There’s no shortage of heroes in the modern age. Whether they’re the cinematic heroes of Hollywood, the musicians and talking heads of the airwaves, or the professional athletes of ESPN, a central activity in our daily milieu is to offer praise (via social media) & sacrifice (of time & money) to those we’ve elevated above. And yet they all fall, because they’re all temporary. That which is elevated is a dry sort of heroism, focused on the merely human, motivated by concerns that are not ultimate: these heroes aren’t showing us the path to salvation, but rather to fame and glory at worst, temporary happiness in this life at best. It seems we want heroes, not saints; to be shown paragons of secular virtue, not holiness.
Pope Francis, it seems, believes that part of the reason behind this phenomenon is that we think the saint an impossible standard to reach, while the professional athlete, musician, or actor seems at least a bit closer to the sort of person we could be like. Early in Gaudete et Exsultate, his most recent Apostolic Exhortation (a fancy name for “letter from the Pope to the faithful on how to live”), the Pope throws us a line of encouragement: “We should not grow discouraged before examples of holiness that appear unattainable” (side note: I’m not going to clutter this post with references to what paragraph the quotes are from–find everything by using Ctrl+F here).
Gaudete et Exsultate is a fairly easy read: clocking in at roughly 20,000 words, it doesn’t take very long to work through (20k sounds like a lot, but it’s not: the first Harry Potter is nearly four times as long). It’s relevance makes it an easy read as well: focused on ways to grow in holiness, it’s a document that can speak to every single person in a unique way.
Additionally, Gaudete is not a text filled with heavy vocabulary or intensive theological notions that the average Church-goer would find difficult to understand. This is certainly intentional on the Holy Father’s part, as he tells us in the second paragraph that his goal for this document is “to repropose the call to holiness in a practical way for our own time” (emphasis added).
I certainly suggest you take the time to read Gaudete for yourself, as there is a tremendous amount of wisdom in it that requires a close personal reading. If you don’t expect to be able to read it anytime soon or just want a quick primer, I hope to offer something of the sort here, focusing on the Pope’s above stated goal: What are some practical ways I can grow in holiness?
Pope Francis’ answer, in short, is “do the little things”. “This holiness to which the Lord calls you will grow through small gestures”, he tells us. This is not to imply that it will be easy–after all, it’s often the little decisions in our life that are hardest to consistently make the right way. In this vein, throughout Gaudete Francis reminds us that holiness, while certainly a “battle”, is also a call addressed to each one of us personally, and therefore within our grasp. “We are frequently tempted to think that holiness is only for those who can withdraw from ordinary affairs to spend much time in prayer,” Francis challenges, “we are all called to be holy by living our lives with love and by bearing witness in everything we do, wherever we find ourselves”.
But what does this look like in a “practical” way? Without knowing you personally, the Holy Father is clearly not going to be able to discern for you in a fully concrete way what holiness looks like, but he gets us started with what I see as three pretty helpful themes to focus on: 1) don’t be bland, 2) don’t try to be holy by yourself, and 3) remember the saints.
Don’t Be Bland
Bishop Robert Barron has said over and over in recent years that one of the key challenges to the faith today is “beige Catholicism“. This version of Catholicism tends to go with the cultural flow, doesn’t want to rock the boat, and thereby encourages the modern secular notion that religion is a merely private affair (in other words, that your religion is an individual thing, just for you, you don’t need to talk to anyone else about it). The rise of secularism, combined with Christianity’s general acquiescence to it, has led to a culture that is interminably conflicted, unserious, and incapable of finding a firm ground for the common good. In such an environment, we turn to things that are at least safe for common ground, if not firm: the world of bland-but-pleasurable entertainment. “At least arguments about Game of Thrones don’t end friendships!“, the feeling goes.
They don’t lead to holiness, either, and that’s exactly the problem that Pope Francis starts us off with in Gaudete. “[The Lord] wants us to be saints and not to settle for a bland and mediocre existence”, is the third line of the entire document. Right off the bat, Pope Francis wants us to recognize that the cure for the general malaise of the affluent world’s mediocre existence is not more and newer things or to continue on the path to fame and stardom: it’s holiness, being saints responding to the Lord’s call.
The lives of the saints “may not have always been perfect”, Pope Francis assures us, “yet even amid their faults and failings they kept moving forward and proved pleasing to the Lord”. This isn’t to glorify or excuse sin, but perhaps to comfort us regarding the fear of those in-between decisions that can stop us from truly loving others. Those decisions we don’t make because we’re just not sure how to properly comfort a sorrowful friend, how to respond to the needs of the poor, or how to effectively work for justice in our community. That gray area in between “definitely wrong” and “unrealistically perfect”. The fear of “what if it ends up not working out right and I have a mess to clean up” that sends us back to our comfort, complacency, and blandness.
The difference between the shining-forth saint and the person of good-but-bland intentions is, Pope Francis says, in lifting this messiness up in prayer: “When you feel the temptation to dwell on your own weakness, raise your eyes to Christ crucified and say: ‘Lord, I am a poor sinner, but you can work the miracle of making me a little bit better.'” By doing so, even when “the cross casts its shadow” in our lives, we will know “deep security, serene hope, and a spiritual fulfillment that the world cannot understand or appreciate”.
Praying with and living out the Beatitudes is the key to navigating so many of these messy parts of the path to holiness, and the Pope offers a full chapter in the heart of Gaudete to reflecting on them. “The Beatitudes are in no way trite or undemanding, quite the opposite”, Francis tells us. Indeed, our easy access and general familiarity with them has led to a level of indifference towards the truly dynamic power of Jesus’ words here. The Beatitudes are, quite simply, Jesus spelling out for us in a practical way how to find holiness and true happiness, the enemies of blandness and mediocrity.
This chapter is ripe for engagement to get to practical levels. Francis’ stated goal of reproposing the path to holiness in a practical way is, perhaps, impossible from the level of his office, given that he doesn’t know you personally. Here in chapter 3, however, he offers a tool for getting to that concrete level. A parish community that intentionally spent time discerning what the Beatitudes look like in their lives, through the Gospels themselves and a guide such as this chapter or the Beatitudes episode of Bishop Barron’s masterwork “Catholicism” series could bear tremendous fruit.
Don’t Try to Be Holy By Yourself
“We are never completely ourselves unless we belong to a people”, Francis says early in Gaudete. We are the literal product of a community, we are born into community, we thrive when we are surrounded by and supported by community, and we find our fulfillment in giving back to a community–all because we are made in the image of the Trinity, THE Community. This is at the heart of Pope Francis’ message to the faithful in Gaudete et Exsultate.
Ultimately, “growth in holiness is a journey in community, side by side with others”. This is a wonderfully and uniquely Catholic insight, because not only in the global structure of our Church but in the very nature of the Eucharist we see this fact embodied–and yet, in so few Catholic parishes do we see it truly lived out. Francis’ call to recognize the integral role of community in growth in holiness is not only a reminder to us personally, but a challenge to us communally. Every member of every parish must strive to make the growth in holiness of those around them a defining characteristic of their community. How often do we know the names of the people in the pews around us? How often do we accompany them in their path to sainthood Monday through Saturday? How often do we recognize when someone has left our parish community, and reach out to find out how they’re doing? How often do we truly accompany one another on the road to Emmaus with Jesus Christ? Certainly not as often as we could or should.
This isn’t to say that our journey of accompaniment is simply a matter of standing side-by-side with one another under our own volition and power. We must allow the grace of God to stand by our side as well: “Once we accept [God], and stop trying to live our lives without him, the anguish of loneliness will disappear”. The anguish of loneliness will disappear, but ONLY once we accept God. What a tremendous insight: our anguish is one borne of a lack of community, and therefore a lack of holiness, and only by living every moment of our lives with God will that lack be filled in.
The beauty of community is found also in the way in which it is there alone that our true identity is able to flourish in all its distinction. The call of the Lord is a “call to holiness that the Lord addresses to each of us, the call that he also addresses, personally, to you: ‘Be holy, for I am holy'”. Being a saint is not a matter of being this saint or that saint, reincarnated again all these years later: it’s a matter of being completely and fully you, in all the glory and splendor that God created you to experience.
Discernment is the key. “The important thing is that each believer discern his or her own path”, Francis tells us. Note very carefully that the Holy Father didn’t say it’s important that each believer “search his heart”, or “find”, or “discover”, or even “choose” his or her own path. It must be discerned, something that is only done through prayer and an alignment of our will with the understanding God has of who we are at our fullest. “The glory of God is the human being fully alive!”, St. Irenaeus shouts throughout the centuries (and Bishop Barron affirms, showing up in this article yet again)
“We must first belong to God”, Francis reminds us. Only by doing so will we have the grace to discern our unique path to sainthood, and only by allowing these gifts to be brought forth for the growth in holiness of those around us in community will be able to find fulfillment. But “we must first belong to God”.
Remember the Saints
It would have been just as appropriate as “Rejoice and Be Glad” for Pope Francis to have entitled this exhortation “Being With and Remembering the Saints”. The word “saint” is used 90 times in this short document. In his previous exhortations, Amoris Laetitia (“The Joy of Love”) and Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”), the word “saint” is used only 46 and 37 times, respectively, while the documents themselves are each nearly three times the word-count of Gaudete et Exsultate. Clearly, we’re to take notice of the saints with this document in a way Pope Francis wasn’t as focused on before.
While many of the more “popular” saints are mentioned in Gaudete (such as Pope Saint John Paul the Great, Saint Theresa of Avila, Saint Thomas Aquinas, Saint Therese of Lisieux, Saint Francis of Assisi, and Saint Theresa of Calcutta), the Holy Father references more often the lesser-known saints and blesseds that make up the bulk of our Church: Blessed Maria Gabriella Sagheddu, Saint Theresa Benedicta of the Cross, Saint Hildegard of Bingen, Saint Bridget, Saint Josephine Bakhita, Saint Basil the Great, Saint Philip Neri, Saint Paul Miki and companions, Saint Andrew Taegon and companions, Saint Roque Gonzalez, Saint Alonso Rodriguez and companions, the Trappists of Tibhirine, Algeria, Saint Cura Brochero, the seven blessed sisters of the first monastery of the Visitation of Madrid, Blessed Charles de Foucauld, and Cardinal Francois-Xavier Nguyen van Thuan.
Even the date of promulgation is perhaps significant: March 19th, the solemnity of Saint Joseph, a saint with absolutely zero recorded words in the Gospels, but a man of obvious holiness.
It would seem that Pope Francis, by emphasizing the diverse and wide-ranging impact of holy men and women throughout the history of the Church, is creating for us in this document a safeguard against Satan’s most pernicious weapon: doubt. “I can’t possibly be that holy“, we find ourselves saying. “God can’t make a saint out of me”, “I’ve got so much already going on in my life”, “I’ve done so much wrong”, the list goes on and on.
“Every saint is a message which the Holy Spirit takes from the riches of Jesus Christ and gives to his people”, Francis reminds us, following it shortly thereafter with “may you come to realize what that word is, the message of Jesus that God wants to speak to the world by your life”. In other words, at the risk of repeating the second point above: you don’t have to be holy on your own (in fact, you can’t do this on your own, so liberate yourself from the fruitless mindset that says you must), but you certainly are called to be holy one way or another.
Francis has written for us a document that on the one hand exhorts us to “not be afraid of holiness”, while also reminding us that “the Christian life is a constant battle”. This is a tension that the modern-day secular heroes aren’t able to show us the path through (at least not like this).
So how are we to navigate this balance? If all my life is a battle, how am I supposed to not be afraid? If I’m not to be afraid, how am I supposed to adequately prepare for, understand, and wage the constant battle I face?
The answer to these anxieties is found in the final lines of Gaudete: “Let us ask the Holy Spirit to pour out upon us a fervent longing to be saints for God’s greater glory, and let us encourage one another in this effort. In this way, we will share a happiness that the world will not be able to take from us”.
Rather than being bland and mediocre, be fervent.
Rather than trying to do it alone, encourage one another and rely on the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.
Rather than longing to be satisfied with the ways of the world, long to be among the saints.