In this issue:
Called to holiness: Taking the Incarnation seriously
Living out the call to holiness
More than poetry
Food for Thought
In a nutshell
Pope Francis’ new apostolic exhortation, “Gaudete et Exsultate,” starkly challenges today’s Christians to take the dignity of all human life seriously, viewing it in light of Christ’s incarnation.
The pope offers a road map for simple ways that everyday people can be holy.
He also reflects on the Sermon on the Mount and asks people to go beyond the poetry found in the beatitudes.
Called to holiness: Taking the incarnation seriously
By David Gibson/Catholic News Service
Christ’s incarnation troubles some Christians. It almost always did.
Today, as in past centuries, some find it difficult to accept the Incarnation fully. They doubt, perhaps, that God really could or would become man.
Perhaps, too, they wonder why on earth the Lord would enter as fully and warmly as the Gospels say he did into the lives of people of all kinds, including those living in situations that fell far short of perfect.
Thus it becomes difficult for them to take the Incarnation with complete seriousness. A suspicion wins out in them that a “real” Incarnation would diminish the true God.
Pope Francis calls attention to these kinds of doubts about the Incarnation in “Rejoice and Be Glad” (“Gaudete et Exsultate”), his spring 2018 apostolic exhortation on the call to holiness.
Christ’s incarnation has a way of affirming all that is good about life in this world and casting light on every person’s human dignity.
But when the Incarnation is not taken seriously, it becomes hard to understand how holiness could be pursued in the midst of the actual, “incarnate” lives people lead — in the context, too, of the others they live alongside or encounter in their daily comings and goings.
A recurring theme in “Rejoice and Be Glad” insists, however, that paths to holiness await people of faith in precisely these kinds of situations. Pope Francis fears that doors to holiness close when this world’s value is ignored and God is thought to be absent from human lives.
In other words, doors to holiness close when the Christian mystery is disembodied.
No one can “claim to say where God is not, because God is mysteriously present in the life of every person in a way that he himself chooses,” the pope explains. He says that “even when someone’s life appears completely wrecked, even when we see it devastated by vices and addictions, God is present there” (No. 42).
So, “if we let ourselves be guided by the Spirit rather than our own preconceptions, we can and must try to find the Lord in every human life” (No. 42).
“Rejoice and Be Glad” examines two currents of thought in Christian history that still are found in “new forms” today. Each one in its own way denigrated Christ’s incarnation and was judged by the church to represent false teaching: gnosticism and Pelagianism.
Gnosticism among Christians, a strain of thinking that surfaced down through history in various forms and under various names, locates Christian perfection in knowledge and the mind’s wisdom. The trouble is, says Pope Francis, that gnostics “think of the intellect as separate from the flesh and thus become incapable of touching Christ’s suffering flesh in others, locked up as they are in an encyclopedia of abstractions” (No. 37).
For Pelagians, who derived that label from a fourth-century monk named Pelagius, Christian perfection comes largely through human effort. Holiness is viewed as a result of our own work, not God’s work in us.
Ultimately, Pope Francis suggests, those with a Pelagian bent place their trust in their own powers and leave little room for God’s grace to work in them.
The result can be that in trusting their own powers, these people cannot affirm the concrete, limited human situations where grace works. But Pope Francis thinks “the lack of a heartfelt and prayerful acknowledgment of our limitations prevents grace from working more effectively within us” (No. 50).
He cautions that new forms of gnosticism and Pelagianism can weigh down the church and block progress “along the path to holiness” (No. 62).
The call to holiness is a call to see “two faces, that of the Father and that of our brother,” Pope Francis observes. Even better is the ability to see just one face, “the face of God reflected in so many other faces” (No. 61).
For “God’s very image is found” in “every one of our brothers and sisters, especially the least, the most vulnerable, the defenseless and those in need” (No. 61). Indeed, the pope concludes:
“With the scraps of this frail humanity, the Lord will shape his final work of art” (No. 61).
The new apostolic exhortation starkly challenges today’s Christians to take the dignity of all human life seriously, viewing it in light of Christ’s incarnation. To illustrate this challenge’s true scope, the pope writes:
“If I encounter a person sleeping outdoors on a cold night, I can view him or her as an annoyance, an idler, an obstacle in my path, a troubling sight, a problem for politicians to sort out or even a piece of refuse cluttering a public space.
“Or I can respond with faith and charity, and see in this person a human being with a dignity identical to my own, a creature infinitely loved by the Father, an image of God, a brother or sister redeemed by Jesus Christ.
“That is what it is to be a Christian!”
The pope then asks, piercingly, “Can holiness somehow be understood apart from this lively recognition of the dignity of each human being?” (No. 98).
(Gibson served on Catholic News Service’s editorial staff for 37 years.)
Living out the call to holiness
By Kelly Bothum/Catholic News Service
In his newest apostolic exhortation, “Gaudete et Exsultate” (“Rejoice and Be Glad”), Pope Francis offers a road map for simple ways that everyday people can be holy. While few of us are in a position where we risk dying for our faith, it doesn’t mean our own efforts are in vain.
Pope Francis calls it our “daily perseverance,” but how we respond to people living on the margins, how we treat not only our loved ones but those we don’t particularly like and how we share our faith with others all reflect our attempts to live life like Christ.
Being holy is not the kind of thing we check off our daily to-do list. Rather, it’s how we embrace routines and situations to draw us closer to God and our fellow man.
As long as Margaret Finnerin has been a mother, she has been praying for her children. The mother of four and grandmother of nine prays to Mary Undoer of Knots each morning, taking the time to call each out by name. She does the same when praying the rosary as a way to set her intentions.
“It’s something I do quickly to keep their names in my mind,” said Finnerin, a retired teacher from Denton, Maryland. “I say each individually and I just pray that Mary undoes whatever knots they have in their lives.”
In “Gaudete et Exsultate,” Pope Francis says prayer reveals our trust in God and our love for our neighbors. Through prayer, “we are able to embrace their lives, their deepest troubles and their loftiest dreams,” he writes.
When Jessica DiCicco goes for a run, it’s for more than the endorphin rush. She takes the cares and concerns of the world with her.
DiCicco, 27, of Milford, Delaware, is the founder of the Esther Running Club, named for the Old Testament queen. DiCicco is currently in the middle of a 40-day run streak, with each run dedicated to a special intention, such as single mothers, unity between faiths and married couples.
“This time has allowed me to feel like I’m actively building up the kingdom without leaving my home,” said DiCicco, who aims to use running as prayer and sacrifice. “I’ve always struggled during the seasons of my life when the Lord is not calling me out into the field, but God showed me that I can still make a difference in the world and serve him even if I’m just running around my development.”
Pope Francis writes that forging one’s own path — in DiCicco’s case, both physically and spiritually — moves believers closer to holiness because “they bring out the very best of themselves, the most personal gifts that God has placed in their hearts.”
And when we can see what is in our hearts and also those of others, we can find God anywhere.
Robert Sheehan works in a homeless shelter that welcomes more than 100 men nightly in Council Bluffs, Iowa. Each day, he meets men who suffered a loss that began a spiral of negative events. He doesn’t judge. He doesn’t shame.
“Each day I only have to open my heart and suspend any judgement I carry about myself and homelessness and love each man the best I am able,” Sheehan said. “When a harsh, self-judging man can feel your acceptance, then their life can change and everyone can find themselves in a new place if they accept help and can trust that help.”
We’ve been told, “Don’t sweat the small stuff,” but it’s actually through our own day-to-day struggles and successes that we expose our holiness. We need not proclaim our acts on a billboard for all to see. God knows, and it is through him that these simple works of holiness cascade.
“Very often it is a holiness found in our next-door neighbors, those who, living in our midst, reflect God’s presence,” Pope Francis writes. “We might call them ‘the middle class of holiness.'”
(Bothum is a freelance writer and a mother of three.)
More than poetry
By Father Herb Weber/Catholic News Service
Three adult children of a recently deceased woman were sitting with me planning the funeral. As we looked at options for the Gospel reading for the Mass, one daughter suggested the first option, the beatitudes in Chapter 5 of Matthew’s Gospel.
When I asked her what the reading meant to her, she said she just liked it. It had a nice sound to it. And she was pretty sure her mother liked it, too.
That conversation reflects a common response to the beatitudes. People are attracted to these statements of “Blessed are …” even though they can’t always say why. This is both helpful and challenging.
The good aspect of this simple attraction is that people intuitively feel the goodness of these boldly countercultural statements spoken by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. The challenge comes when we look beneath the words and see the call to refocus human values.
In his exhortation on the call to holiness in today’s world, “Gaudete et Exsultate” (“Rejoice and Be Glad”), Pope Francis asks people to go beyond the poetry found in the beatitudes. They can summarize the way to live in holiness, but they also have to be taken boldly to heart.
Perhaps it is the first beatitude that is most controversial, the one that reminds listeners they are blessed when poor in spirit. The pope addresses wealth and asks questions about security. As Jesus calls people to find their security not in wealth and riches, then those people can be poor at heart, thus leaving room for God.
In the same vein, Pope Francis addresses the next beatitude, “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the land.” As the rich get richer and people in power tend to accumulate more power, meekness has become synonymous with foolishness. Why would anyone want to be meek?
With these two beatitudes in mind and conscious that this exhortation is calling all people to holiness, people of good will have to address the challenges of the contemporary world. Holiness is more than pietistic fervor; it is true identity with the suffering and weakest of society.
Holiness comes as people respond to immigrants from Central America seeking political protection in the United States or Syrian refugees hoping to live safely away from violence. Such examples put flesh on these holy words reminding us that they are not mere poetry.
The next few paragraphs of the exhortation focus on those who mourn, those who hunger for justice and those who are merciful. In each case, Pope Francis sees these as calls to empathize with the suffering of the world.
Clearly the pope understands and feels the pain of those who struggle. Both having an openness of heart and then responding to people’s needs create the climate for holiness.
Through these and the final three beatitudes, Pope Francis asks all people of conscience to heed Jesus’ own words. He is challenging people to stand against false claims of happiness given by society and find true happiness in true holiness.
(Father Weber is the founding pastor of St. John XXIII Parish in Perrysburg, Ohio.)
Food for Thought
Pope Francis outlines five spiritual attitudes necessary when striving for lives of holiness. They are “signs of holiness in today’s world” and “five great expressions of love for God and neighbor,” he wrote.
— Perseverance, patience and meekness
These three qualities demonstrate “solid grounding in the God who loves us” and form an inner strength that “enables us to persevere amid life’s ups and downs,” Pope Francis said.
— Joy and a sense of humor
“Christian joy is usually accompanied by a sense of humor,” the pope said. “The saints are joyful and full of good humor,” far from “putting on a dreary face,” he said.
— Boldness and passion
“Look at Jesus. His deep compassion ‚Ä¶ did not make him hesitant, timid or self-conscious as often happens with us. Quite the opposite,” Pope Francis wrote.
“Growing in holiness is a journey in community, side by side with others. … A community that cherishes the little details of love, whose members care for one another and create an open and evangelizing environment, is a place where the risen Lord is present,” the pope said.
— Constant prayer
“Are there moments when you place yourself quietly in the Lord’s presence, when you calmly spend time with him, when you bask in his gaze?” Pope Francis asked in the exhortation. “In that silence, we can discern, in the light of the Spirit, the paths of holiness to which the Lord is calling us.”