Gaudete et Exsultate (Rejoice and Be Glad). Pope Francis I. Catholic Truth Society. ISBN 978-1-784-69596-5
Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation, Rejoice and Be Glad, on the call to holiness in today’s world, at a first glance did not appear to be the good read that I hoped it would be. Reviewers elsewhere have described it as “inspiring” or “like going on a retreat or sitting at the feet of a spiritual director”. Initially it did not grab me in the same way, but with perseverance I began to warm to it.
Following the deserved plaudits that greeted the Pope’s encyclical, Laudato si’, in which the Pope critiques consumerism and irresponsible development, lam-ents environmental degradation and global warming and calls all people of the world to engage in global action, this was always going to be a “hard act” to follow.
In the secular society in which we live “holiness” has a bad name. The word suggests other-worldliness, pious religiosity, goody-goody perfection. It will surprise no one that this is is not the Pope’s understanding. Holiness, he writes, is not a case of “swooning in mystic rapture” (96). Instead it is exemplified by our response to a person sleeping rough on a cold night (98). Holiness is about being a good neighbour, finding a more perfect way of doing what we are already doing, and doing the ordinary in an extraordinary way (17).
Pope Francis warns his readers to avoid contemporary manifestatations of the ancient heresies of Gnosticism and Pelagianism. The term Gnosticism originated from the Greek word, gnosis, meaning “knowledge” and holds that religious knowledge is confined to the superior intellect, a disembodied, religious absolutism. Whereas, pelagianism’s limitless will-power ultimately rejects the need of divine grace.
Pope Francis says that the Beatitudes and the Parable of the Last Judgment shape the framework of holiness. In chapter three, he speaks movingly of the Beatitudes, which are “the identity card” of Christians. Jesus is the Beatitude of God because he lived the Beatitudes with unconditional love for humankind (18).
In essence, the Pope’s teaching is on holiness as love: love of God and love of neighbour, a seamless unity. And our love of neighbour is primarily to be love of our needy neighbour.
Love of God is fed by prayer and silence, community life, worship, adoration, the Eucharist … no surprises there. The Pope underlines silence, which is needed to be able to listen to God’s voice: “Unless we listen, all our words will be nothing but useless chatter” (150). This attitude of listening “entails obedience to the Gospel as the ultimate standard, but also to the Magisterium that guards it” (173). True discernment of the Spirit aids the Church, the community of Jesus’ disciples, to see the light of the newness of the Gospel, and not just to apply and repeat what was done in the past, for “what was useful in a context may not be in a different one.” Prayerful discernment will liberate people from rigidity, which is out of place “in the perennial ‘today’ of the risen Lord” (173).
Pope Francis says that the followers of Christ ought to listen not only to the Lord, but also to others, and to reality, that is, to the “signs of the times,” or “what takes place around us” (cf. 172). We listen to the voices of others when we possess true love of neighbour, which is universal, and “passionate and effective commitment to the neighbour.” This commitment includes recognising the dignity of each human being (98). Therefore, it does not ignore injustice (101) and is concerned with the kingdom of justice, truth, freedom, love, and universal peace (25).
Francis reminds us not to forget the essential place of the cross on the journey of holiness or happiness (cf 125). He comments: “Christian triumph is always a cross, yet a cross which is at the same time a victorious banner, born with aggressive tenderness against the assault of evil” (163).
Living as we do in the age of Brexit and President Trump, exposing deep divisions within countries and political parties, the passage that left the deepest impression on me was on the Beatitude, “Blessed are the peacemakers”. Pope Francis writes: “It is not easy to ‘make’ this evangelical peace, which excludes no one but embraces even those who are a bit odd, troublesome or difficult, demanding, different, beaten down by life or simply uninterested. It is hard work; it calls for great openness of mind and heart, since it is not about creating ‘a consensus on paper or a transient peace for a contented minority’, or a project ‘by a few for the few’. Nor can it attempt to ignore or disregard conflict; instead, it must ‘face conflict head on, resolve it and make it a link in the chain of a new process’. We need to be artisans of peace, for building peace is a craft that demands serenity, creativity, sensitivity and skill” (89). On the basis of this paragraph alone, my advance towards the goal of holiness will remain a long, hard slog.
Overall this book is a wake-up call for all of humanity. The concerns it raises are those that speak to my heart – the environment, war, poverty, the vulnerable. In essence this is useful spiritual guidance from a truly spiritual man. It is written in love. John Ashman