Dead-center in the first chapter of Gaudete et Exsultate sits a quote from what is believed to be the earliest New Testament work – St. Paul’s 1st Letter to the Thessalonians: “This is the will of God, your sanctification.” The Holy Father then proposes that the will of God in this matter is not some generic holiness for all of humankind, but is extremely specific and personal: “Each saint is a mission, planned by the Father to reflect and embody, at a specific moment in history, a certain aspect of the Gospel.”
Because we live in a culture where genetic ancestry testing is the latest obsession, it should be easy for us to understand this central theme of Francis’ most recent exhortation. Even siblings have DNA profiles that are unique – and random – despite their swimming in the exact same gene pool. What the pope focuses on theologically and what 23andMe makes you aware of scientifically is something that every parent of two or more children knows by experience: each child is a unique gift from God.
The never-to-be-repeated individuality of every human person is central to the story of Salvation History, as is seen in each chapter and verse of the Bible: the characteristics that made Moses different from his brother Aaron or his successor Joshua; the distinctive personalities of the prophets Elijah, Isaiah, Jeremiah; the individual writing styles and perspectives of Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul.
As we ponder these and other important players in the journey from Genesis to Revelation it is easy to see them within the context of their mission, their response to their call by God to use their individual talents on behalf of the Kingdom. Yet when the focus turns 180 degrees and the light shines on us, our instinctive response is to claim that we’re not like those people – we’re just average, ordinary folk just trying to make it from one day to the next.
Anticipating such a response, Pope Francis echoes the core of the message of St. John Paul: Be not afraid. “Do not be afraid of holiness. It will take away none of your energy, vitality or joy. On the contrary, you will become what the Father had in mind when he created you, and you will be faithful to your deepest self.”
Is there anything that modern women and men, especially the young, are searching for more than authenticity, to be faithful to their deepest selves? Rather than focusing on that authenticity as an end in itself, where it becomes the carrot on a stick that recedes into the distance the more we chase after it, the Holy Father proposes that we make each moment one of “self-sacrificing love” so that “in this way every minute of our lives can be a step along the path to growth in holiness.”
At our core, within our deepest selves, we are not on a mission. Instead, as Francis points out, we are a mission. Our unique traits and characteristics enable us to “embody, at a specific moment in history, a certain aspect of the Gospel.” We “embody” that part of the Good News that relates best to our unique DNA, and what we are called to do is be faithful to our deepest selves and let that part of the Gospel flourish in our lives.
To be holy is to be who God created us to be. The journey to holiness in the life of each individual person is a direct result of that yin and yang of the relationship between the internal and the external, the contemplative and the active, or, as St. Benedict would say, ora et labora: prayer and work. Each of us must enter that silent place where God dwells, because in that place alone can we find our mission, our true selves. Only when we shut out the constant din of the outside world – which “at times leaves no room for God’s voice to be heard” – can we come to know ourselves as mission.
Yet, without that loud and disruptive world there is no mission. If we are not sent back into that world, a world so in need of Christ and His Good News, then what is our mission? Becoming truly holy, literally embodying our mission, lies ultimately not in self-centered navel-gazing, but rather, as Francis states in quoting Pope Emeritus Benedict, “charity lived to the full.”