By Glen Argan, Interim Editor of Living with Christ
Pope Francis has repeatedly shown himself to be a pontiff who does not pontificate. Rather, he is the world’s and the Church’s smiling spiritual guide to difficult endeavours such as family life and our relationship with the environment.
This is just as true of his latest apostolic exhortation, Gaudete et Exsultate (Rejoice and Be Glad), on the call to holiness in the modern world, issued in Rome on April 9, as it is of his earlier writings.
His 2016 apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love) has drawn fevered commentary, both pro and con, for a footnote on whether Catholics divorced and remarried outside the Church may legitimately receive the Holy Eucharist. Yet in the bulk of the document Pope Francis meditates on marriage and marital love, a beautiful meditation that has not received the attention it deserves.
The lengthy chapter four of Amoris Laetitia, Love in Marriage, has been the basis for my examination of conscience prior to receiving the sacrament of Reconciliation. The chapter contains many gems of wisdom that have led me to look more closely at my own life than have the standard examens found in prayer books, both traditional and contemporary.
Indeed, all of Pope Francis’ major documents call us to an examination of conscience, even Laudato Si’ (Our Common Home) on the grave threats to the natural environment.
Now the pope has now turned his attention to holiness with Gaudete et Exsultate, focused on how we might better live our lives in Christ. If Pope Francis consciously decided to issue this document on the 25th anniversary of Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Veritatis Splendor (The Splendour of Truth), he makes no mention of that. But the two documents by two great popes strikingly contrast their styles and interests.
Both could be seen as critical of developments in the Church – John Paul’s encyclical obviously so in its lengthy critique of some strains in post-Vatican II moral theology. Pope Francis’ exhortation is not so overtly critical, although it is hard to miss the frequent references here and throughout his pontificate to joyless Church bureaucrats.
As mentioned, Veritatis Splendor was a major treatise on morality and moral theology. Gaudete et Exsultate does not even mention morality except to place it in a higher context of mercy and grace.
“Holiness is the most attractive face of the Church,” Pope Francis states (#9). Indeed, the Church’s insistence on moral truth may be its least attractive face in our age of individualism and relativism. Large sections of our population sour at any pronouncement, which they interpret as the Church “imposing its morality” on them.
Pope Francis does not write in order to coddle people in their immorality or to propose a Gospel that is less difficult. Holiness, in fact, sets a much higher standard than does adhering to negative moral norms. Most of us should be able to avoid violating the precepts against say, murder and adultery, but living a life constantly oriented toward Christ is another matter.
The pope urges us to join “the middle class of holiness.” This, he notes, “is not about swooning in mystical rapture” (#96), but about living a life of faith and charity. Here, he refers to holiness found “in those parents who raise their children with immense love, in those men and women who work hard to support their families, in the sick, in elderly religious who never lose their smile.” (#7)
The Beatitudes are a guide for such a way of life. The Beatitudes are so demanding that “We can only practise them if the Holy Spirit fills us with his power and frees us from our weakness, our selfishness, our complacency and our pride.” (#65)
Despite the demanding nature of holiness, we cannot lose sight of the exhortation’s title – Rejoice and Be Glad. My word processor toted up 63 uses of “rejoice” or “joy” in the text. Many fall in a section entitled “Joy and a Sense of Humour.” What other magisterial document has had a section on the importance of a sense of humour? I cannot recall any.
Gaudete et Exsultate is sound spiritual advice from a spiritual master. Life in Christ should be a joy, not a burden. When people look at our faces, what d0 they see? Is it the grimace of moral repression or the joy-filled smile of a life lived in Jesus Christ?