Pope Francis has just published a new exhortation on the call to holiness. Its Latin name is Gaudete et Exsultate (Rejoice and Exult). Massimo Faggioli, Roman journalist and correspondent for National Catholic Reporter, calls it the “most important magisterial text on holiness since Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium (The Constitution on the Church). That may be a stretch, but Gaudete et Exsultate is very good, a must read.

“My modest goal,” says Pope Francis, “is to repropose the call to holiness in a practical way for our own time with all its risks, challenges and opportunities.” The use of Scripture throughout the document is beautiful. For back-up here, he uses St. Paul: “for the Lord has chosen us to be holy and blameless before him in love” (Eph 1:4). Then he throws in the saints as our encouragement: they are “a great cloud of witnesses” (Heb 12:1). And to keep his promise to be practical, he includes among them mothers, grandmothers and loved ones. They may not have been perfect, he says, but they “kept moving forward and were pleasing to the Lord.” The Holy Spirit bestows holiness on many saints “next door.” Later in the document he speaks of “middle class holiness,” not in economic terms but meaning ordinary people earning their living and raising families. “Very often it is a holiness found in our next-door neighbors who reflect God’s presence.”

While we are never saved as isolated individuals, but rather through grace working through a community, Pope Francis wants to focus on the call that God gives personally to each of us. In the Book of Leviticus he tells us, “Be holy, for I am holy” (11:44). Holiness isn’t copying someone else as much as it is discerning God’s specific path for each of us through the personal gifts God has placed in our hearts. Pope Francis stresses the “spiritual genius of women” for reflecting God’s holiness in the world. He gives saints as his examples: Therese of Lisieux, Theresa of Avila, Catherine of Siena and many unknown who have “sustained and transformed families and communities by the power of their witness.” Each of us has to make his or her own the choices and attitudes of Jesus that showed his self-sacrificing love. The whole life of Jesus was a mystery of redemption.


Pope Francis says that the entirety of each person’s life is a mission. We should listen to God in prayer to see the signs he is giving us. “Allow the Holy Spirit to forge in you the personal mystery that can reflect Jesus Christ in today’s world … We grow in holiness by responsibly and generously carrying out our proper mission.” Unfortunately, the experience of too many in the modern world leaves them “filled not by joy but by the discontent of those whose lives have lost meaning.”

At this time of the year, the words of Pope Francis echo those of the risen Christ: “Do not be afraid of holiness. It will take away none of your vitality, energy or joy. On the contrary, you will become what the father had in mind when he created you, and you will be faithful to your deepest self.” He adds a quote from one of my favorite modern French spiritual writers, Léon Bloy, “The only great tragedy in life is not to become a saint.”

According to Pope Francis, there are today in our modern church two false forms of holiness: gnosticism and pelagianism. Actually, these are two ancient heresies that keep reoccurring in the history of the Christian church. (I wonder if the pope isn’t chiding some of his critics without naming them personally.) Gnosticism is the claim of some Christians to elite status and intellectual knowledge.

Their view of religion does not have much emphasis on charity or mercy. They absolutize theories and ways of thinking that promise an answer for every question. But the God of Jesus Christ transcends us. He is full of surprises. Pope Francis insists that “We can and must find the Lord in every human life.” Gnostics can’t accept this. It is beyond their control. Yet, what we have received from the Lord is truth and mystery. Our way of understanding that “does not authorize us to exercise a strict supervision over others’ lives.” And he (Pope Francis) adds, “Doctrine is not a closed system … The wondering of our people helps us to wonder, their questions question us.”

In pelagianism, the power that gnostics attribute to the intellect, pelagians attribute to the human will, to human effort. It is a pick yourself up by your own boot-straps type of spirituality. Our human will power takes the place of mystery and grace. Twelve step programs for the addicted did not become successful until they realized the futility of this approach and the need of dependence on a higher power, God. “Everything depends not on human exertion, but on God who shows mercy” (Rom 9:16). St. Augustine, who debated Pelagius, taught that God commands you to do what you can, and ask for what you cannot.

Modern day pelagians, says Pope Francis, are marked by “obsession with the law, and absorption with social and political advantages, a punctilious concern with the church’s liturgy, doctrine and prestige, a vanity about the ability to manage practical matters, and an excessive concern with programs of self-help and personal fulfillment.”

Pope Francis does not want the church to become a “museum piece” or the possession of an elite few. Pelagianistic thinking reduces and constricts the Gospel, “subjecting the life of grace to certain human structures.” In contrast, we need to keep in mind a hierarchy of virtues and seek what is essential. And that essential is, in St. Paul’s words, “faith working through love” (Gal 5:6). For, “love is the fulfillment of the law” (Rom 13:10).

The beatitudes, which begin “Blessed are the poor, etc., are a Christian’s ‘identity card,’ ” says Pope Francis. “They describe the virtues of Jesus that we are supposed to imitate. We don’t have to actively seek all of them, but persecution may well come our way, as it did to Jesus. We can only practice them,” the pope says, “if the Holy Spirit fills us with his power and frees us from our weakness, our selfishness, our complacency and our pride.” The world tries to force us to live the opposite way. Wealth gives us the illusion of security and helps us forget our dependency on God. It gates us away from the poor with whom Luke’s Jesus says we should share our lives. Advertising promotes to us the “reign of pride and vanity” and scorns the meek. The desire for comfort keeps us from mourning and sharing the pain of others, while St. Paul urges us to “weep with those who weep” (Rom 2:15). We like to follow the winners in this life, but the righteous hunger and thirst for justice for the poor and weak. We all want mercy, but St. Luke’s Jesus says, “Be merciful (to others) just as your father is merciful” (6:36). The pure in heart are those who love God and neighbor. They will see God in their neighbor and one day face to face. And peacemakers are those who avoid gossip, try to include even the troublesome and welcome immigrants fleeing persecution.

One of the final chapters of this exhortation is on signs of holiness in our modern day. The first is a solid grounding in God who is our inner strength. Second is joy and a sense of humor. Third is boldness and passion in the desire to evangelize and make the world better. Fourth, we grow in holiness through journeying with others in community. Fifth, “I do not believe in holiness without prayer, even though prayer need not be lengthy or involve intense emotions.”

The exhortation is only 38 pages on my computer. Google Pope Francis’ new exhortation. Father

Carville is a retired priest in the Diocese of Baton Rouge and writes on current topics for The Catholic Commentator.
He can be reached at johnny