Pope Francis speaks during his general audience in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican April 4. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

The call to holiness is universal, and it is incompatible with individualism, dogmatism, and sectarianism. This is the heart of the exhortation Gaudete et exsultate, the fourth major pontifical document to appear since Francis became pope (not counting the encyclical Lumen fidei of June 2013, largely written by Benedict XVI before his resignation). The new exhortation is also the most important magisterial text of the Catholic Church on holiness since Vatican II’s Lumen gentium, which insisted on the “universal call to holiness.” Gaudete et exsultate encourages the faithful to live in everyday holiness, in terms that express Francis’s mystical and non-ascetic Christianity (the word “asceticism” is absent from the document). The exhortation consists of 177 paragraphs divided into five chapters: one on the call to holiness, one on Gnosticism and Pelagianism, one on holiness and the Beatitudes, one on signs of holiness in today’s world, and a last chapter on spiritual combat, vigilance, and discernment.

Gaudete et exsultate is a meditation on ordinary, next-door holiness. Francis borrows the phrase “middle class of sainthood” from the French novelist Joseph Malegue (1876–1940), who’s been described as “the Catholic Proust.” The pope means “middle class” not in the sense of mediocre—“[God] wants us to be saints and not to settle for a bland and mediocre existence” (§ 1)—but in the sense of available to everyone: “Very often it is a holiness found in our next-door neighbors, those who, living in our midst, reflect God’s presence. We might call them ‘the middle class of holiness’” (§ 7). Gaudete et exsultate gives a realistic, unromanticized view of the life of the saints: “Not everything a saint says is completely faithful to the Gospel; not everything he or she does is authentic or perfect. What we need to contemplate is the totality of their life, their entire journey of growth in holiness, the reflection of Jesus Christ that emerges when we grasp their overall meaning as a person” (§ 22).

The second chapter is about two enemies of holiness, Gnosticism and Pelagianism. Most Catholics have probably never heard of these two ancient heresies, but they will be able to recognize them in their experience of the church. This chapter draws from a letter issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in February, Placuit deo. It also draws from an important speech Francis gave at the fifth congress of the Italian Church in Florence in November 2015. According to the pope, Gnosticism is an enemy of holiness because it presumes “a purely subjective faith whose only interest is a certain experience or a set of ideas and bits of information which are meant to console and enlighten, but which ultimately keep one imprisoned in his or her own thoughts and feelings” (§ 37). Francis sets intellectualism against holiness: “Gnostics…judge others based on their ability to understand the complexity of certain doctrines” (§ 37). Pelagianism creates another obstacle for holiness: “The same power that the gnostics attributed to the intellect, others now began to attribute to the human will, to personal effort. This was the case with the pelagians and semi-pelagians. Now it was not intelligence that took the place of mystery and grace, but our human will” (§ 48). This chapter is important because it clarifies Francis’s relentless criticism of rigidity, legalism, clericalism, elitism, conservatism, and traditionalism: “The result is a self-centered and elitist complacency, bereft of true love. This finds expression in a variety of apparently unconnected ways of thinking and acting: an obsession with the law, an absorption with social and political advantages, a punctilious concern for 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…. Not infrequently, contrary to the promptings of the Spirit, the life of the Church can become a museum piece or the possession of a select few. This can occur when some groups of Christians give excessive importance to certain rules, customs or ways of acting” (§ 57–58). Gnosticism and Pelagianism are enemies of holiness because each of them undermines the health of the ecclesial community by focusing on private experience or individual effort.

Chapter three on the Beatitudes explores the balance between the mystical and active dimensions of Christianity. On the one side there is “the error of those Christians who separate these Gospel demands from their personal relationship with the Lord, from their interior union with him, from openness to his grace. Christianity thus becomes a sort of NGO” (§ 100). On the other side there is “the other harmful ideological error [that] is found in those who find suspect the social engagement of others, seeing it as superficial, worldly, secular, materialist, communist, or populist” (§ 101). This is relevant to the church’s engagement with the “life” issues, as Francis makes clear: “Our defense of the innocent unborn, for example, needs to be clear, firm and passionate, for at stake is the dignity of a human life, which is always sacred and demands love for each person, regardless of his or her stage of development. Equally sacred, however, are the lives of the poor, those already born, the destitute, the abandoned and the underprivileged, the vulnerable in infirm and elderly exposed to covert euthanasia, the victims of human trafficking, new forms of slavery, and every form of rejection…. We often hear it said that, with respect to relativism and the flaws of our present world, the situation of migrants, for example, is a lesser issue. Some Catholics consider it a secondary issue compared to the ‘grave’ bioethical questions. That a politician looking for votes might say such a thing is understandable, but not a Christian.” (§ 101–102). Francis does not use the term, but he clearly favors a “seamless garment of life” approach to these issues.

Chapter four on the signs of holiness in today’s world lists expressions of love for God and neighbor: perseverance, patience, and meekness; joy and a sense of humor; boldness and passion; involvement in community; and constant prayer. Francis insists on the need for holiness in all parts of our lives, including online: “Christians too can be caught up in networks of verbal violence through the internet and the various forums of digital communication. Even in Catholic media, limits can be overstepped, defamation and slander can become commonplace, and all ethical standards and respect for the good name of others can be abandoned. The result is a dangerous dichotomy, since things can be said there that would be unacceptable in public discourse, and people look to compensate for their own discontent by lashing out at others. It is striking that at times, in claiming to uphold the other commandments, they completely ignore the eighth, which forbids bearing false witness or lying, and ruthlessly vilify others. Here we see how the unguarded tongue, set on fire by hell, sets all things ablaze (cf. James 3:6)” (§ 115).

Francis insists on the need for holiness in all parts of our lives, including online

The most striking chapter is the last one, which is about spiritual combat, vigilance, and discernment. The devil, who is mentioned fifteen times in Gaudete et exsultate, gets special attention in this chapter. Francis writes that the devil is “more than a myth”: “We will not admit the existence of the devil if we insist on regarding life by empirical standards alone, without a supernatural understanding” (§ 160). To fight the devil we need discernment: “The Christian life is a constant battle. We need strength and courage to withstand the temptations of the devil and to proclaim the Gospel. This battle is sweet, for it allows us to rejoice each time the Lord triumphs in our lives.… It is also a constant struggle against the devil, the prince of evil” (§158–159). Francis contrasts discernment with legalism: “Certainly, spiritual discernment does not exclude existential, psychological, sociological or moral insights drawn from the human sciences. At the same time, it transcends them. Nor are the Church’s sound norms sufficient” (§ 170). Discernment saves us from complacency, and it keeps us from reducing the Gospel to a long list of rules: “The discernment of spirits liberates us from rigidity, which has no place before the perennial ‘today’ of the risen Lord. The Spirit alone can penetrate what is obscure and hidden in every situation, and grasp its every nuance, so that the newness of the Gospel can emerge in another light” (§ 173).

From the exhortation’s very subtitle—“Call to holiness in today’s world”—we see that Francis is developing the themes of the conciliar constitutions Lumen gentium and Gaudium et spes, but he quotes from only one of these documents (Lumen gentium), and only three times. In other words, Gaudete et exsultate does not use a proof-text approach to the conciliar magisterium. The most important sources of Gaudete et exsultate are Evangelii gaudium and the CDF’s Placuit deo. Notably, Francis frequently quotes from recent documents of non-European bishops’ conferences (New Zealand, West Africa, Canada, India, and the Episcopal Conference of Latin America). By contrast, most of the non-magisterial sources are European (Hans Urs Von Balthasar, Carlo Maria Martini, SJ, the Spanish philosopher Xavier Zubiri, St. Faustina Kowalska, St. John of the Cross, St. Therese of Lisieux, St. Teresa of Avila, St. Teresa of Calcutta, Charles de Foucauld). In a document on everyday holiness one might have expected more examples from the lives of lay saints who lived their lives in the secular world. The short paragraph on holiness and the “feminine genius” shows Francis’s weakness on the issue of women in the church, even though it acknowledges “all those unknown or forgotten women who, each in her own way, sustained and transformed families and communities by the power of their witness” (§ 12).

As an exhortation to the faithful Gaudete et Exsultate is not explicitly ecumenical in the way Laudato si’ was, for example, but it will nevertheless have a broad appeal for all believers. Its conception of holiness is not about heroic asceticism but about a wise and sometimes difficult balance between mysticism and everyday fidelity; between following norms and discernment; between personal devotion and social engagement. At a moment when some are telling Christians to detach themselves from the secular world (e.g. the so-called Benedict Option), Gaudete et exsultate insists that holiness is possible in our ordinary circumstances; it does not require the creation of special habitats. Francis calls us to a life that rejects hedonism and consumerism, but without yielding to apocalypticism or retreating into new catacombs.

Catholics who have a problem with Amoris laetitia will likely have a problem with Gaudete et exsultate too. The church is not presented here as an island of grace for the conspicuously holy surrounded by a sea of sinfulness. Here holiness is understood in terms of community: “We are never completely ourselves unless we belong to a people. That is why no one is saved alone, as an isolated individual” (§ 6). Francis reminds us that holiness is a concern for every member of the church, and that it calls us to reach out, not to hide. Universalisms of all kinds are in crisis—in the church as in the world—and Francis’s articulation of the universal call to holiness is in part an attempt to address this crisis.

Massimo Faggioli is professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova University. His most recent book is The Oxford Handbook of Vatican II, co-edited with Catherine Clifford (Oxford UP). Follow him on Twitter @MassimoFaggioli.

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