August 3, 2018

Christ the Cornerstone

Exhortation outlines signs of holiness in today’s world

Archbishop Charles C. Thompson

This is the fourth column on Pope Francis’s apostolic exhortation “Gaudete et Exsultate” (“Rejoice and Be Glad”). With each column, we see more clearly the pope’s distinctive point of view concerning what it means to be holy today.

Following closely the pope’s thinking, we can see that he considers holiness to be something that is available to everyone. Sinners are called to holiness as well as saints. To be holy means to love God and our neighbor and to express this love—first and foremost—in our actions.

Holiness does not set us apart from our sisters and brothers. On the contrary, the man, woman or child who is holy is closer to God and to the members of God’s family.

Pope Francis outlines five “signs” of holiness that he believes are especially significant today:

  • A solid grounding in the God who loves and sustains us.
  • Joy and a sense of humor.
  • Boldness and passion.
  • A journey in community, side by side with others.
  • Habitual openness to the transcendent, expressed in prayer and adoration.

These signs do not exhaust the meaning of holiness, the pope says, “but they are five great expressions of love for God and neighbor that I consider of particular importance in the light of certain dangers and limitations in today’s culture” (“Gaudete et Exsultate,” #111).

What do these five signs of holiness have in common? Each sign in its own way rejects the isolation and individualism that our modern, consumer-oriented culture promotes 24/7. Each sign breaks through the walls of selfishness and sin that separate us from God and each other. Each sign opens our minds and hearts to the world beyond our limited understanding, urging us to be passionate—and compassionate—in Jesus’ name.

As Pope Francis says: “Hard times may come, when the cross casts its shadow, yet nothing can destroy the supernatural joy that adapts and changes, but always endures, even as a flicker of light born of our personal certainty that, when everything is said and done, we are infinitely loved” (“Gaudete et Exsultate,” #125).

Holiness is never grim or despairing. It recognizes all hardships as opportunities to share in the cross of Christ, and in the redemptive suffering of his passion and death. Holy people are joyful people because they know that the world’s darkness has been overcome by the light of Christ, and there is cause for rejoicing even in the worst of times.

“This is not the joy held out by today’s individualistic and consumerist culture,” Pope Francis insists. “Consumerism only bloats the heart. It can offer occasional and passing pleasures, but not joy” (“Gaudete et Exsultate,” #128).

Pope Francis sees boldness and passion as signs of holiness. He dismisses indifference, hesitation and halfheartedness as contrary to the Gospel. After they had received the Holy Spirit, the disciples were “on fire,” and boldly proclaimed the name of Jesus even as they cured the sick and forgave sinners in the Lord’s name. There is nothing halfhearted in the martyrs’ witness to their faith, and in every generation since the first Pentecost, holy women and men have given their lives joyfully, sometimes with a sense of humor that proclaims with confidence absolute trust in the Lord.

Holy men and women recognize that no matter how bad things get, they are not alone. God is with us—in the best of times, in the worst of times and in ordinary times.

“Sharing the word and celebrating the Eucharist together fosters fraternity and makes us a holy and missionary community” (“Gaudete et Exsultate,” #142), Pope Francis teaches. The road to heaven is not a solitary journey that each of us must travel by him or herself.

On the contrary, we are always accompanied by a multitude of fellow travelers, including all the angels and saints. Some journey before us to show us the way. Some walk alongside us as spiritual companions. And some lag behind, looking to us to encourage and support them as we travel together on the path of holiness.

The final sign of holiness in our day, the pope says, “consists in a habitual openness to the transcendent, expressed in prayer and adoration” (“Gaudete et Exsultate,” #147). Prayer has been essential to holiness in every age from the time of Adam and Eve. Openness to the transcendent is what makes us human, and the desire to hear God’s voice and to share with him in prayer our deepest hopes and fears is what makes us a holy people.

Let’s pray fervently for the grace to embody these five signs of holiness in our daily lives—not perfectly perhaps, but in ways that show we are making real progress on the road to joy. †

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