Arts and Culture

Paths to Holiness

Third in a series

I PROBABLY COULD not even list all the reasons why I am so enthusiastic about Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation Gaudete et Exultate (“Rejoice and Be Glad”). One of the reasons I think it is such an important document is that a kind of dualism has crept into the way some Catholics think about what is and what is not holy. We throw around the word “secular” so often that we can inadvertently think that there are only particular places that are sacred and certain actions that are holy. I think Pope Francis is trying to broaden our vision and deepen our appreciation of what our faith tells us about ourselves and the mystery of the Holy Spirit’s presence in our lives. If by “secular” we mean some place in which God is not present, there is no such place.

In trying to broaden our understanding of what holiness is, the Holy Father writes the following:

“To be holy does not require being a bishop, a priest or a religious. We are frequently tempted to think that holiness is only for those who can withdraw from ordinary affairs to spend much time in prayer. That is not the case. We are called to be holy by living our lives with love and by bearing witness in everything we do, wherever we find ourselves. Are you called to consecrated life? Be holy by living out your commitment with joy. Are you married? Be holy by loving and caring for your husband or wife, as Christ does for the Church. Do you work for a living? Be holy by laboring with integrity and skill in the service of your brothers and sisters. Are you a parent or grandparent? Be holy by patiently teaching the little ones how to follow Jesus. Are you in a position of authority? Be holy by working for the common good.”

The Holy Spirit is not present in our lives only occasionally. The Holy Spirit is Infinite Love, trying to lead us into a deeper relationship with our heavenly Father.  The interaction between the Holy Spirit’s activity in our lives and our freedom is a great mystery. We cannot completely understand that mystery. We believe that the Spirit influences us but that we retain our freedom. What the Holy Father is trying to do with “Rejoice and Be Glad” is help us to see that our basic vocation is to be holy. He is trying to erase from our consciousness the view that only special people are called to holiness. He is saying that everyone is invited by God to be holy.

I hope the Holy Father’s insights will help people to see that being holy is not antihuman. Being holy does not involve some shrinking of our humanity or carrying a hopelessly heavy burden. Being holy should lead to a profound joy and a strong appreciation of God’s love for everyone. I think the Holy Father is trying to raise our consciousness so that we see more deeply into what we believe about God.

In classes that I teach at St. John’s University, when we are discussing the mystery of God, I stress that whatever we say about God, we can immediately add that more could be said and that God is better than what we have said. Even with the best intentions, we can inadvertently shrink God in our minds. We may do that in trying to understand how God is Infinite. The Holy Father’s exhortation does not offer a shrunken and incorrect idea of God. He presents God as one whose presence is constant and whose love for us surrounds us.

In stressing the universal call to holiness, Pope Francis writes: “This is a powerful summons to all of us. You too need to see the entirety of your life as a mission. Try to do so by listening to God in prayer and recognizing the signs that he gives you. Always ask the Spirit what Jesus expects from you at every moment of your life and in every decision you must make, so as to discern its place in the mission you have received. Allow the Spirit to forge in you the personal mystery that can reflect Jesus Christ in today’s world.”

Reading these words, my first reaction is disappointment with myself that I often do not seek the help of the Spirit. My second reaction is gratitude for the pope’s urging and encouragement. I guess God is not finished with any of us yet. It’s okay to be disappointed with ourselves, but I think it is always a mistake to be discouraged.

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.

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