When you ask someone which of Pope Francis’ writings they think of first, you’re likely to hear Evangelii Gaudium, maybe Christus Vivit if you’re talking to someone in youth or young adult ministry, Laudato Si if the person is particularly environmentally conscious, or Amoris Laetitia for those who work in family ministry. The two that, by my estimation, might be least likely to be mentioned are Lumen Fidei (which was Pope Francis’ first papal document and was written by both he and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI) and his Apostolic Exhortation Gaudete et Exsultate. This is a real tragedy because Gaudete et Exsultate might be one of the most important writings in Pope Francis’ pontificate, though I know that since I’ve said this, he’ll write something even better.
Recently, the Church has celebrated the Solemnity of All Saints and the Commemoration of All Souls. On All Souls Day, the Church prays for all of the faithful departed, for the souls in Purgatory who will, one day, be welcomed into the Eternal Banquet. The Solemnity of All Saints celebrates all of the Saints in Heaven, both those great saints who are venerated in churches across the world, and those “saints next door”. In Gaudete et Exsultate, Pope Francis writes, “very often it is a holiness found in our next-door neighbours, those who, living in our midst, reflect God’s presence… Let us be spurred on by the signs of holiness that the Lord shows us through the humblest members of that people which ‘shares also in Christ’s prophetic office, spreading abroad a living witness to him, especially by means of a life of faith and charity’.” He reminds us that holiness is not just for those who are called to do great things, but by all of those who live a life of faith and who are followers of Jesus.
We often see prominent Catholics telling us to “do great things”. They get this from Pope St. John Paul II who said to young people at World Youth Day in 2000, “It is Jesus who stirs in you the desire to do something great with your lives, the will to follow an ideal, the refusal to allow yourselves to be grounded down by mediocrity, the courage to commit yourselves humbly and patiently to improving yourselves and society, making the world more human and more fraternal.” And the great Saint has a point: when the world leads us to such mediocrity, a mediocrity which leads us to individualism, relativism, and complacency, the Lord Jesus leads us to greatness. What I think can be lost in translation, at times, is that this greatness is not worldly greatness. This greatness which Pope St. John Paul II spoke of is the greatness that a life of faithful missionary discipleship can bring. Greatness that is marked by hope, by a rich and abounding charity towards our neighbor, by a gentleness that comes from resting in eternal truth, and by a trajectory that always moves, as Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati would say, “verso l’alto”, or “to the heights.”
In Gaudete et Exsultate, Pope Francis leads the People of God on this journey to greatness which, when properly viewed, is indeed the journey to holiness. He reminds us that the Scriptures give us regular calls to holiness, a theology which was explored and articulated more deeply and precisely at the Second Vatican Council. He reminds us that, “This holiness to which the Lord calls you will grow through small gestures,” in a way echoing the words of St. Teresa of Calcutta who said, “not all of us can do great things, but we can do small things with great love.”
Maybe this is the greatness which Pope St. John Paul II was speaking about to those young people over two decades ago. Not greatness which is pursued for any individual person’s gain, but great love. Love which seeks to echo the love of Jesus Christ on the Cross, love that wills the good of the other. This love is articulated in the Beatitudes, which Pope Francis calls “the Christian’s identity card.”
Pope Francis gives us a deep and insightful document in Gaudete et Exsultate. He gives us cause to reflect on our lives and on the holiness which the Lord calls us to. He reminds us that we can’t do the Christian life alone and that our living of that life will make us counter cultural. We should find great cause for hope in Gaudete et Exsultate. In the words of Pope Francis, may we, “ask the Holy Spirit to pour out upon us a fervent longing to be saints for God’s greater glory, and let us encourage one another in this effort. In this way, we will share a happiness that the world will not be able to take from us.”
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