'An exhortation to be holy' - Third Sunday of Easter (B)

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Last week Pope Francis released an Apostolic Exhortation entitled, ‘Gaudete et Exsultate’, or in English, ‘Rejoice and be glad’. The theme of this letter is holiness. The Pope reminds all Christian people that we are called to be holy.

He emphasises, quite rightly, that holiness is for all the Church, and not just for some - not just for religious and priests. We know this as the “universal call to holiness” expounded in the documents of the Second Vatican Council.

However, it is also true, I think, that many also in the Church would still regard holiness as the domain of a few remarkable souls, and certainly outside their own reach. The Pope wants to correct this wrong understanding.

The Pope says, “Do not be afraid of holiness.  It will take away none of your energy, vitality or joy.  On the contrary, you will become what the Father had in mind when he created you, and you will be faithful to your deepest self.” He adds, “To depend on God sets us free from every form of enslavement and leads us to recognise our great dignity.”
I think this is a very important message for us in these days. Now, we are currently in the Easter season when the joy of the risen Christ continues to refresh our spirits. This message from the Holy Father is truly an Easter message.

In the opening prayer of the Mass today we prayed: “May your people exult forever, O God, in renewed youthfulness of spirit, so that, rejoicing now in the restored glory of our adoption, we may look forward in confident hope to the rejoicing of the day of resurrection.” This is the time of year when our hearts are, in fact, renewed in hope and filled with Easter joy, and a renewed youthfulness flows in upon us.

So it is most appropriate for us to be reminded that we, as Christians, are being, in fact, drawn into the risen life of Christ and raised up in holiness of life.

The Pope explains that what he is offering us is not some doctrinal presentation, but rather a practical guide to holiness. The Pope wants to show us a way to be holy. In particular, he wants to remind us that holiness is a reality in the Church today. Holy people are in fact all around us. He speaks - with a rather beautiful phrase - he talks about the “saints next door,” a really wonderful phrase. In other words, sanctity is to be found in people around us; those in our families, among our acquaintances, and in our own parish communities.

The Pope says that each of us is to find the way of holiness appropriate to our own circumstances and vocation. So, when speaking of great women saints in the Church’s history, he says, “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.” Indeed, how many of us would acknowledge the holiness of our mothers and grandmothers?

Pope Francis says something very true and very consoling for us in these times when the Church’s image in society has been soiled. He says that “holiness is the most attractive face of the Church”. What the Church has is the witness of countless numbers of holy people. Their holiness is often hidden and rarely recognised, but it is there; and in the midst of the Church there is a body of wonderful, inspiring and holy souls. This is the most attractive dimension of the Church. Really, is the true face of the Church.

The Pope reminds us that our first calling as Christians is to be holy. He quotes from the Book of Leviticus and from the Letter of I Peter: “Be holy, as I am holy.” (Lev 11:44; cf. 1 Pet 1:16) Holiness is the call given to each one of us as Christians. This exhortation invites us to consider afresh how being holy is in fact our primary vocation. We all know that it is not what we do in life that in the end is most important; it is rather the person that we become.

In his desire to present a practical guide to holiness, the Pope focuses a good deal of attention on the Beatitudes, as he sees them 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.

He highlights the fact that the spiritual life of a Christian and apostolic action taken by the Christian 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.”

He comments, “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.” Here the Pope is reminding us that to be truly effective in transforming our society, we need to be close to Christ. We need to be people of prayer. We need to constantly listen to and be inspired by the Gospel teachings of Christ.

The Pope speaks of some qualities that witness to a holy life. He mentions, for example, virtues like perseverance, patience and meekness. These he sees as signs of a constancy in the Christian life. He also mentions qualities of joy and specifically refers to a sense of humour. These are signs of a positive and hopeful spirit, he says, in the life of a holy person. Then he goes on to mention boldness and passion which drives the missionary spirit of the Church. These are all fruits - outcomes - of being holy.

Pope Francis is acutely aware that the Christian life is a struggle and requires the willingness to engage in spiritual combat. In this he warns us 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 says. But, “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.” Then he finally quotes from the First Letter of St Peter, “Like a roaring lion, he prowls around, looking for someone to devour.” (1 Pet 5:8)

I believe this exhortation is very timely and very encouraging. It presents the Christian life as one which, in fact, draws us deeper and deeper into the life of God, into the life of the risen Christ.

My brothers and sisters, we are all called to be holy, we are all called to be saints. Holiness is within our reach and is to be found all round us in the Church. For this reason, and especially in this Easter season, we can say with the Pope, “Gaudete et Exsultate” - “Rejoice and be glad”.

Archbishop Julian Porteous
Sunday, 15 April 2018

To listen to an audio recording of Archbishop Julian's homily, click here:

https://soundcloud.com/archdiocese-of-hobart/an-exhortation-to-be-holy