'An exhortation to be holy' - Mass for Religious 2018

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As we gather together for this annual Mass for Religious I am sure you are aware that Pope Francis has released an Apostolic Exhortation entitled ‘Gaudete et Exsultate’ – ‘Rejoice and be glad’.

He is a pope of surprises. The topic is a wonderful one. In a word, we could say that it is this teaching is an exhortation to be holy. This is a most appropriate theme for us as we gather as religious today. We gather in the time of Easter when the joy of the risen Christ continues to refresh our spirits. It is also at a time when the Scriptures presented to us in the Liturgy remind us that we share in the life of the risen Christ by participation in the two great sacraments, baptism and Holy Eucharist.

In this Exhortation the Pope explains that he offers us, not a doctrinal presentation, but a practical guide to holiness. And that it is.

He emphasises, quite rightly, that holiness is for all in the Church, not just the religious and priests. We know this as the “universal call to holiness” expounded in the documents of the Second Vatican Council. However, we know that many in the Church still regard holiness as the domain of a few remarkable souls.

To emphasise the universality of holiness he speaks of the “saints next door” – a wonderful phrase. Sanctity is found in people all around us, those in our own communities.

The Pope emphasises that each is to find the way of holiness appropriate to their own circumstances and vocation. He especially wants to salute holiness found among women in the Church. He says, “I would stress too that the ‘genius of woman’ is seen in feminine styles of holiness, which are an essential means of reflecting God’s holiness in this world. 

Indeed, in times when women tended to be most ignored or overlooked, the Holy Spirit raised up saints whose attractiveness produced new spiritual vigour and important reforms in the Church.  We can mention Saint Hildegard of Bingen, Saint Bridget, Saint Catherine of Siena, Saint Teresa of Avila and Saint Thérèse of Lisieux.  But I think too of all those unknown or forgotten women who, each in her own way, sustained and transformed families and communities by the power of their witness.”

Pope Francis says something very true and consoling for us in these times when the Church’s image in society has been soiled: “Holiness is the most attractive face of the Church.”
The Pope reminds us of what we know: that our first calling as Christians is to be holy. He quotes Leviticus and I Peter: “Be holy, for I am holy.” (Lev 11:44; cf. 1 Pet 1:16) Holiness is a call made to all Christians. This exhortation invites us to consider afresh that being holy is our primary vocation. We all know that it is not what we do, but who we are that is most important. This thought has special relevance for religious. It is our desire for union with Christ that shapes our lives.

We seek Christ and he seeks us. In the Gospel story today, St John describes Jesus walking across the water towards his disciples in the midst of the lake. It reminds us that the risen Lord wants to accompany us on our journey. He is never far away, especially when things are dark and uncertain.

In a very interesting section of the exhortation the Pope makes reference to what he describes as two “subtle enemies” to holiness. These are Gnosticism and Pelagianism. I cannot summarise his thought here but his insight into the dangers that flow from the radical individualism of our day are worthy of some reflection.
He turns to the Beatitudes as a guide to the true nature of Christian sanctity. Taking each of the seven beatitudes in turn he shows how living the Beatitudes is a way of reflecting holiness of life.

Pope Francis highlights the fact that the spiritual life and apostolic action are interdependent. He says, “On the one hand, there is the error of those Christians who separate these Gospel demands from their personal relationship with the Lord, from their interior union with him, from openness to his grace.  Christianity thus becomes a sort of NGO, stripped of the luminous mysticism so evident in the lives of Saint Francis of Assisi, Saint Vincent de Paul, Saint Teresa of Calcutta, and many others.  For these great saints, mental prayer, the love of God and the reading of the Gospel in no way detracted from their passionate and effective commitment to their neighbours; quite the opposite.” 

The Pope speaks of key qualities that witness to a holy life. He mentions perseverance, patience and meekness. These are signs of a constancy in one’s Christian life. He mentions also the qualities of joy and a sense of humour. These are signs of a positive and hopeful spirit in the life of a holy person. The Pope further mentions boldness and passion. This he sees as the missionary impulse in the hearts of members of the Church that flows from an inner holiness.
The Pope mentions finally two other qualities of what we could call “practical holiness”. Holiness is meant to be lived and experienced within community. He says that “growth in holiness is a journey in community, side by side with others”. He speaks of the danger of a private way of holiness.

Finally, I draw your attention to his emphasis on the spiritual combat that necessarily marks the spiritual life of the Christian. He warns about the danger of dismissing the reality of the devil. He says, “Hence, we should not think of the devil as a myth, a representation, a symbol, a figure of speech or an idea.  This mistake would lead us to let down our guard, to grow careless and end up more vulnerable.  The devil does not need to possess us.  He poisons us with the venom of hatred, desolation, envy and vice.  When we let down our guard, he takes advantage of it to destroy our lives, our families and our communities. ‘Like a roaring lion, he prowls around, looking for someone to devour’.” (1 Pet 5:8)

True to his Jesuit training he mentions the need for spiritual vigilance and discernment – two key elements of the spirituality of St Ignatius of Loyola. He wisely comments, “The gift of discernment has become all the more necessary today, since contemporary life offers immense possibilities for action and distraction, and the world presents all of them as valid and good.  All of us, but especially the young, are immersed in a culture of zapping.  We can navigate simultaneously on two or more screens and interact at the same time with two or three virtual scenarios.  Without the wisdom of discernment, we can easily become prey to every passing trend.”

This document is of great service to us who are living consecrated lives. It firstly reminds us that, above all else, as religious we are to be holy. We are destined to be saints and, even now, sanctity is to be the witness to our consecrated lives. I commend the Exhortation to you as worthy spiritual reading and as an encouragement in living our vocation to the full.

Archbishop Julian Porteous
Saturday, 14 April 2018