“Rejoice and be glad.” With these four words Pope Francis begins his third apostolic exhortation, Gaudete et Exsultate (literally “rejoice and be glad”), the focus of this summer’s midweek postings. Each week a different theme from Gaudete et Exsultate will be examined, both to give a clear sense of the purpose of this important work, as well as to spark an interest in going to the text itself to see where the pope’s words resonate most personally.
An apostolic exhortation is a call by a pope that encourages the faithful to a specific type of action. In his earlier exhortations Pope Francis urged the People of God to spread the Good News (in Evangelii Gaudium or “The Joy of the Gospel”) and to care for the family (in Amoris Laetitia or “”The Joy of Love”). In his latest work, published this spring, the Holy Father calls us to strive for holiness in our daily lives.
As with so many aspects of the Catholic worldview, this call is both ancient and modern. It is ancient in so far as it stretches back beyond Christ to the message of the Old Testament prophets; and modern as it recalls the fifth chapter of the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium, or “The Light of Humanity”) from Vatican II, “The Universal Call to Holiness in the Church.”
In November of 1999 Cardinal Hickey of Washington, D.C., in union with over 60 bishops, presided over the dedication Mass of the marble sculpture “The Universal Call to Holiness” at the National Shrine of the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception. This work, situated above the doors at the south end of the basilica, is a reminder to all who walk out of this magnificent edifice that God desires that each of them strive daily for personal holiness.
The opening chapter of Gaudete et Exsultate was written almost as if the Holy Father had this 780 square foot, 37 ton work of art in mind as he references Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium: “all the faithful, whatever their condition or state, are called by the Lord – each in his or her own way – to that perfect holiness by which the Father himself is perfect.”
The massive mural depicts people from different ethnic and racial backgrounds, different ages and vocations, all moving towards a giant Dove Who, as the Holy Spirit, emanates the rays of His gifts and the grace of God into the lives of each of these pilgrims. Amidst the almost fifty ‘everyman,’ ‘everywoman,’ and ‘everychild’ figures stand the familiar images of the Blessed Mother, John Paul II, and Teresa of Calcutta.
Francis subtly references all these figures as he calls us to look not only to the saints, but also to the “saints next door,” to find examples of holiness that we – using our own particular gifts and talents – can emulate as we strive to achieve the same end as luminaries such as Mother Teresa and Pope John Paul.
As has become a hallmark of his works, Francis proposes moments from the everyday lives of the members of Christ’s Body in order to illuminate his points. He notes that he likes to contemplate “the holiness present in the patience of God’s people: in those parents who raise their children with immense love, in those men and women who work hard to support their families, in the sick, in elderly religious who never lose their smile.” One can imagine that the Holy Father has specific people, specific faces, in mind as he pens these words.
And yet, his point is not that we should become these people or even that we should become St. Teresa of Calcutta or St. John Paul, but that we should become ourselves, most fully. It is the personal nature of each call that he wishes to stress in this exhortation. He fears that without the understanding of the unique call to each individual soul we might become discouraged and disheartened – for who but Anjezë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu was called to become St. Teresa of Calcutta and who but Karol Józef Wojtyła was called to become St. John Paul?
As will become apparent as we look more deeply at this exhortation, the Holy Father, as the voice of Jesus among us, calls each of the faithful to her or his own personal holiness, a holiness attuned to the gifts bestowed upon that individual as a unique, never-to-be-repeated member of the Body Christ.