By Corinne Winter
As is often the case with magisterial documents, one may hear the Latin and English titles of Pope Francis’ most recent apostolic exhortation and wonder how they are connected. In English, the exhortation is titled “Call to Holiness,” while a translation of the Latin title would be “Rejoice and Exult.” Those of us who grew up in the days of popular “holy cards” with pictures of favorite saints seldom saw them depicted as smiling, let alone exulting. Holiness was serious business requiring concentration, self-discipline, prayer and penance. And yet, Pope Francis begins his exhortation on holiness by calling us to rejoice and be glad.
To be sure, the pope’s full letter includes all of the elements we always associated with holiness. He refers to saints who spent themselves working to make a better world whether on a large scale or a small one, and who exercised self-discipline by foregoing, for the sake of living their calling, things people may think are essential for a good life. He insists that prayer, indeed, constant prayer, shapes holy lives. What he adds to that description is the idea that joy and even a sense of humor are fundamental elements of holiness. They are among the signs that inspire others to admire and pursue holy lives. They also provide a foundation for the perseverance, courage and passion with which holy people follow their vocation.
Pope Francis attributes the joy of holy people to faith which allows them to see things rightly. Although he doesn’t use the word, it seems to me that he describes saints as optimists. Not the kind of false optimists who would overlook or deny the presence and power of evil in the world. Indeed, Francis includes a long discourse on the reality of evil and the strength of its attractions. Rather, saints are optimists because, knowing full well the story of the cross, they nonetheless take Christ at his word when he says that his yoke is easy and his burden light. They are optimists after the pattern of Nelson Mandela who, having spent years of his life in prisons built by hatred, insisted that love rather than hate was more natural to human persons.
Optimism about humanity is, in fact, a characteristic of Catholic faith. As Catholics, we are called to believe that grace rather than sin is the most basic characteristic of the human person. That conviction is grounded not in human strength but in the unfailing love of God and the power of the Holy Spirit ever drawing us to be who we are meant to be. Because of the constant invitation of the Spirit, our deepest longings are for God and for all that leads us to God. Furthermore, no matter how distracted one may be by mistaken desires for accumulated wealth, popularity or other inferior goals, longing for our true end remains within everyone. Therefore, all people are worth our efforts to speak the truth by our lives and by our words.
Another truth about humanity that comes through powerfully in Gaudete et Exsultate is that our longing for God draws us to community. Made in the image of the Triune God, we cannot be fully ourselves in isolation. Far from being “holier than thou,” saints are those who know they need others in order to be holy. Indeed, we are most naturally repulsed by any form of alienation or division among people. Pope Francis declares that we long to be one as Jesus prayed we might be, as Christ and the Father are one (John 17:21: GE 146).
Bombarded as we are by accounts of evil and division at work in the world, we need to be reminded to persevere in hope, to keep reaching for our true end, the end for which we are created. I find it especially encouraging that Pope Francis says that even canonized saints were not perfect, that the full stories of their lives show that they struggled and fell and had to be renewed in faith and in the joy that alone could sustain them. Pope Francis’ exhortation reminds us of sources for the renewal we need: prayer, Scripture, the sacraments and the community of faith in which we find both encouragement and challenge.
(Corinne Winter is a professor-emeritus of St. Ambrose University, Davenport.)