Father Louis J. Cameli

Pope Francis: Pathways for holiness today

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

At the very end of “Gaudete et Exsultate,” Pope Francis’ new apostolic exhortation, the pope describes his purpose in writing: “It is my hope that these pages will prove helpful by enabling the whole church to devote herself anew to promoting the desire for holiness. Let us 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.” 

From start to finish, the Holy Father writes as a spiritual father or spiritual director. Indeed, this document may represent a crystallizing moment of how he has envisioned his Petrine ministry. 

He leads the church as a spiritual guide, who fosters the spiritual growth of believers entrusted to his care. This approach has discomfited some who, as the controversies around “Amoris Laetitia” suggest, expect doctrinal and moral clarifications rather than spiritual formation. 

As a good and experienced spiritual guide, Pope Francis begins his exhortation with encouraging words about the universal call to holiness and the saints who heeded that call. In other words, he summons the members of the church to very high ideals that are, at the same time, attainable, somehow close at hand in the course of ordinary life in a family, at work or in the community. The saints are proof of that.

Again, with the care of a seasoned spiritual director, the Holy Father does not hesitate to identify hard but subtle challenges for those who seek to grow in holiness today. He names two in particular: contemporary gnosticism that prizes a certain kind of knowledge above all and contemporary Pelagianism that ignores grace to pursue one’s own willful efforts. 

With his Ignatian roots in clear evidence, Pope Francis also invites believers to reflect with him on the Beatitudes “in the light of the Master.” The blessed are the holy, and the holy are the ones who have joined themselves to the mystery of Jesus in his poverty, meekness, suffering, hunger, mercy, peace and justice. 

The last two chapters of the exhortation give needed spiritual instruction by identifying signs of holiness in today’s world, such as perseverance, joy, boldness, community and prayer. The last chapter includes the countersigns of holiness, the kind of spiritual battle or struggle that awaits a faithful disciple. 

Finally, again in line with his Ignatian background, the Holy Father speaks about the need for the gift of discernment, a theme close to his heart and evident in his other works.

As we consider this timely apostolic exhortation, we can be especially grateful for its wisdom and encouragement for our own spiritual journeys. We need a spiritual guide, a holy father to accompany us and help us discern our paths. We have one in Pope Francis. 

This exhortation opens up vistas for understanding how the pope envisions his exercise of the Petrine ministry among us. It clarifies the logic of his ministry.

With this exhortation, Pope Francis offers not just the church but the entire world what I would call an apologetics of holiness. Historically, apologetics has meant a defense of the reasonableness of the faith with an eye to convincing non-believers that they ought to consider faith as a genuine option for themselves. The arguments of apologetics used history and logic and other elements of human inquiry to build a case for Christianity. 

An apologetics of holiness, as I think Pope Francis has developed it, moves much differently. It aims to make the claims of Christianity convincing not by rational argumentation but by introducing a lived experience of God as truth, as human fulfillment beyond measure and as transcendent hope. 

In this experience of God, people can find their meaning and their purpose. They can begin to recognize that what they most long for has a home in a faith that they can embrace. That, for so many of our contemporaries, is a great reason to “rejoice and be glad.” 


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