From the time of his election in 2013 Pope Francis has taken a Theological path that has confounded many in and outside the Church. Commentators strove to find ways to see his papacy as a continuation of his two predecessors, St. John Paul II and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, and there were even attempts to unite them in neat categories: John Paul the pope of hope, Benedict the pope of faith, and Francis the pope of love. Tidy, but totally inadequate.
My thought from the very beginning was that although Francis shared many things in common with popes 264 and 265, his true spiritual mentor was Blessed Paul VI. Through his concern for those whose nations and cultures were on the fringes, Pope Paul made himself the champion of the so-called Second World and Third World countries, places like Latin America – including the Argentina of Jorge Mario Bergoglio, S.J. When we listen carefully to the words of Pope Francis we hear a very clear echo of the teachings of Paul VI, especially his masterful Populorum Progressio, “On the Development of Peoples.”
This link between Bergoglio and Montini is reaffirmed in the fourth chapter of Gaudete et Exsultate as reference is made to the two 1975 apostolic exhortations of Paul VI, Gaudete in Domino (“On Christian Joy”) and Evangelii Nuntiandi (“On Evangelization in the Modern World”).
In this chapter of Gaudete et Exsultate the Holy Father discusses five ways to become holy in the world today. His goal here is not to highlight “the sum total of a model of holiness,” but instead to focus on five pertinent areas of life that he finds particularly important “in light of certain dangers and limitations present in today’s culture.” When looking at the third of these five – what he calls “Boldness and Passion” – Francis references the works of Paul VI listed above.
Bl. Paul VI spoke of the need for all of the Christian faithful to be filled with parrhesia or “boldness of speech” – what Jesus had when speaking to the Pharisees and the Sanhedrin, and what Paul VI had when he wrote works like Populorum Progressio and Humanae Vitae, the controversial encyclical preserving the Church’s condemnation of contraception. Pope Paul spoke of the danger of a lack of parrhesia because it was “all the more serious because it comes from within.”
Francis takes this “comes from within” motif and through it brings a new perspective to our understanding of holiness when he says:
“True enough, we need to open the door of our hearts to Jesus, who stands and knocks (cf. Rev 3:20). Sometimes I wonder, though, if perhaps Jesus is already inside us and knocking on the door for us to let him escape from our stale self-centeredness.”
Given this insight – that Jesus is in us just waiting for us to let Him loose on the world – a whole new vision of holiness comes into focus. Holiness becomes less what we take into ourselves and more what we give to the world. And according to what Francis says earlier in the chapter, not only are we to bring boldness and passion to the world, but also perseverance, patience, and meekness along with joy and a sense of humor.
These signs of holiness, when unleashed and brought into the world, are seen by the Holy Father as antidotes to the distinctively modern maladies of: “a sense of anxiety, sometimes violent, that distracts and debilitates; negativity and sullenness; [and] the self-content bred by consumerism.”
Just as Bl. Paul VI exhorted the Church in the 1960s and 70s to holiness through a humble and patient boldness fortified by the joy of the Gospel, so today Francis picks up those same themes as he directs the faithful of our era to “abandon a dull and dreary mediocrity.” Like the saints, we must “welcome the Lord’s surprises,” for only then can we boldly and passionately participate in the holiness of Jesus poured out upon a world so in need of His Good News.