“Gaudete et exsultate” – A summary and some reflections on Chapter 1

Pope-Francis-writing-740x493As is characteristic of Pope Francis, his latest document, the Apostolic Exhortation Gaudete et exsultate, is not “a treatise on holiness, containing definitions and distinctions helpful for understanding this important subject, or a discussion of the various means of sanctification”. Instead, the Holy Father has the practicality of daily life in mind: he simply wants to repropose the call to holiness “for our own time”.

In this post I will take a look at the first chapter of this new document. I will try to add some thoughts and connections of my own, as well as provide a summary for those who haven’t gotten around to reading the whole thing yet. I haven’t either, so what you read here very much is a collection of first impressions.

The first paragraph of the exhortation emphasises that the call to holiness lies at the heart of being a Christian. Too often it seems as if Christianity is just a system of rules and regulations, but, Pope Francis reminds us, “[The Lord] wants us to be saints and not to settle for a bland and mediocre existence,” for He created us for true life and happiness. That is the goal of following Christ. Quoting Pope Benedict XVI in paragraph 21, Pope Francis writes, “holiness is nothing other than charity lived to the full.”

Holiness is not something to be achieved alone. On the contrary, there are countless numbers of saints that lead by example. They “may not always have been perfect, yet even amid their faults and failings they kept moving forward and proved pleasing to the Lord,” the Pope writes. In paragraph 5, he reminds us of a recent change he made to the reasons why a person can be declared to be a blessed or saint: when “a life is constantly offered for others, even until death”. The processes of beatification and canonisation recognise the heroic virtues, which people in the past, but also “our own mothers, grandmothers or other loved ones” consistently display to inspire and guide us on the path to holiness.

And holiness is not just a goal on the horizon, distant or otherwise. In paragraph 7, Pope Francis speaks of “the middle class of holiness”: parents, people who work hard for their loved ones, for the sick, our next-door neighbours who display God’s presence among us. It is these people who make real history.

Holiness also unites, especially when we look at the martyrs. People are persecuted or killed for their Christian faith, and the persecutors make no distinction between Catholics, Orthodox or Protestants. Theirs is a ecumenism of blood.

But these are just some factual statements, important as they may be. In Gaudete et exsultate, Pope Francis “would like to insist primarily on the call to holiness that the Lord addresses to each of us, the call that he also addresses, personally, to you: “Be holy, for I am holy” (Lev 11:44; cf. 1 Pet 1:16). The Exhortation should, then, be read as a personal letter to all of us. Paragraphs 14 to 18, under the header “For you too”, are essential reading in this regard. Each has their own way of achieving holiness, and while examples are good and helpful, they are not meant to simply be copied, “for that could even lead us astray from the one specific path that the Lord has in mind for us.” We are tasked to find our own path, our own vocation in life, because that is what is attainable for us.

In paragraph 12, the Holy Father stresses the “genius of women” which is “seen in feminine styles of holiness”. While listing a number of important female saints, he returns again to the “middle class”: “all those unknown or forgotten women who, each in her own way, sustained and transformed families and communities by the power of their witness.”

Holiness, or the attempt at achieving it, is essential to the mission of a Christian in the world. That mission, which each of us has, is “to reflect and embody, at a specific moment in history, a certain aspect of the Gospel.”

But what is that holiness, then? Pope Francis offers a deceptively simple answer: “[H]oliness is experiencing, in union with Christ, the mysteries of his life. It consists in uniting ourselves to the Lord’s death and resurrection in a unique and personal way, constantly dying and rising anew with him. But it can also entail reproducing in our own lives various aspects of Jesus’ earthly life: his hidden life, his life in community, his closeness to the outcast, his poverty and other ways in which he showed his self-sacrificing love.” We can incorporate these mysteries in our lives by contemplating them, he writes, quoting St. Ignatius of Loyola.

It is important to recall that saints, which we are called to be, are not perfect human beings. After all, only God is perfect. “Not everything a saint says is completely faithful to the Gospel; not everything he or she does is authentic or perfect.” That is why we must look at “the totality of their life, their entire journey of growth in holiness, the reflection of Jesus Christ that emerges when we grasp their overall meaning as a person”. We must also look at the totality of our own lives, not just dwell on individual mistakes or successes. Pope Francis encourages us to always listen to the Holy Spirit and the signs He gives us; we should ask in prayer what Jesus expects from us at every moment and for every decision we make.

Holiness requires an openness to God. “Let yourself be transformed. Let yourself be renewed by the Spirit,” we read in paragraph 24. If we don’t, our mission to speak the message of Jesus that God wants us to communicate to the world by our lives will fail.

Our striving for holiness is intimately connected to Christ. We must work with Him to build His Kingdom: this is thus a communal effort. We cannot seek one thing while avoiding another. “Everything can be accepted and integrated into our life in this world, and become a part of our path to holiness. We are called to be contemplatives even in the midst of action, and to grow in holiness by responsibly and generously carrying out our proper mission,” the Pope writes in paragraph 26.

What are the sort of activities that can help us on the path to holiness, then? As each path is different, it is impossible to provide a simple list, but the Holy Father does give some directions: “Anything done out of anxiety, pride or the need to impress others will not lead to holiness.” We must be committed, so that everything we do has evangelical meaning. But that “does not mean ignoring the need for moments of quiet, solitude and silence before God. Quite the contrary.” We live in a world of distractions, a world not filled with joy, but with discontent (the social media world is certainly no stranger to that). In moments of silence we are able to open ourselves to God, which, as we have read, is a prerequisite for starting on our path to holiness.

Paragraph 31 summarises the above well: “We need a spirit of holiness capable of filling both our solitude and our service, our personal life and our evangelizing efforts, so that every moment can be an expression of self-sacrificing love in the Lord’s eyes. In this way, every minute of our lives can be a step along the path to growth in holiness.”

But that path can also be scary, as it seems to take us away from what is familiar. In paragraph 32, Pope Francis echoes a quote from Pope Benedict XVI, who said, “Do not be afraid of Christ! He takes nothing away, and he gives you everything.” Pope Francis writes the same about holiness: “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.” This, as I have written above, is the heart of being a Christian: the path to holiness leads us to becoming the fullest version of ourselves.

In this first chapter, Pope Francis establishes that this is a personal letter to each of us. It explains that holiness lies at the heart of being a Christian, and that it precludes neither the contemplative nor the active sides of life: we should never choose one over the other, but both are required. With this text he also emphasises his own focus on spirituality: Christianity is a faith with its roots in the muck of daily life. Holiness is not something high and unattainable, no, it can become visible in the most mediocre things. Holiness has a middle class of hard work which is at least as important as the first class of theology and contemplation. I found the various references to the fullness of life which God has created us for especially striking. I think it is a beautiful invitation to find our own path to holiness and follow Christ every day.

I will look at Chapter 2 in the near future.


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75 years after his death, is the canonisation of Titus Brandsma any closer?

Blessed Titus BrandsmaOn this day in 1942, 75 years ago exactly, Dutch Carmelite priests Titus Brandsma died in the Dachau concentration camp. 22 years ago, in 1985, he was beatified by Pope Saint John Paul II, and now, as his life and death are commemorated in his native Fryslân, as well as in Oss and Nijmegen, where he lived and worked, we may ask when he will be canonised.

The main thrust in that process, it turns out, comes from America, where, in 2004, a Carmelite priest was diagnosed with an advanced form of skin cancer. Members of his order in Boca Raton, Florida, as well as parishioners of St. Jude’s in that city, prayed for the intercession of Blessed Titus Brandsma for Father Michael Driscoll. After ten years of intermittent treatment and observation, Fr. Driscoll was dismissed by his doctors. He was clear of cancer cells.

In July of 2016 Bishop Gerald Barbarito of the Diocese of Palm Beach opened the diocesan inquiry into the presumed miracle. Following this inquiry, in which all evidence, such as medical records, eyewitness accounts and testimonies will be collected and investigated, the case will advance to Rome, where the Congregation of Causes of Saints will once more look at the evidence and advise the Pope on whether a miracle has really occured and Blessed Titus Brandsma should be declared a saint.

Titus Brandsma was imprisoned and killed by the Nazis as one of several measures against the resistance of the Dutch Catholic Church, who protested the persecution of Jews and others in Germany and the countries they had occupied. His canonisation would underline the importance of free speech and the fight against hate, injustice and basic human dignity.

For 2016, St. Maria Goretti

Every year, I use Jennifer Fulwiler’s Saint’s Name Generator to find a saint to whose intercession I entrust my blogging efforts for that year. Yes, there’s is a degree of randomness in this method, but with the added ingredient of prayer before clicking, I am more than willing to accept whoever the program selects for me, and ask that person for special guidance and inspiration as I do my blogging.

st_maria_goretti_photographThis time around, I got Saint Maria Goretti. In 1902, at the age of 12, she was raped and stabbed to death, but her witness of the concern for not her own wellbeing but that of her rapist’s soul, as well as her forgiveness of him, ultimately led to the latter’s conversion, and her own canonisation by Pope Pius XII in 1950.

She protects against various things, including poverty and the death of parents, and she is also a patron of children, poor people and martyrs. Suffice it to say that more than a few of these are significant to me personally at this time in my life.

For the blog, and in my life as a Catholic, perhaps I can take the example of St. Maria Goretti of how to act in the face of adversity.

Anyway, for this year: Sancta Maria Goretti, ora pro nobis!

This year’s saint – St. Dominic Savio

Like last year, I used Jennifer Fulwiler’s Saint’s Name Generator to select a patron saint for the blog for 2015. Last year St. Raymond of Peñafort,  the Dominican canonist from the 13th century, was randomly selected for me, and tis year I was given an entirely different saint: a 14-year-old boy from 19th century Italy.

SA010101On reading the life story of St. Dominic Savio one might be excused for thinking he is a Goody Two-Shoes, doing all the right things, respectful, pious, kind to the extreme and wise beyond his years. But when we are dealing with saints we are always invited to look beyond first impressions. And in this case we have the testimony of another saint, Saint John Bosco, who wrote a biography on his young pupil, to help us. And here we learn that St. Dominic Savio not only led an exemplary holy life – the reason for his canonisation in 1954 – but avoided becoming insufferable.

What does the life and example of St. Dominic Savio mean for a blogger? Perhaps that a life of prayer, the path to holiness that we are all called to, lies at the root of our Christian life. After all, in this way we feed our relationship with Christ, and although we may not advance along it as fast as St. Dominic Savio did, it can give is increasing certainty and faith in the Lord. And in that way we grow ever more towards our fulfillment as human beings, as God intended it when He created us.

That is why St. Dominic Savio has a place in the left side bar of this blog this year, as a reminder that we are nothing without Christ in our hearts.

The Holy Spirit’s impossible task – Pentecost message from Bishop Bonny

Bishop Johan Bonny of Antwerp wrote a message for the feast of Pentecost, discussing the seeming opposition between the Spirit and the institute of the Church. Of course, there is no opposition, but the Holy Spirit works in the Church and the Church needs to be continuously open to His workings. Not an easy task…

johan-bonny“The Pope and the Holy Spirit: do they get along? It seem a superfluous question. But much ink has been spent and battle has been done, but in and outside the Church, about that topic. For some the Holy Spirit is invisible where the Pope is. For others the Pope is invisible where the Holy Spirit is. Institute and charisma, durability and renewal, shepherding and prophecy: they are so easily put in opposition to one another. Yet the story of Pentecost begins in the house where the Apostles are. They are among the first to receive the Spirit for the mission that the Lord has entrusted to them.

I thought of Pentecost when I was in St. Peter’s Square for the canonisation of Pope John XXII and John Paul II. In his homily, Pope Francis said about these Popes that they “cooperated with the Holy Spirit in renewing and updating the Church in keeping with her pristine features, those features which the saints have given her throughout the centuries. Let us not forget that it is the saints who give direction and growth to the Church. In convening the Council, Saint John XXIII showed an exquisite openness to the Holy Spirit. He let himself be led and he was for the Church a pastor, a servant-leader [guida-guidata], guided by the Holy Spirit. This was his great service to the Church; for this reason I like to think of him as the the pope of openness to the Holy Spirit.”

This is the work of the Holy Spirit: to continuously reveal the original features of the Church. That is what Jesus promised His disciples, shortly before his departure: “the Paraclete, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and remind you of all I have said to you” (John 14:26). The memory of the Church and Christians is short, especially concerning the heart of the Gospel and the witness of Jesus. The Holy Spirit doe snot have an easy task in continuously reminding the Church of the word and example of Jesus. You have to be the Holy Spirit to not get sick of it!

During this time of Pentecost we pray for “openness to the Holy Spirit”. We ask that the Holy Spirit may renew our Church community, bring her closer to the times, reveal her original features. We pray for all those who carry responsibility in the Church community: that they, as shepherds, let themselves be guided by the Holy Spirit. And especially: we thank the Holy Spirit that He hasn’t given up our Church community, despite our short memory. Perhaps because of that the Holy Spirit is as light as air and as fire: to be able to get along with us!

+ Johan Bonny
Bishop of Antwerp”

Holy Popes

With today’s canonisation of Popes Saint John XXIII and Saint John Paul II, the Church now recognises 80 out of 266 Popes as saints. Some think this is too many, and that Popes are being made saints too quickly or too automatically. Whatever the truth in that matter is, the history is interesting.

canonisation

Of the first 58 Popes, from St. Peter to St. Silverius, almost none escaped canonisation, although the process as we know it today did not exist yet. In general, the Church simply recognised an existing cult for a deceased Pope, making him known as a saint. The only exceptions in this five-century period are Pope Liberius (352-366), Pope Anastasius II (496-498), Pope Boniface II (530-532) and Pope John II (532-535).

In the following five centuries there are fewer saints among the Popes, as the process became more formalised, but still quite a lot: 19. Their frequency does decrease sharply towards the end: not a single ninth century Pope was canonised, while the previous century still had four.

For the second millennium, after the Holy See became the sole authority in the area of canonisation, it is actually very possible, without making this post excessively long, to list all papal saints:

  • St. Leo IX (1049-1054)
  • St. Gregory VII (1073-1085)
  • St. Celestine V (1294)
  • St. Pius V (1566-1572)
  • St. Pius  X (1903-1914)
  • St. John XXIII (1958-1963)
  • St. John Paul II (1978-2005)

The number of three canonised saints among the 20th century Popes is striking. The last time the Church had so many papal saints so close together in time was in the eighth century. But is it excessively much? Compared to the first 500 years of the papacy: absolutely not. Nor is it much when we compare it to the total number of people canonised by the nine Popes since 1900: 1501. Less then two-tenths of a percent of these were Popes. In the end, it’s all relative.

The big event, not so big in the Netherlands

prayer cards john xxiii john paul ii

An example of the 140,000 prayer cards that the Diocese of Roermond is printing and distributing for the canonisation of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II. While various parishes, especially named for one of the two new saints, will mark the occasion, there is no Church province-wide celebration of next Sunday’s unique event. Whereas the canonisations will be shown in a number of cinemas in neighbouring countries, no Dutch cinema chain has been approached to do so. The general impression among the bishops seems to be that there is little interest among Dutch Catholics. To which I have to wonder: if there is nothing being organised, how can interest be measured…

Anyway, the event will at least be broadcast live on television and via livestream in the Netherlands, and both the state and Church have sent representatives to Rome. The secretary of foreign affairs, Mr. Frans Timmermans will be there on behalf of the government, while the bishops have delegated Bishop Everard de Jong. Some feigned indignation was presented about Cardinal Eijk not going because of other obligations, but that has turned out to be a non-issue in the media. The Cardinal did send out the following letter to the parishes of the Archdiocese of Utrecht:

“On this Second Sunday of Easter Pope Francis will canonise two of his predecessors: the Popes John XXIII and John Paul II. Two new saints who are in addition well-known persons for many faithful of today: in this case, it makes the example of saints especially powerful. The 27th of April of this year is therefore all the more a joyful day for the entire Catholic Church.

The Italian Pope John XXIII (Angelo Roncalli) was Pope from 1958 to 1963. A period of only five years, but in that time he was able to do an achieve much. For example, he announced, inspired by the Holy Spirit, the Second Vatican Council, which took place from 1962 to 1965. With it, he tried to bring the Church ‘up to date’ under the famous motto of aggiornamento. As Church, we still gratefully reap the fruits of this Council. In 2012, for example, we celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the opening of this Council in the Dutch Church.

John XXII’s nickname was ‘the good Pope’, in part because of his warm personality, his evangelical humility and his great sense of humour. Many faithful still remember him fondly, but others do so as well, because he appealed “to all people of good will.”. He managed to win over many people, even important Communists at the height of the Cold War. His Encyclical Pacem in Terris – published less than two months before his death – is considered to be his most important; in it he explains that peace on earth must be rooted in truth, justice, love and freedom.

The Polish Pope John Paul II (Karol Wojtyla) was Pope from 1978 to 2005. He became most known for being a great evangeliser: he travelled tirelessly across the globe to proclaim the Gospel and in 1984 he was the founder of the World Youth Days, which gather millions of young people to celebrate the faith.

His pontificate contributed to a large extent to the fall of Communist rule in the former eastern bloc, including his native Poland. He became increasingly ill in his final year, but continued holding the office of Peter. That he remained in office despite his debilitating illness and was not afraid to appear in public, is a witness to the inviolable dignity of man, which remains under all circumstances, and he so encouraged many people suffering from disease and physical handicaps. Until the end his help and support was the Blessed Virgin Mary, for whom Pope John Paul II cherished a livelong devotion. During his funerals pilgrims asked for his immediate canonisation with the cry of “Santo Subito!” – and less than ten years later that time has come.

Hopefully Pope John XIII and John Paul II can be a source of inspiration and encouragement in faith and life to even more people because of their canonisation.

Hopefully they can continue to contribute to an increasing unity of all Christians and all humanity by their words and deeds during their earthly life and also by their prayer now in heaven.

On this Second Sunday of Easter (also declared by Pope John Paul II in 2000 as Divine Mercy Sunday) united in prayer with the many pilgrims who have travelled to Rome – also from the Netherlands – for this double canonisation. We may have faith in the intercession of these two new saints, also and especially for a blessed future for the Church in our country and our entire world.”

In the meantime, in Rome, the logistics are impressive, as Vatican Radio reports. With hundreds of busses and dozens of chartered airplanes coming in from Poland alone, 2,500 volunteers are working to provide the thousands of pilgrims with four million free bottles of water, 150,000 liturgy booklets and 1,000 portable toilets. Seventeen video screens throughout the city will allow most visitors – who will be gathered from St. Peter’s Square all the way to the banks of the River Tiber – to follow the canonisation.

And one of them will be the Pope emeritus, as was confirmed today. So, two Popes being canonised by another Pope, while a fourth Pope is in attendance. Certainly, one for the history books.