HOW TO BE HOLY
“You alone are the Holy One…” From The Gloria
These are some thoughts on Pope Francis’s recent apostolic exhortation “Rejoice and be Glad” (“Gaudete et Exsultate”) You can’t get a much more positive title than that. Everything I said in my recent blog about Amoris Laetitia applies to this one. It is readable, surprising, pleasingly concise and urgently relevant. It also, like its predecessor, contains, tucked within the calm and cool prose, a number of incendiary statements. But more of those later.
At the outset there is a paradox. Pope Francis is telling us how to be holy, but surely one of the central themes running through the Old and New Testaments is that God alone is Holy:
“Who shall not fear and glorify your name, O Lord?
For you alone are holy”.
Revelation 15: 3-4
This can be discouraging. There is that lovely story in Matthew (19: 18-26)) when Jesus says that it is very hard for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. This flies in the face of everything the disciples believe. It was a central tenet of Judaism that riches were a sign of God’s favour. If the rich will find it hard to enter, says Peter, what chance have we poor people got? A moment’s introspection tells us that however many good deeds we do, we are very, very far from holiness. We can’t get there. We have a murderer in our heart.
How then can Pope Francis talk of being holy? But then Jesus says something wonderful: “For men it is impossible, but not for God. God can do everything”.
And there is the answer. We can have no holiness of our own – we have to “take on” the holiness of Jesus, the Son of God. This involves starting on the journey of letting God destroy my ego. The less of “me” there is, the more “empty” I am, the better chance God has of filling me with himself, with his holiness. Only God can effect this in us of course, so we must implore Him to do it. Pope Francis tells us how to tackle this.
Francis takes as his guide to holiness the beatitudes (Matthew 5: 3-12).
Of course, only one person, the Holy One, has ever fulfilled the beatitudes to the letter. Rejoice and be Glad therefore stresses that putting them into practice involves a process of emptying, of selflessness, of poverty. Only then can God fill us:
“we can only practise them if the Holy Spirit fills us with his power and frees us from …our selfishness.” (para 65)
The poor in spirit are blessed and holy “because where there is a poor heart, the Lord can enter with his perennial newness.” “We must try and live a plain and austere life and be indifferent in our attitude to all created things. This will give us a radiant inner freedom.” (paras 68 and 69).
The meek are blessed and holy because if we let go of our supposed superiority and trust God alone, we will be able to help others and stop wasting our energy on useless complaining (para72).
Those who mourn are blessed and holy because they are not enclosed within themselves. They open up to understand and help those who suffer. In feeling compassion for others all distance vanishes. (paras 75 and 76).
Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are blessed and holy because they have an intense yearning and emptiness within them that can only be satisfied when they help the vulnerable and fight oppression. (paras 77 to 79).
Those who are merciful are blessed and holy because they die to thoughts of retribution and revenge and learn how to understand and forgive. (paras 80 to 82).
The pure in heart are blessed and holy because their hearts are simple, open and undefiled which allows God to speak to them and guide their actions. (paras 83 to 87).
The peacemakers are blessed and holy because they put aside their pre-conceptions and prejudices to make space for those who are demanding and difficult. (paras 87 to 89).
Those who are persecuted for righteousness sake are blessed and holy because they embrace the cross of self-denial and challenge society and the way we live. We must leave our comfort zone and refuse to live a life of mediocrity, even though that will almost certainly cause us problems. (paras 90 to 94).
St Paul sums all this up wonderfully :
“I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me”. (Galatians 2:20)
The Great Questions we will be asked
Francis reminds us that when we die we will not be asked how many Masses we attended (important though that is) nor how many blogs we’ve written or religious books we’ve read. This is what we will be asked:
“When I was hungry did you give me something to eat? When I was thirsty did you give me something to drink? When I was a stranger did you invite me in? When I needed clothes did you clothe me? When I was sick did you look after me? When I was in prison, did you come to visit me”? (Matthew 25:31-46)
Which of us can really face these questions? But Francis reminds us that “holiness cannot be understood or lived apart from these demands, for mercy is the beating heart of the Gospel” (para 97). “For Christians (these questions) involve a healthy and constant unease” (para 9). “The best way to discern if our prayer is authentic is to judge to what extent our life is being transformed in the light of mercy” ( Para 105). “Those who truly 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” (Para 107).
This involves not becoming obsessed with our own pleasure (Para108).
So whilst relying utterly on God to “clothe us” with holiness, we must spare no effort to love our neighbour as ourself and take every opportunity, however small, to help them. These two elements are essential.
Signs of Holiness
In Chapter 4, Francis sets out five major signs of Holiness in today’s world:
i) Perseverence, Patience and Meekness
We must be grounded in God, which will be the true source of inner strength, perseverance and peace. We will become non-judgmental and will rejoice in the good of others.
ii) Joy and a Sense of Humour
A lovely aspect of the exhortation is Francis’s stress on the importance of joy and good humour. – “The Christian life is joy in the Holy Spirit”. (Romans 14:17). The saints are happy and full of joy. We must not go round with a gloomy face!
iii) Boldness and Passion
Throughout this document Francis warns about the serious dangers of settling for a life of mediocrity and self-satisfaction. We must ask God to fill us with boldness and fervour to speak out and spread the Gospel whenever possible. We must leave our comfort zone and “put out our nets into the deep”. We must fight against our inertia, complacency and smugness and ask the Holy Spirit to open us up to new beginnings and new growth.
Francis stresses that “growth in holiness is a journey in community”. Living alongside others is a sure path of spiritual growth. “Contrary to the growing consumerist individualism that tends to isolate us in a quest for well-being apart from others, our path to holiness can only make us identify all the more with Jesus’ prayer: “that all may be one; even as you, Father, are in me, and I in you”.
v) Constant Prayer
Francis reminds us of the vital importance of prayer: “Holiness consists in a habitual openness to the transcendent, expressed in prayer and adoration” and quotes St John of the Cross: “Endeavour to remain always in the presence of God”.
Spiritual Combat, Vigilance and Discernment
The final chapter is a stirring call to arms: “The Christian life is a constant battle. We need strength and courage to withstand the temptations of the devil and to proclaim the Gospel” (Para 158).
He strongly attacks the notion that the devil is somehow a myth or an image of psychological disorders etc. He reminds us that the devil is real, and is in our midst! We must ask Jesus daily to be delivered from him! We must be vigilant and watchful, alert to all the temptations we face. We must continually renew our trust in God and his power and mercy.
In this age of social media, more than ever we need to pray for the gift of discernment. We are assailed daily by huge amounts of information and inducements, and we urgently need God’s help to decide what is good and what is evil.
Two Enemies of Holiness
Pope Francis warns us of two enemies of holiness that are prevalent in our times:
Gnosticism presumes a purely subjective faith whereby people gather information with a view to personal perfection through understanding certain doctrines.
I have to say this warning sent a particular shiver through me because alas I am prone to collecting books and analysing information rather than living the gospel in a concrete way. True Christianity means loving our neighbour by helping them, not by simply understanding their problems!
“Those who yield to this mind-set …ultimately trust only in their own powers and feel superior to others because they observe certain rules…”
Another shiver! We must have a heartfelt acknowledgement of our limitations and remember that we are justified not by our own works, not by following rules, but by the grace of God, who always takes the initiative.
I said earlier that Pope Francis is not averse to including a number of incendiary statements in his documents. Here are just two in Gaudete and Exsultate. (There are more!):
i) In his discussion of the dangers of Gnosticism (see above) he warns solemnly against too strict an interpretation of the Church’s doctrines (remember this is the Supreme Pontiff speaking!): “we cannot claim that our way of understanding (this truth from the Lord) authorises us to exercise a strict supervision over other people’s lives…In the Church there legitimately co-exist different ways of interpreting many aspects of doctrine and Christian life…” (para 43);
ii) “(our understanding and expression) of doctrine is not a closed system devoid of the dynamic capacity to pose questions, doubts, inquiries…The questions of our people, their suffering, their struggles, their dreams, their trials, their worries, all possess an interpretational value that we cannot ignore if we want to take the principle of the incarnation seriously. Their wondering helps us to wonder, their questions question us (!). (para 44).
Such statements convince me that Francis is at heart an extraordinary reformer, who
is slowly rebuilding the Church by listening carefully to the faithful.
I would sum up Rejoice and Be Glad by saying that the Pope is urgently calling us to wake up. It is easy, particularly for those of us living a comparatively comfortable life, to jog along in our comfort zone feeling that we are not doing too badly in our efforts to be Christian. Francis is saying: Don’t be so sure! We are called to holiness, each one of us, and that involves a total revolution in our lives. It involves a death to the ego. It involves remembering those great questions each one of us will be asked when we die.
The parable of the dragnet came up in the readings recently. It struck me more forcibly than ever before: (Matthew 13: 37-42):
“Again, the Kingdom of Heaven is like a dragnet, that was cast into the sea, and gathered some fish of every kind, which, when it was filled, they drew up on the beach. They sat down, and gathered the good into containers, but the bad they threw away. So will it be in the end of the world. The angels will come forth, and separate the wicked from among the righteous, and will cast them into the furnace of fire. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
Jesus said to them, “Have you understood all these things?” They answered him, “Yes, Lord.”
Now, we can interpret there words in a number of ways, and we can contrast them, say, with the parable of the Prodigal Son, which demonstrates God’s infinite mercy. But one thing is for sure, you cannot read them slowly and not see them as a wake-up call! Francis is asking us all to wake from our slumbers.