Decision Day 2018 has arrived, and for every college-bound senior around the country one cannot but think of the opening words of Gaudete et Exsultate, the most recent Apostolic Exhortation by the Holy Father: “Rejoice and be glad!”
Not only is that imperative statement one that fits this day on the obvious level, but in a more subtle way it should be the daily mantra of these young people as they take their first steps out into the world beyond high school and home.
According to Matthew’s Gospel the full sentence is, “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven,” but the surrounding statements contextualize these words of Jesus in a much less cheery light:
Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you [falsely] because of me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven. Thus they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
The most cynical among us might say that if Jesus had been thinking of college students, then He might as well have said, “Best of luck because you’re going to need it.” But Francis, a man who, like Jesus, would never inject cynicism into his words to the young, offers a heart-felt appeal to all of us – including those about to move off to college – to live out our personal vocation of holiness.
Without intending to speak specifically to graduating seniors, the Pope lays out a plan that if followed would enable any thoughtful collegian to graduate as a better person than she or he was during freshman orientation.
In the second chapter of his exhortation Francis focuses on two of what he calls “subtle enemies of holiness” that are prevalent in the world, and maybe especially prevalent on college campuses: the early Church heresies of gnosticism and Pelagianism.
Without getting too much into the philosophical and Theological roots of these two related worldviews, suffice it to say that the first centers on gnosis or knowledge as the greatest good in a person’s life, while the teaching of the theologian Pelagius elevates the human will and human striving to that same level.
Heresies tend to embody half-truths – like the belief that Jesus is truly human, but not divine or vice versa – and therefore one must be aware of their subtle persuasiveness. As the great moral Theologian Fr. William Smith, the late rector of the major seminary of the Archdiocese of New York, once said, “Half-truths are like half bricks: you can throw them twice as far.”
So for the benefit of all of us, not least of whom are those vulnerable young people about to inhabit college campuses where these two heresies can be exhibited in a particularly dangerous manner, the Holy Father proposes that we follow Jesus, whom Francis simply refers to as “the Master.”
We follow the Master by “going against the flow,” which means living by the words of Jesus in Matthew 5 and 25: the Beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount and the Judgment of the Nations at the end of His apocalyptic discourse. To strive to be poor in spirit, meek, pure in heart and all the rest will separate us from the belief that intellect is more important than mystery. To listen to the stories of those to whom we can offer food, drink, clothing, shelter, companionship and the other Works of Mercy is to keep ourselves from the belief that the human will can solve all of the world’s problems.
College – like every other place in this fallen world, yet maybe more so – can be a tough environment to grow in holiness. Pope Francis notes that those who want to be holy are aided by things like a faith community and perseverance in prayer. Besides those obvious, religious helpers, he also talks about boldness and passion; joy and a sense of humor; perseverance, patience, and meekness.
As is tradition, Francis follows the lead of his predecessors by concluding with reference to the Blessed Virgin. He notes that she is “the saint among the saints” and thus the teacher par excellence of “the way of holiness.” But much more importantly, she is our Mother who is always there for us. When we feel alone, especially on a college campus, “She does not need us to tell her what is happening in our lives. All we need do is whisper, time and time again: ‘Hail Mary…’” And for that, we can all rejoice and be glad.