“While painfully aware of our own frailties, we have to march on without giving in.” Five years ago with these words from the second chapter of the apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis framed the heart of what would become Gaudium et Exsultate. In that earlier – and much lengthier – document the Holy Father conveyed an unwavering belief that the Good News, joyfully and confidently proclaimed, could still transform the world.
In this context, Gaudium et Exsultate can be seen as the micro-cosmic version of Evangelii Gaudium. What Francis taught about the importance of the Gospel for the world applies just as much to the necessity of the Good News for the individual soul. In fact, the need to move beyond personal imperfections – as important as that is to the spread of the Gospel throughout the world – is even more integral to the sanctification and happiness of the individual person.
As Francis moves through the final chapter of Gaudium et Exsultate he highlights just how essential it is to “march on without giving in” along the spiritual journey, and he alerts his readers to the Ignatian belief that the quest for holiness is at its core a spiritual battle.
For those superficial detractors and admirers who have pigeon-holed Francis as a liberal or progressive on Theological matters it must come as a surprise to hear him speak of evil not just as a concept or abstraction, but as a reality personified by an actual demonic individual. For Francis the devil is not “a myth, a representation, a symbol, a figure of speech, or an idea,” but is “a personal being who assails us.”
Probably the most chilling lines delivered by Francis throughout his entire pontificate come in this fifth chapter of Gaudete et Exsultate when he states: “The devil does not need to possess us. He poisons us with the venom of hatred, desolation, envy, and vice. When we let down our guard, he takes advantage of it to destroy our lives, our families, and our communities.”
For this reason each Christian must be both alert to the danger and trustful of God’s grace. To let down our spiritual guard is to be “prey to failure and mediocrity” as well as to the spiritual neutrality of those “who are satisfied with little, who renounce the ideal of giving themselves generously to the Lord.” In order to counteract this choosing of evil by not choosing good, all must avail themselves of the graces present in the “powerful weapons that the Lord has given to us” in prayer, Sacred Scripture, the Mass, Eucharistic Adoration, sacramental Reconciliation, and the life of charity, community, and evangelization.
For all of his concern about being poisoned by the subtle temptations of the devil, the pope seems even more worried about the spiritual corruption rooted in a “comfortable and self-satisfied blindness.” As Francis looks to those who are most prone to an egoism and self-centeredness that breeds spiritual torpor he may have in mind those poor souls of Laodicea in the Book of Revelation. Laodicea was a wealthy industrial and commercial center, it had a medical school, and it was so prosperous that it was able to rebuild itself after a devastating earthquake without any foreign aid. It was to these people of the Church in Laodicea that Jesus said, “So, because you are lukewarm, neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of My mouth.”
Some interpreters of Revelation have proposed that each of the seven Churches described in St. John’s vision corresponds to an era in the history of the Catholic Church. Whether or not this is a correct unpacking of the symbolism of the first several chapters of the Apocalypse, the Church in our era certainly can be seen as exhibiting many of the characteristics of the Church in Laodicea, and in his role as supreme pastor of the Catholic world the Holy Father warns against the self-satisfied lethargy that can come with a life of material success.
Falling prey to the demonic allure of being content with a lukewarm soul is a grave danger, especially because it diminishes any concern over the life-and-death nature of the spiritual struggle. In his Spiritual Exercises St. Ignatius of Loyola made much of the war over the individual human soul, even describing the nature of that war as fighting under the banner of Christ or the banner of Satan; and it is in this Ignatian light that the Holy Father concludes the first section of Chapter 5, reminding his readers that:
“Christian triumph is always a cross, yet a cross which is at the same time a victorious banner, borne with aggressive tenderness against the assaults of evil.”