What does ‘Gaudete et Exsultate’ mean for the Church?

Pope Francis walks near Easter flowers during his general audience (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Pope Francis has written another Apostolic Exhortation, this one on the universal call to holiness, called Gaudete et exsultate — “Rejoice and be glad!” — which takes its title from the words of Jesus in the sermon on the mount as recorded in the Gospel according to St Matthew, specifically in the final “ninth” beatitude, which Christ addressed directly to the disciples, regarding the reward that awaits them and all who bear persecution for the sake of the Gospel.

There’s a lot to say about this latest Exhortation — a lot of good to note in it, and a few things to note that do come to more than quibbles — a full rehearsal of which would run to considerable length. Here are the points that seem to be most salient after a first reading — “hot takes” as the kids say.

First and foremost, Gaudete treats topics and themes we have come to recognise as hallmark concerns of the Holy Father. From the universal call to holiness as something to be lived in the suburbs and niches of everyday life, to the duty of perseverance that manifests itself in the stiff-necked stick-to-it-iveness of the habitual sinner who refuses to surrender to discouragement, to the responsibilities that all the baptised faithful share toward the less fortunate, the document is “classic” Francis.

The Italians have an expression: la lingua batte dove il dente duole — “the tongue laps at the sore tooth”. If Gaudete is any indication, we may surmise that Pope Francis has several sore teeth. We knew that already, though. The interesting thing is the almost defiant tone with which he returns to them. In paragraph 102, the Holy Father writes:

We often hear it said that, with respect to relativism and the flaws of our present world, the situation of migrants, for example, is a lesser issue. Some Catholics consider it a secondary issue compared to the “grave” bioethical questions. That a politician looking for votes might say such a thing is understandable, but not a Christian, for whom the only proper attitude is to stand in the shoes of those brothers and sisters of ours who risk their lives to offer a future to their children. Can we not realize that this is exactly what Jesus demands of us, when he tells us that in welcoming the stranger we welcome him (cf. Mt 25:35)?

He goes on in the next paragraph to even stronger expressions of consternation, especially with those he seems to believe hold his own concern for migrants and refugees and immigrants generally to be a sort of “pet” cause, and not a direct consequence of the Gospel and response to Our Lord’s explicit command:

“When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress him. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Lev 19:33- 34). This is not a notion invented by some Pope, or a momentary fad. In today’s world too, we are called to follow the path of spiritual wisdom proposed by the prophet Isaiah to show what is pleasing to God. “Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn” (58:7-8).

There is a supremely important sense in which the Holy Father is right. Jesus promises to judge us on the basis of how we treat the least of our brethren. That basic fact of the Christian faith is ineluctable, and ought to cause everyone faced with it to tremble. Too often, it happens in our public counsels that Christians who have heard this call attempt to deflect the force of it by claiming it is a stalking horse for mere public policy preferences.

It is also true that there will be prudential disagreement over the right public policy to adopt with respect to these duties, and that one side in the policy debate ought never depict itself as the oracle of moral governance based on its perfect appropriation of the Gospel, still less paint the other side as derelict in their Christian duty and even as enemies of the faith solely on the basis of prudential disagreement.

The Pope, in fact, makes fairly frequent recourse to expressions like “those” “somebody” and “some people” — for example, when he discusses some of the dangers that attend the resurgence of Pelagianism in our day. “Those who yield to this Pelagian or semi-Pelagian mindset, even though they speak warmly of God’s grace, ‘ultimately trust only in their own powers and feel superior to others because they observe certain rules or remain intransigently faithful to a particular Catholic style’.”

This stylistic choice makes this reader wonder just exactly who these people are. “When some of them tell the weak that all things can be accomplished with God’s grace,” Pope Francis continues, “deep down they tend to give the idea that all things are possible by the human will, as if it were something pure, perfect, all-powerful, to which grace is then added.” Intended or not, this manner of engaging a subject runs the risk of painting anyone taking a different tack with an unfortunate colour. The brush is too broad.

A great strength of Pope Francis’s Exhortation is its focus on the inescapably personal force of the Gospel:

If I encounter a person sleeping outdoors on a cold night, I can view him or her as an annoyance, an idler, an obstacle in my path, a troubling sight, a problem for politicians to sort out, or even a piece of refuse cluttering a public space. Or I can respond with faith and charity, and see in this person a human being with a dignity identical to my own, a creature infinitely loved by the Father, an image of God, a brother or sister redeemed by Jesus Christ. That is what it is to be a Christian! Can holiness somehow be understood apart from this lively recognition of the dignity of each human being? (98)

Holiness cannot be understood apart from this lively recognition of the dignity of each human being. Nevertheless, the essence of holiness is neither exclusively nor exhaustively contained or expressed in or through activity. In paragraph 52, Pope Francis notes, “The Church has repeatedly taught that we are justified not by our own works or efforts, but by the grace of the Lord, who always takes the initiative.”

It is difficult to see how that acknowledgment can be made to square with the Holy Father’s apparent impatience with persons of a more retiring disposition, an impatience that seems sometimes to extend to contemplatives:

It is not healthy to love silence while fleeing interaction with others, to want peace and quiet while avoiding activity, to seek prayer while disdaining service. Everything can be accepted and integrated into our life in this world, and become a part of our path to holiness. We are called to be contemplatives even in the midst of action, and to grow in holiness by responsibly and generously carrying out our proper mission.

The notions of “contemplation in activity” and of being “contemplatives in action” are quintessentially Jesuit. They represent enduring gifts to the whole Church at the core of the Ignatian charism. They are not, however, notions that ought to serve as templates for religious life generally, nor do they fit squarely with the indispensable gift of contemplative religious life. There are other, different gifts. It is possible to praise and propose what God has given one, without denying the worthiness of those, He has given others.

At first blush, then, the document reads as a sort of summary view of the world according to Pope Francis, and of the often-surprising ways in which God may be found in it. Both before and during his Pontificate, Francis has seen a good bit of it. As he puts it in his introduction, “[This Exhortation] is not meant to be a treatise on holiness, containing definitions and distinctions helpful for understanding this important subject, or a discussion of the various means of sanctification.” Pope Francis certainly succeeded in not writing such a treatise.

“My modest goal,” he writes immediately thereafter, “is to re-propose the call to holiness in a practical way for our own time, with all its risks, challenges and opportunities. For the Lord has chosen each one of us ‘to be holy and blameless before him in love’. (Eph 1:4)” That is the long and the short of it.