Reflections from the Middle Class of Holiness

I opened my phone and listened to my podcast conversation with Fr. Gene Merz, SJ.  Fr. Gene is an old friend and mentor and it was so great to hear his voice reminding me about how to be holy—by reflecting on my life, by spending time in prayer, and by appreciating the grace in my life.

Then in an odd coincidence, Pope Francis’s exhortation Gaudete et Exsultate (“On the Call to Holiness”) was released the same day.  I was struck by his idea that we are all called to holiness and (like his Jesuit brother) that we need to find God in all things.  Below are my initial thoughts after reading the exhortation.

In the exhortation, Pope Francis hopes to “repropose the call to holiness in a practical way” (paragraph 2).  We are not saved alone, says Francis, but in community.  He references the “middle class of holiness”—a remarkable concept celebrating the prevalence of holiness in everyone, not just in the Church hierarchy or in consecrated life.  How to become holy?  “The important thing is that each believer discern his or her own path, that they bring out the very best of themselves, the most personal gifts that God has placed in their hearts” (11).  It’s a personal call and Francis returns again and again to discernment and prayers as tools.  But they aren’t end in themselves.  We are called to action and to share our holiness.  Contemplatives in action, faithful to our deepest selves—two Ignatian concepts.

Francis takes a detour in Chapter Two while articulating two heresies opposed to holiness.  Contemporary Gnosticism, according to Francis, is a prison of one’s own thoughts and feelings and doesn’t allow one to express charity.  These Christians have the answers to everything and feel superior to others but fail to act out of charity.  Likewise, Contemporary Pelagianism attributes all success to human will and effort as opposed to God’s grace.  This leads to the worship of the human will and the celebration of human achievement.  Both of these heresies make the spiritual life more complicated.  According to Francis, the greatest expression of holiness is the virtue of charity.

In Chapter Three, Francis presents and examines each of the Beatitudes.  As he celebrates the virtues and lesson found within, he is providing a new way to understand the Gospels.  We often hear “Gospel-centered” and “Gospel values.”  But how often are the values and virtues ever articulated?  And how often by the Pope?  Look for them here in paragraphs 63-94.  This is the spiritual reflection part of the document.  I found his reflection on “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” particularly apropos for these times as we see students protesting for safety, teachers protesting for higher pay, and all sorts of other efforts underway.

He continues to challenge our definitions of holiness, first by asking “Can holiness be understood apart from this lively recognition of the dignity of each human being?” when referencing an imagined encounter with a homeless person and then by offering this reflection on abortion and migrants:

The other harmful ideological error is found in those who find suspect the engagement of others, seeing it as superficial, worldly, secular, materialist, communist or populist.  Or they relativize it, as if there are other more important matters, or the only that counts is one particular ethical issue or cause they themselves defend.  Our defense of the innocent unborn, for example, needs to be clear, firm and passionate, for at stake if the dignity of a human life, which is always sacred and demands love for each person, regardless of his or her stage of development.  Equally sacred, however, are the lives of the poor, those already born, the destitute, the abandoned and the underprivileged, the vulnerable infirm and elderly exposed to covert euthanasia, the victims of human trafficking, new forms of slavery, and every form of rejection.  We cannot uphold an ideal of holiness that would ignore injustice in a world where some revel, spend with abandon and live only for the latest consumer goods, even as others look on from afar, living their entire lives in abject poverty. (101)

These are powerful, prophetic words which challenge all of us.  Francis goes on to use mercy as the criteria to judge our own lives.  He returns to the theme of the damaging impact of gossip and introduces the concept of “verbal violence” that even Catholic media can engage in (115).  He also returns to his previous exhortation by celebrating joy in the spiritual life to stand alongside inner strength, passion, and community as vehicles for helping increase our holiness.

The last chapter focuses on spiritual combat and I found it be the weakest of the four sections.  However, it should not mar this effort.  What a great challenge to us all!  And what a great reminder that holiness is our common call.

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