolic Letter Gaudete et Exsultate that holiness, above all, is about the little things in life. He writes (#16) “This holiness to which the Lord calls you will grow through small gestures. Here is an example: a woman goes shopping, she meets a neighbour 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. Later, at home, one of her children wants to talk to her about his hopes and dreams, and even though she is tired, she sits down and listens with patience and love. That is another sacrifice that brings holiness. Later she experiences some anxiety, but recalling the love of the Virgin Mary, she takes her rosary and prays with faith. Yet another path of holiness. Later still, she goes out onto the street, encounters a poor person and stops to say a kind word to him. One more step.
With profoundly simple words, the Pope reminds us of the distinguishing characteristics of holy men and women. They paid attention to the details. (#144)
“Let us not forget that Jesus asked his disciples to pay attention to details.
The little detail that wine was running out at a party.
The little detail that one sheep was missing.
The little detail of noticing the widow who offered her two small coins.
The little detail of having spare oil for the lamps, should the bridegroom delay.
The little detail of asking the disciples how many loaves of bread they had.
The little detail of having a fire burning and a fish cooking as he waited for the disciples at daybreak.”
The Pope closes Gaudete et Exsultate turning his thoughts to Mary. “I would like these reflections to be crowned by Mary, because she lived the Beatitudes of Jesus as none other. She is that woman who rejoiced in the presence of God, who treasured everything in her heart, and who let herself be pierced by the sword. Mary is the saint among the saints, blessed above all others. She teaches us the way of holiness and she walks ever at our side. She does not let us remain fallen and at times she takes us into her arms without judging us. Our converse with her consoles, frees and sanctifies us. Mary our Mother does not need a flood of words. She does not need us to tell her what is happening in our lives. All we need do is whisper, time and time again: “Hail Mary…”” (GE 176)