My husband’s paternal grandfather often said that “life is all about the little things.” It is a simple yet profound saying that has passed down through the men in the Grosso family, often cited by my husband to this day.
In reading “Gaudete et Exsultate” (“Rejoice and Be Glad”), the third apostolic exhortation of Pope Francis, this adage kept rising to my mind with a slight amendment: “Holiness is all about the little things.”
For me, that phrase is a relief. The concept of holiness can seem daunting at best, utterly unattainable at worst. We might consider holiness as a prize for the perfect, for the consecrated religious who have the time and energy to spend hours in deep, unwavering prayer or for saints who lived long before social media, endless Zoom meetings and globalized crises.
However, “Gaudete et Exsultate” gently reminds and firmly challenges each of us to take small steps each day on the journey to holiness. In re-reading this exhortation from 2018, when the circumstances of the church and world were certainly different than they are right now, I found that the document’s relevance is deepened.
Pope Francis rises to the challenges of our time and reproposes “the call to holiness in a practical way for our own time, with all its risks, challenges and opportunities” (2).
Here are my top takeaways on striving for holiness today, right now:
Holiness is not about a state of perfection, but the process of strengthening our “holiness muscle” over time.
Pope Francis exhorts us not to be discouraged by perceived unattainability of holiness, because everyone’s journey to holiness is different. Whether looking at well-known saints or people we put on a pedestal, we cannot hold up the final product of holiness without considering the path each took to get there.
He suggests looking beyond the well-known holy figures to “the saints next door,” citing examples of everyday people in our lives who model walking the path to holiness. Regardless of to whom we look for inspiration, we are invited to forge our own path to holiness that is right for each of us, right where we are.
He writes, “We are frequently tempted to think that holiness is only for those who can withdraw from ordinary affairs to spend much time in prayer. That is not the case. 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” (14).
Subsequently, it is not hours of kneeling in adoration or lying prostrate while reciting the rosary that make a person holy, though certainly those are spiritually enriching and deeply prayerful activities. The point that “Gaudete et Exsultate” makes is that the small gestures — such as minute choices for the good, brief acts of charity, moments of prayer, etc. — are the ones that strengthen us in holiness.
Being a “model Catholic” or a “know-it-all” is not what makes us holy.
Pope Francis spends quite a bit of time on “two subtle enemies of holiness.” We cannot become consumed with having all of the answers or getting things perfectly right, and thus considering ourselves allegedly more holy than others because of that.
“As time passed, many came to realize that it is not knowledge that betters us or makes us saints, but the kind of life we lead” (47). Subsequently, it is not our own efforts that make us holy, wherein we lose ourselves to the letter of the law, consumed by rules and concern for getting everything “just right” in the hopes of being the most perfect Catholic.
It is when we acknowledge our own limitations even while thirsting for knowledge and tradition that we make room to be strengthened in holiness through the grace of God.
Modeling holiness is what will attract people to Christ and the church.
Pope Francis puts it simply: “Holiness is the most attractive face of the Church” (9). While the body of Christ desires for the church to grow, and holiness requires boldness, passion, and fearlessness of spirit, the most effective method of evangelization is, to paraphrase Gandhi, to be the church you want to see in the world.
To model holiness is to be impelled to be the hands and feet of Christ to a hurting world. Simply put by this exhortation, “The beatitudes are like a Christian’s identity card” (63).
Pope Francis does not shy away from the truth that Christ spelled this out for us in the Gospel, that charity should be paramount in striving for holiness. “Those who wish to give glory to God by their lives, who truly long to grow in holiness, are called to be single-minded and tenacious in their practice of the works of mercy” (107).
Holiness is intrinsically tied to joy.
Pope Francis reminds us that the saints were joyful, despite experiences of profound suffering and sorrow. He encourages us to have the same spirit, letting joy be the spark that fuels the fire of holiness in each of us.
Holiness is not to be so pious that we are dour, or so consumed by what lies beyond this world that we forget to delight in the here and now. Rather, holiness stems from being who God created each of us to be and living that fully.
The invitation to walk the path to holiness, together as the body of Christ, rings as true today as it did when “Gaudete et Exsultate” was published — and our small steps, “the little things,” can make a big difference.
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Nicole M. Perone is the national coordinator of ESTEEM, the faith-based leadership formation program.