One of the greatest gifts of Pope Francis’s pontificate is our pope’s willingness to write and speak about the day-to-day realities of many people everywhere. However, there is one experience which Pope Francis writes about that resonates with me most strikingly as a young adult and young professional: anxiety. And, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), I am probably not the only person with whom Pope Francis’s words resonate. In 2020, an estimated 48 million people experienced an anxiety disorder. Anxiety and anxiety disorders exist on a spectrum, ranging from mild interference with professional, relational, and/or other aspects of a person’s life, to causing major difficulties performing basic functions of human life. In other words, anxiety can look like worrying about an upcoming meeting to the extent that it causes racing thoughts and accelerated heartbeat or it can look like a debilitating fear that causes avoidance of daily plans and activities altogether.
So, what does Pope Francis have to say about this wide-ranging experience that shows up in the lives of so many? In his 2018 Apostolic Exhortation, Gaudete et Exsultate, Pope Francis sees anxiety as something that can cause us to act for the wrong reasons: “Needless to say, anything done out of anxiety, pride or the need to impress others will not lead to holiness. We are challenged to show our commitment in such a way that everything we do has evangelical meaning and identifies us all the more with Jesus Christ.” Here, Pope Francis identifies that the worries, racing thoughts, and fears can thwart our best judgment and right intentions. Experiencing anxiety can cause us to miss the mark in our perceptions of others, ourselves, or certain situations. Rather than coming from a place of a collected and balanced mindset, we may be influenced by anxiety to choose to act out of fear or worry.
In his 2013 Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis shares a similar sentiment. When describing the patience and time it takes to promote the common good of a society in paragraph 223, our pope encourages, “What we need, then, is to give priority to actions which generate new processes in society and engage other persons and groups who can develop them to the point where they bear fruit in significant historical events. Without anxiety, but with clear convictions and tenacity.” Here, Pope Francis follows a similar thought to Gaudete et Exsultate: anxiety clouds our judgment and perceptions—preventing us from taking clear steps forward in difficult situations or relationship challenges.
Perhaps Pope Francis’s punchiest paragraph on anxiety comes from Christus Vivit. In paragraph 142, he cautions young people and the entire church in falling prey to the fear and paralysis that comes from anxiety:
“Keep following your hopes and dreams. But be careful about one temptation that can hold us back. It is anxiety. Anxiety can work against us by making us give up whenever we do not see instant results. Our best dreams are only attained through hope, patience and commitment, and not in haste. At the same time, we should not be hesitant, afraid to take chances or make mistakes. Avoid the paralysis of the living dead, who have no life because they are afraid to take risks, to make mistakes or to persevere in their commitments. Even if you make mistakes, you can always get up and start over, for no one has the right to rob you of hope.”
Here, Pope Francis highlights how anxiety can prevent us from moving forward. How often are we afraid to pick up the phone and call a friend that we haven’t spoken to in a while because we are anxious about what to say? Or how many times have we put off a difficult conversation because we are fearful about how it might change our relationship with the other person with whom we speak? How many times have we passed up applying for that school, a certain job, or taking on a particular project because we are afraid that our abilities wouldn’t measure up? For Pope Francis, many of these situations have anxiety at their root.
So, what can we make of how Pope Francis writes about anxiety? For our pope, anxiety is a difficult and challenging issue. Though Pope Francis mentions anxiety can affect a person’s life negatively, notice that he never mentions anxiety as sinful. Like other health and mental health conditions and experiences, anxiety itself is not a sin and is not a punishment for sin, but rather comes from our imperfect human nature. What Pope Francis does hint at, though, is that learning to live with anxiety contributes to our holiness.
How does learning to live with anxiety contribute to our growth in holiness? Learning to manage our anxiety—whether through a relationship with a licensed therapist, medication, self-care practices, or other means of support—allows us to live out our calling to holiness more freely and generously. Anxiety causes us to make decisions, act, and cope with the situations of life out of worry, nervousness, and fear. Managing our anxiety allows us to learn to live more mindfully and intentionally, gain insight into what is causing our fear and worry, and make choices to act from a place of balance and discernment. In other words, instead of being paralyzed by anxiety, learning to manage it allows us to respond to others and situations in our lives more thoughtfully—seeing them not as threats or reasons to make judgments out of fear, but opportunities for us to be drawn out of ourselves, despite our nervousness or fear.
If holiness means to set apart our lives for God’s action and living out our mission, our experience of anxiety can be a part of our vocation to holiness as we see it as an opportunity to grow, become more generous, place our trust in God, and challenge our fears. As Pope Francis encourages us in paragraph 143 of Christus Vivit, “Take risks, even if it means making mistakes. Don’t go through life anesthetized or approach the world like tourists. Make a ruckus! Cast out the fears that paralyze you, so that you don’t become young mummies.”