First in a series
IN HIS APOSTOLIC exhortation “Gaudete et Exsultate” (“Rejoice and Be Glad”), after mentioning our deceased loved ones as saints, Pope Francis writes the following sentence: “The saints now in God’s presence preserve their bonds of life and communion with us.”
That sentence means a great deal to me. Recently, I wrote a 10-part series of columns about the philosophy of personalism. The personalist philosophers claim that human persons are striving toward communion, by which the philosophers mean an intimate love relationship. The Holy Father is referring to what Catholics call the Communion of Saints.
For most of my life, the Communion of Saints primarily meant to me that we could help by prayer those who had died. I tended to think of it mostly as a one-way street, neglecting the possibility and even probability that our loved ones intercede for us. I now believe that our loved ones, who have died and are now in the presence of God, are wherever Christ is. In other words, they can be interceding for us all the time. For example, when I offer Mass, I believe that my father, mother and sister are present. I can’t picture or imagine this but it is what I believe. I think that James Joyce’ words from “Finnegan’s Wake” are especially applicable to the Eucharist: “Catholicism means here comes everybody.”
If what I believe is Catholic doctrine, then not only is the death of loved ones not a separation, but rather it is a deepening of the union among us. Though we cannot embrace, kiss or even hear our loved ones, that does not mean the love relationship among us has ceased. Rather, the love relationship is deepened and made stronger. Catholics believe that love conquers death and that means that the power of death has been destroyed. One result of this is that our love relationships are not terminated when loved ones die, but instead, they are intensified. I know this seems almost too good to be true, but I believe it is part of the redemption won for us by Jesus’ death and resurrection.
Stating that we need not think only of those who have been beatified and canonized as holy and with God in heaven, Pope Francis stresses that the Holy Spirit sends graces in abundance on God’s holy and faithful people. Pope Francis writes:
“I like to contemplate the holiness present in the patience of God’s people: in the 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. In their daily perseverance I see the holiness of the Church militant. Very often it is a holiness found in our next-door neighbors, those who living in our midst, reflect God’s presence. We might call them ‘the middle class of holiness.’”
When I read these words, I can easily understand why Pope Francis is loved by so many – Catholics and others. I don’t find it difficult to believe that if anyone might cause a revolution of love in the world, it might be the Holy Father. Reading “Rejoice and Be Glad,” I think Pope Francis is passing onto us his deep human compassion and also his great joy because of what God has done for us and is doing for us. Pope Francis’ joy is not part of an act he performs for people or a mask he assumes in public. No, rather his joy springs from his profound faith in God and his experience of God’s love for all of us. My impression is that Pope Francis is such an attractive human being because of his profound commitment to Christ, a commitment that moves him not to judge others or have negative feelings toward them, but to embrace them lovingly and be a channel of God’s love for them.
I believe a careful reading of Pope Francis’ text, perhaps a prayerful reading, might profoundly influence how we think of holiness. Certainly, the image of the holy person as one who withdraws from the world or has achieved a relationship with God which is not possible for the rest of us, is not the image Pope Francis is presenting in this exhortation. Without minimizing any Catholic dogma or doctrine, but rather by seeing more deeply into Catholic teaching, Pope Francis is trying to motivate us to allow the Holy Spirit to influence even our most apparently ordinary actions.
Father Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica. He presents two 15-minute talks from his 24-part lecture series on the Catholic Novel, every Tuesday at 9 p.m. on NET-TV.