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Signs of Holiness

In Chapter 4 of Gaudete et Exsultate, Pope Francis concludes this penultimate section by focusing on two facets of the spiritual life that most run against the grain of modern Western society: community and constant prayer. Recently, they came together for an alumnus from the Class of 2002.

In drawing his audience’s attention to “Signs of Holiness in Today’s World” in Chapter 4 of Gaudete et Exsultate Pope Francis concludes this penultimate section by focusing on two facets of the spiritual life that most run against the grain of modern Western society: community in opposition to individualism; and constant prayer rather than “all those forms of ersatz spirituality – having nothing to do with God – that dominate the current religious marketplace.”

The importance of and the relationship between these two were brought into clear focus for me as I sat in the Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral of St. Josaphat for first the ordination and then the first Mass of my great friend Andrij Hlabse, S.J. ’02.  Anyone who has ever experienced the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom – the most used form of the liturgy in the Eastern Rites of the Catholic Church – knows first-hand how essential community and constant prayer are to this “work of the people” (the literal definition of the Greek term leitourgia”).

Of necessity, all liturgical functions are communal and prayerful, yet in the Divine Liturgy (what we in the West would simply call “the Mass”) of the East the congregation is drawn beyond itself to participation in the heavenly communion of the New Jerusalem where there is neither past nor future, but only an eternal present filled with the prayerful praise of “The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, the Trinity one in being and undivided.”

In his words on the importance of community, the Holy Father speaks of great examples of communal holiness and witness, even to martyrdom, yet his belief is that these “are neither the most frequent nor the most important” examples. For him, the true essence of a community “is made up of small everyday things.”  For Fr. Andrij this was apparent in both the place and the people of the parish of the Cathedral of St. Josaphat.

Not only did he receive Holy Orders and then celebrate his first Mass in his home parish, but also in the place of his Baptism, Confirmation and First Communion, as well as in the place where his parents bestowed upon each other the Sacrament of Matrimony.  At the receptions celebrating his ordination and first Mass hundreds of friends, many of whom also grew up in and belong to the Cathedral parish, surrounded Fr. Andrij and his family with that communal love that Jesus raised to a divine level when He turned water into wine, when He fed thousands with little food, and when He lit a fire and cooked fish for His disciples.

Within this context of community all those attending the liturgies and receptions were partakers in the important historical aspect of prayer so beautifully spoken of by Francis when he noted that “prayer, because it is nourished by the gift of God present and at work in our lives, must always be marked by remembrance.”  The shared history that brought people together to celebrate the ministry of Fr. Andrij was a magnificent example of the interworking of community and constant prayer.

So, too, is Fr. Andrij’s acceptance of the call to the priesthood.  Community and constant prayer meet in the priest who is alter Christus, “another Christ.”  His striving for holiness in his vocation leads the people of God under his care in their own personal quests for holiness.  Above and beyond his personal example is the prayer that he offers with and for the community in the Holy Liturgy.  In opposition to the “prayer” that Francis calls ersatz – an artificial and inferior substitute – this ancient rite of the Church is, as Vatican II called it, “the source and summit of the Christian life.”

Thus, holiness cannot be achieved without the Sacred Liturgy, and any spiritual program that does not include the Mass and the Eucharist is, at best, ersatz.  The claim to being a ‘spiritual person’ while absenting oneself from this “source and summit of the Christian life” is actually a claim of knowing better than Jesus what is necessary for holiness.

Community and constant prayer come together in the priest, the congregation, the Sacred Liturgy, and the Holy Eucharist; and only from this can we find true holiness.  Pope Francis clearly calls us along this path as he concludes this fourth chapter of Gaudete et Exsultate, reminding us of the necessity of the Eucharist in the quest to become who we were created to be:

“When we receive Him in Holy Communion, we renew our covenant with Him and allow Him to carry out ever more fully His work of transforming our lives.”

A.M.D.G.