By: Tom Carani
Pope Francis has a way of speaking directly to me even though I know he’s speaking to the whole world. And, yes, I know I just published a post about him, but recently our Holy Father released a new document called Gaudete et Exsultate (Rejoice and be Glad), and it’s got me thinking about what it means to be holy. By the way, all the citations are your references to paragraph numbers should you choose to read the document. Which you should.
We talk about holiness a lot at St. Louis parish. Theosis—it’s the process by which we become more like God. I think we know that holiness should be the goal for our lives, but I often think we’re unsure of how the journey toward holiness should look. Of course we’re called to follow the precepts of the Church: regular Sunday Mass, reception of the Eucharist, and Reconciliation when necessary, and these things definitely make us holy. But there’s an element of holiness that is personal. God has made us each with specific gifts, and we’re called to holiness according to these gifts.
The Pope’s letter is all about living a unique holiness, but I want to highlight two related things that he says. First, he says that as Church, “We are never completely ourselves unless we belong to a people” (6). Catholics inherit a rich genealogy of holy men and women, living and dead, from the moment of their baptism. We are surrounded, led and guided by the friends of God who have fought against the temptations of the world, and, with God’s help, won his favor. Famous names ring in our ears as models of holiness, Augustine and Thomas, Therese and Theresa, Catherine and Joseph, in addition to countless others. And we think, “God’s asking me to live like that? I don’t think so.” Our holiest ancestors should be models of life for us, and we should strive to love God as they loved God. But the Summa was Thomas’s call. Calcutta was Mother Theresa’s call. We’re to find our own path.
God’s not asking us to live specifically like Augustine or Thomas or any of the Theresas, we are “not meant to copy” (11), we are called to live a mission specific to our lives. What a relief! God’s calling you to extraordinary things, but in a way that’s unique to you. It’s possible. But it’s not easy.
And this is the second thing I want to highlight: Holiness is the mission of our lives. The Pope says that “A Christian cannot think of his or her mission on earth without seeing it as a path of holiness…Each saint is a mission, planned by the Father to reflect and embody, at a specific moment in history, a certain aspect of the gospel” (19). Let’s unpack this because this is where holiness gets real.
Even though Francis is known for breaking the Pope mold, he’s not watering down the message. If our life’s mission is holiness, then we need to conform our lives to Jesus’s radical gospel love.
This is a big deal. God knows we’re not perfect. We’ve all got something that keeps us from God. But God looks at the totality of our lives, the entire journey of growth toward God, our life’s work of continually placing ourselves under the blessing of God, as Henri Nouwen says, and becoming more like Christ. “You too,” says Francis, “need to see the entirety of your life as a mission” (23).
As for concrete ways to live our mission, we must adopt a life of prayer and sacraments, we must serve according to our individual spiritual gifts, we must live, reproducing the love of Christ wherever we find ourselves.
The path to holiness is not impossible. It’s just difficult. But with God’s grace (which the Pope talks about later in the document), we can fulfill our life’s unique mission of holiness.
I know it looks like I only read the first 20 paragraphs, but I read the whole letter, trust me. There’s just too much for one blog post. For your benefit, make Francis’s newest Exhortation your spiritual reading for the next few weeks, and reflect on what how God is calling you to sainthood.