The spiritual masterpiece of Pope Francis
Most Catholics would shy away from imagining holiness either as applying to themselves or as a serious aim in life, and are probably not comfortable with being thought of as “religious”. Yet the call to holiness is universal, and the practice of it should be as natural and familiar as any good habit. The parent who cares lovingly for a child, the carpenter who deftly repairs a damaged wardrobe, the owner of a business who behaves honourably and conscientiously towards their staff and their customers, indeed anyone who aspires to become the person God means them to be, is engaged in becoming more holy by virtue of it. Holiness is not remote from everyday life. It is the very stuff daily life is made of. Anyone can be a saint.
Gaudete et Exsultate is a remarkable document, and could be regarded as this Pope’s spiritual masterpiece. A thousand sermons could be preached on it, and everyone in the congregation would instantly sense that the Pope is talking to them personally. But he does not shirk controversy. He identifies two skewed brands of Catholicism, which he calls Pelagianism and Gnosticism, which block the flow of grace and kill holiness dead even while claiming to be its defenders. These two ancient mindsets also happen to be apt descriptions of the ultra-conservative positions occupied by those who have been most hostile to his papacy. Francis is coruscating and relentless in his criticism of rigidity, legalism, clericalism, conservatism and traditionalism. They result, he says, in “a self-centred and elitist complacency, bereft of true love…”
These tendencies either turn Catholicism into little more than a set of doctrinal rules that only an elite properly understands and obeys; or they promote the idea that salvation is to be gained by an act of will, to be had if only people would work hard enough at it. These two strands often appear together. They are distractions from holiness, yet somehow they have become lodged in the popular imagination as accurate descriptions. On the contrary, Francis insists, holiness does not imply never making mistakes or never falling short; it is living in the humble awareness that we are always in need of the mercy of God.
Just as striking is Francis’ extension of the pro-life position beyond a narrow focus to every situation where human lives are threatened or diminished – “the poor, the destitute, the abandoned and the underprivileged, the vulnerable infirm and elderly exposed to covert euthanasia, the victims of human trafficking, new forms of slavery, and every form of rejection…” He insists that the Catholic attitude to migrants is not secondary to the Catholic attitude to the unborn, but part of a seamless whole. Working for social justice is a work of holiness.
This inspiring document should not be misunderstood as simply Francis’ response to his critics. Like all good spiritual writing, there are lines on every page that will make all readers uncomfortable. But Pope Francis clearly regards his job not only as comforting the afflicted, but also as afflicting the comfortable. At which he undoubtedly will succeed.