“Holiness is the most attractive face of the Church,” Pope Francis declares in a new apostolic exhortation. In it, he reminds Christians, “The Lord asks everything of us, and in return he offers us true life, the happiness for which we were created. He wants us to be saints and not to settle for a bland and mediocre existence.”
Introducing the 104-page document, “Gaudete et Exsultate” (“Rejoice and Be Glad”), Francis says his “modest goal” is “to re-propose the call to holiness in a practical way for our own time, with all its risks, challenges and opportunities.” He reminds believers that “the Lord has chosen each one of us ‘to be holy and blameless before him in love’” and that “the call to holiness is present in various ways from the very first pages of the Bible.”
In the new exhortation, Francis emphasized that the following of Christ—the path to holiness—is “a way of life,” not an intellectual exercise.
In the new exhortation, Francis emphasized that the following of Christ—the path to holiness—is “a way of life,” not an intellectual exercise. This has been the consistent theme and spiritual underpinning of his entire Petrine ministry. As priest, bishop and now pope, he has always sought “to live the Gospel” as Jesus asked. From the first day of his pontificate he has emphasized action over theological discussion; he has insisted that Jesus calls us “to live” the Gospel, by putting into practice in daily life the beatitudes and the words of Jesus in the chapter 25 of Matthew that refer to feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger.
Top Five Takeaways from ‘Gaudete et Exsultate’
James Martin, S.J.
Gaudete et Exsultate: Top 5 Takeaways from Pope Francis’ New Apostolic Exhortation
He stated this theme clearly in his first apostolic exhortation, “Evangelii Gaudium” (“The Joy of the Gospel,” Nov. 2013), which is the programmatic document for his pontificate. He brought this out powerfully in the encyclical “Laudato Si’” in 2015, which was a call to action to care for our common home. He did so again in his second exhortation, “Amoris Laetitia” (“The Joy of Love”), released in 2016 following the synod on the family, where in chapter 4 he spelled out what “love in marriage” means by unpacking St. Paul’s hymn to love (1 Cor 13). He affirmed it again strongly in the Jubilee Year of Mercy (2016-2017) when he taught that mercy “is the beating heart of the Gospel” and showed how this can be put into practice in daily life through the spiritual and corporal works of mercy. He asserts it forcefully again today in his third exhortation, where in chapter 3 he unpacks, in a way that can be easily understood by all believers, even without sophisticated theological education, what it means for a Christian to live the Beatitudes and the demands of Matthew 25 in daily life.
His message is clear: Christ has explained in simple terms what it means to follow him, but “the doctors of the law” have complicated it with their legalism and casuistry and have placed “heavy burdens” on people’s shoulders with their closed theology and moral teaching. He wants to free Christ’s teaching from these shackles, and this has upset not a few cardinals, bishops, priests, lay intellectuals and faithful, who have claimed, especially following “Amoris Laetitia” and the Jubilee of Mercy, that Francis’ approach creates confusion about church teaching, especially in the field of morality.
In today’s exhortation, Francis appears to respond to such critiques and concerns. He does so in chapter 2 by exposing “two subtle enemies of holiness,” or ancient heresies, that many of them appear to have fallen into: Gnosticism, which reduces Christ’s teaching to a cold and harsh logic that seeks to dominate everything; and Pelagianism, which tends to give the idea that all things are possible to human will and downplays the grace of God. Francis responds to his critics again in chapter 3 by pointing to “the ideologies” that strike at the heart of the Gospel and lead Christians into “two harmful errors”: the first error is found in those Christians who “separate these Gospel demands from their personal relationship with God,” the second is found in those believers who “find suspect the social engagement of other Christians, seeing it as superficial, worldly, secular, materialist, communist or populist,” or who “relativize it as if there are more important matters” or assert that “the only thing that counts is one particular issue or cause that they themselves defend.”
The Universal Call
Francis writes, “I would like to insist primarily on the 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.’”
He recalled that the Second Vatican Council stated this clearly in the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church when it taught that “all the faithful, whatever their condition or state, are called by the Lord—each in his or her own way—to that perfect holiness by which the Father himself is perfect.”
Francis insists that “each believer discerns his or her own path, that they bring out the very best of themselves, the most personal gifts that God has placed in their hearts (cf. 1 Cor 12:7), rather than hopelessly trying to imitate something not meant for them.”
“We are all called to be witnesses,” he writes, “but there are many actual ways of bearing witness.”