Cardinal Müller’s Manifesto of Faith – refutation of its critics

I really shouldn’t be surprised anymore, but I was nonetheless yesterday.

Cardinal_Gerhard_Mueller_in_St_Peters_Basilica_at_the_installation_Mass_of_Bishop_Maurizio_Malvestiti_on_Oct_12_2014_Credit_Lauren_Cater_CNA_CNA_10_13_14On Friday, Cardinal Gerhard Müller, former prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and now a sort of free-roaming cardinal with no specific mission, issued a “Manifesto of Faith“. As he explains in the opening paragraphs he did so on the request of various people, both clergy and laity, in order to provide some measure of clarity to the confusion that exists about Catholic doctrine. Without doubt, we must understand this to be based in the different interpretations of recent papal teachings regarding such varied topics like marriage, sexuality and ecumenism. The teachings themselves may not be confusing, but their communication and interpretation most definitely are. But Cardinal Müller’s reasons go beyond this, and back over past decades and the formation, or lack thereof, of the faithful on matters of conscience, the nature of Christ, the Church, the sacraments, morality and eternal life.

catechism-of-the-catholic-church2628lgThe manifesto is in the first place a summary of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, at least regarding the topics discussed. It is stuffed with references to paragraphs from the document, which aims to summarise the faith, and as such can serve as a helpful reminder of what it is that we confess as Catholics and how that affects our spiritual and daily life. Cardinal Müller also offers a few interpretations and explanations, which are all the interpretations of Tradition, communicated over the years and centuries by popes and theologians alike. Until those interpretations, for example that divorced and civilly remarried faithful can not receive Communion, are changed, they stand. They are what we are beholden to as Catholics. And, despite footnotes and desires expressed in interviews, under Pope Francis no steps have yet been taken to change this.

On to my surprise.

The reception of Cardinal Müller’s manifesto, especially in social media, has been as expected. Some quietly welcomed it, presenting it as a text worth reading, without, I must say, a lot of further comment. Others, however, including a significant number of Vatican commentators and reporters, have taken the text to frame the cardinal and his supporters:

Cardinal Müller, they say, is opposed to Pope Francis, and with this manifesto he presents an alternative Magisterium. Some have gone so far as calling him an anti-pope. How on earth, I wonder, can a text so rooted in the Catechism, in the faith that we all claim to confess as Catholics, be an alternative Magisterium? It is as if the critics claim that this is not the faith they confess, and, worse, not the faith that the pope confesses. If that were true, we would indeed have an anti-pope, but it would not be Cardinal Müller.

The criticism they level at Cardinal Müller is also marked not by theological refutations, but limit themselves to superficialities. The cardinal is angry at the pope for being dismissed as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, they say. We know this because of the way he signed his manifesto. He must be opposed to Pope Francis, because the Holy Father chooses not to discuss doctrine that much, instead focusing on social and charitable issues. Thus, they insist, the manifesto should not be taken seriously, even mocked (and not just the text, but in the first place its author).

Worst of all, those critics continue to insist that there is no confusion. There is therefore no other reason for Cardinal Müller to publish his manifesto than to position himself as an alternative authority to the pope. In reality, though, the different interpretations of various recent papal communications, and the spiritual and formative developments of the faithful over the past decades, are clear as day.

In the minds of Cardinal Müller’s attackers, a cardinal’s duty is to quietly fall in line with what the pope says and does. Their mission is not that of a shepherd, but of a sheep. Any hint at them overstepping that role is seen as an attack against them and what they consider the “fluffiest pope ever”, to borrow a phrase. This is an unhealthy attitude that changes the nature of the Magisterium and the hierarchy of the Church into a dictatorship. Some say that’s due to Pope Francis, but it’s his supposed self-appointed supporters who do the most damage.

The manifesto is text worth reading. As I’ve said above, it offers a reminder of what our faith actually entails in various matters. It says little about practical applications, but theologically it is a reminder of the rich foundation and intricate beauty of our faith. The manifesto is also a call to action, to rediscover that foundation and beauty, and grow beyond the earthly superficialities, which have their place and value, but which do not define our faith and unity with Jesus Christ.

The English text of Cardinal Müller’s manifesto is available in several places, such as here, while my Dutch translation can be found via this link.

 

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In in-flight presser, Pope Francis tones down expectations for February’s abuse meeting

In the traditional press conference on the return flight from the World Youth Day celebrations in Panama, Pope Francis discussed a number of topics, one of which was the next major event on the Church’s calendar: next month’s summit on sexual abuse of minor in the Church, in which the presidents of the bishops’ conference of the world, the heads of the Eastern Catholic Churches, the prefects of a number of dicasteries and representatives of the leadership of religious orders and societies will take part.

The main purpose of the summit is not the eradication of sexual abuse anywhere, the Pope explained:

dyahq3ouyaaembu“I would like to say that I felt a little bit of an inflated expectation. You have to deflate the expectations. Because the problem of abuse will continue, it is a human problem, and is everywhere. I read a statistic the other day, 50% is reported, 20% is listened to and it ended with 5% is condemned, That’s terrible. It is a human drama and we must become aware of it. We too, by resolving the problem in the Church, but becoming aware of it, will help to resolve it in society, in families where shame covers everything. But first we must become aware, have the protocols and move forward”. [Translation by Vatican Insider]

This awareness is what the summit will try to achieve. The Council of Cardinals, until recently the C9, spawned the idea for the summit, as they saw that “some bishops did not understand well or did not know what to do or did one good thing and another one wrong, and we felt the responsibility to give a “catechesis” on this problem to the episcopal conferences. That is why the presidents are called.”

The bishops across the world, Pope Francis continued, must first be made aware of what the problem is. Many do, but still not all. Then they must know what they can and must do: the bishop in his own diocese, the metropolitan archbishop in the Church province, the episcopal conference as a body…

Will the abuse summit come with a general solution to the scourge of abuse of minors (and adults too) in the Catholic Church? No. It will, however, take what has already been done over the past decade or so and try to make sure that those measures, decisions and protocols are understood and used everywhere. It is one thing to make a general rule about, say, reporting abuse cases to the police, another to implement it. This summit will hopefully make it impossible for any bishop to say that he did not know what to do when confronted with an abusive priest or lay person, alive or deceased.

There are some who expect the Vatican to take responsibility, to enforce rules, to unceremoniously fire bishops who failed in reporting abuse, and that sentiment is understandable. Individual dioceses and bishops have taken responsibility, but many feel that the world Church as a body has not yet, or not enough. They cite the case of former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick and what Cardinal Donald Wuerl did or did not know, to name but one example. It remains to be seen if the summit will lead to quicker and more decisive responses to such cases, although, of course, the due process of finding indisputable proof, rather than the ventilation of opinions and gut feelings via social media, must always be respected.

Photo credit: DOMENICO AGASSO JR/Vatican Insider

2019: A look ahead

A new year, so a good time to look ahead to what 2019 may bring. The year will undoubtedly have its share of surprises, but there are always some things we can know for sure.

Among these is the inevitable progression of time, and thus the aging out of cardinals. In 2019, ten cardinals will celebrate their 80th birthday and so lose their right to participate in a conclave for the election of a new pope, as well as any duties they may have in the curia. The umber of cardinal-electors will drop from 124 to 114. Still a sufficient number, but Pope Francis has shown that he wants to keep the electors as close to their theoretical maximum of 120 (or over it, as the case is now), so a consistory may be in the books sometime towards the end of the year, or at the start of 2020.

The cardinals aging out are:

  • jrkruk_20130907_kard_stanislaw_dziwisz_wislica_img_3893b30 January: Alberto Cardinal Suárez Inda, archbishop emeritus of Morelia, Mexico
  • 11 March: Orlando Beltran Cardinal Quevedo, archbishop emeritus of Cotabato, Philippines
  • 8 April: Edwin Frederick Cardinal O’Brien, Grand Master of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem
  • 27 April: Stanislaw Cardinal Dziwisz, archbishop emeritus of Kraków, Poland (pictured at right)
  • 31 July: John Cardinal Tong Hon, bishop emeritus and apostolic administrator of Hong Kong, China
  • 16 August: Seán Baptist Cardinal Brady, archbishop emeritus of Armagh, Northern Ireland
  • 7 October: Laurent Cardinal Monsengwo Pasinya, archbishop emeritus of Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo
  • 11 October: Zenon Cardinal Grocholewski, prefect emeritus of the Congregation for Catholic Education
  • 14 October: Edoardo Cardinal Menichelli, archbishop emeritus of Ancona-Osimo, Italy
  • 15 October: Telesphore Placidus Cardinal Toppo, archbishop emeritus of Ranchi, India

Who may replace these cardinals among the electors is guesswork, as Pope Francis has never felt bound to pick his cardinals from the traditional places. Still, the list above could give some hints and we may assume that the Holy Father will choose cardinals for countries who no longer have any. That said, possible candidates could be Archbishop Marek Jedraszewski of Kraków, Archbishop Eamon Martin of Armagh and Archbishop Fridolin Ambongo Besungu of Kinshasa. Another source of new cardinals are the papal visits Pope Francis makes. He has made some of hosts cardinals in the past before. It may therefore be possible that we may see new cardinals from Panama, the Arabian peninsula, Morocco, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Romania (all confirmed visits), and perhaps Japan, Mozambique and Uganda (rumoured visits).

Closer to home, a number of dioceses will be looking forward to new bishops this year. In the Netherlands, the Diocese of Haarlem-Amsterdam has just received a coadjutor bishop, although the sitting ordinary, Bishop Jos Punt, expects to remain in office until his 75th birthday in 2021. Health permitting, of course.

luc van looy gent - bisdom genrt_0In Belgium, Bishop Luc Van Looy of Ghent (pictured at left) has already had his retirement accepted. At 77, he completed a two-year extension to his mandate last year. He is to remain in office until the appointment and installation of his successor. Namur’s Bishop Remy Vancottem is, at 75, also past retirement age, so the southeastern diocese may see a new bishop before the year is out as well.

In Germany, Bishop Konrad Zdarsa of Augsburg will turn 75 in June. Among the country’s auxiliary bishops, there is room in Freiburg im Breisgau where erstwhile auxiliary Bishop Michael Gerber was appointed to Fulda in December.

In the headline-making department, there is of course next month’s meeting of the heads of all the bishops’ conferences in Rome, to discuss a unified Church response to the abuse crisis. Among the participants will be Bishop Hans van den Hende for the Netherlands, Cardinal Jozef De Kesel for Belgium, Cardinal Reinhard Marx for Germany and Bishop Czeslaw Kozon for Scandinavia.

Currently gearing up in Panama, the World Youth Days will take place from 22 to 27 January. The first group of Dutch pilgrims have departed for the Central American country today, with more to follow. Among them will be Bishops Everard de Jong and Jan Hendriks. Bishop de Jong is again replacing Bishop Rob Mutsaerts, who has decided to stay at home as he is recovering from unplanned – and not further specified – surgery. Last year, Bishop Mutsaerts elected not to take part in the Synod assembly on youth and vocation in Rome. Bishop de Jong went in his stead.

cq5dam.thumbnail.cropped.750.422In October, the Synod of Bishops will gather again for a special assembly for the Pan-Amazonian region, to discuss the specific challenges for the Church there. The expectations are high, as many assume to what will be decided there, especially on the topic of married priests, will have global consequences. Participation in the special assembly is limited to bishops from the area, which means there is a minute Dutch link, at least when it comes to language, in the person of the bishop of Paramaribo, Msgr. Karel Choennie. Bishop Choennie is a member of the pre-synodal council preparing the special assembly in cooperation with Synod of Bishops’ general secretariat.

2019 will undoubtedly bring much to be discussed in (social) media, and there is still plenty being carried over from previous years. Keeping track of everything, let alone formulating thoughts and responses can sometimes be a challenge, but it’s probably a good idea to remember that not finding words or timely responses does not mean one does not care. There are many opinions, and many eloquent ones at that, to be found everywhere. And, perhaps more importantly, there are also answers to be found in the past. After all, what was true and good in the past remains true and good now. That is something to remember when we are confronted with questions and developments which seem to challenge our beliefs, understanding and even faith. We have a deposit of faith and exegesis to fall back on, and many of today’s questions and challenges are not new ones.

Photo credit: [1] Jarosław Roland Kruk / Wikipedia, licence: CC-BY-SA-3.0, [2] kerknet.be

Cardinal Müller in the Netherlands – On forced retirement (of sorts), the Church’s response to secularism and criticising the Pope

“I am now simply a cardinal without a specific assignment. That is somewhat unusual. Bishops normally remain active until they are 75. The Pope apparently has better advisors than me at his disposal. As priest, bishop and cardinal I can keep serving the Church as usual. I give lectures and write books.”

Words from Cardinal Gerhard Müller in a recent interview for Dutch newspaper Trouw. The 70-year-old German prelate has been Prefect emeritus of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for almost 18 months now, but still looks with mild amazement at his letting go as the head of the premier Curia dicastery. He assumes that some of the pope’s “so-called friends” made him believe certain things, which let to his early retirement. Perhaps, the cardinal, wonders, his “attempts at interpreting the document Amoris laetitia in an orthodox way was not well received either”.

But Cardinal Müller is not a bitter man.

“My sense of self-worth and my identity do not depend on an office in the Church. I have achieved a few things theologically. Forty students received their doctorates with me. In total, 120 students graduated under me. I have written books. I don’t think that is all insignificant.”

CRK-dag_2018_Katholiek_Nieuwsblad_Jan_Peeters08Early last week, Cardinal Müller was in the Netherlands to speak at a congress about recently canonised Pope Paul VI and Vatican II. Katholiek Nieuwsblad (which, as an aside, has recently been expanding its media work abroad, providing translated articles to Crux) has published excerpts from the cardinal’s comments. One snippet, which was shared on social media, was taken by some as a critique on Pope Francis’ focus on certain issues. Reality is a but more nuanced, although Cardinal Müller, in the aforementioned Trouw interview, did not shy away from such criticism.

At the conference, organised in ‘s-Hertogenbosch by the CRK (Contact Rooms Katholieken), Cardinal Müller said:

“We can not make the mistake that, as the world becomes more secular, we only provide such answers. The Church is not just important because of her answers to social and environmental problems. Those are secondary matters. The first and foremost task of the Church is to bring people to God. He who is with God can contribute to the development of society from there. We can not replace the Church of Jesus Christ, the sacraments, with a social organisation.

And later:

“We can not make the mistake of responding to the secularisation  of the world with a secularisation of the Church. The Church must be a visible sign of a higher reality, and bear witness that man has a higher calling, to see God amidst the community of saints. That is the greatest calling of man.”

Returning to the issue of criticism, in the Trouw interview reporter Stijn Fens asked Cardinal Müller about the accusation, from among others Cardinal Wim Eijk, that the pope is causing confusion by refusing to offer clarity in the case of Communion for divorced and remarried faithful. Cardinal Müller answered:

“Yes, there is a great confusion in the Church at this time. The reason is that the relationship between the doctrine of the Church and the pastoral care for people in difficult situations is not clear. You can’t accompany and help faithful when you start from the wrong basis. We all know that there are people who are in a bad marriage through no fault of their own.

You see, a priest is like a doctor who cares for souls in the name of Jesus Christ. But a good doctor can only offer help when he prescribes the correct medication. You can’t comfort a patient and say, “Listen, you have broken a bone, so I’ll slap a band-aid on it.” You must use the right medication. That means, then, that a priest must explain doctrine in a clear way, whether people accept it or not.

What happens now is that those who are out to “improve” Catholic doctrine and partly falsify it, are not being disciplined. While others, who are clearly loyal to the Word of Christ, are being disregarded as “rigid” and “Pharisaic”. Is that a way to lead a Church?”

Whatever one may think of Pope Francis and his actions – and I do not consider myself to be among his detractors – it is hard to deny that the confusion described by Cardinal Müller – and others with him – exists. But, I wonder, is it up to the Pope alone to resolve this? Of course, when people are confused by his statements, it is not unreasonable to ask for clarification. But, as Cardinal Müller has asserted in the past, we must read papal statements in continuity with the teachings that came before. In that respect, it becomes an obligation to read them in an orthodox way, as the cardinal has tried with Amoris laetitia. Past doctrine does not suddenly become invalid just because the pope who promulgated it is no longer alive. So when we are faced with questions regarding communion, divorce, marriage or whatever matter of doctrine or pastoral care we like, we do ourselves and the persons involved a disservice if we look no further than one document or statement. The Code of Canon law, the social teachings of the Church, even, dare I say it, the Gospels (to name but a few sources) offer clarity and explanations and indications on how to interpret what we may not understand immediately. That is a duty for all Catholics, not just the Pope. 

In a more lengthy interview that was published in the printed version of Katholiek Nieuwsblad on Friday, Cardinal Müller also shared some thoughts about the Netherlands and the state of the Church there. Asked about the reasons for the extreme and rapid secularisation here, he said:

“The Netherlands is one of the countries which has understood the Council as a sort of liberalisation or secularisation of the Church. But in reality the Council had a further Christianisation of society as its goal.”

But hope always remains:

“There may still be a new flourishing. We must pray for it and bear good witness. I hope and pray that a new spring for the Church may perhaps begin in the Netherlands.”

Photo credit: Jan Peeters/Katholiek Nieuwsblad

Tweeting the Synod

Today the Synod of Bishops will convene for the first session of their fifteenth ordinary general assembly on “Young People, Faith and Vocational Discernment”, which will run until the 28th of October. In the past, the daily deliberations and individual contributions of delegates were summarised and published by the Holy See press office, but this is no longer the case. An unwise decision, in my opinion, as it makes the entire process a secretive one. As outsiders, all we will have are rumours and the eventual final document. During the previous Synod we have seen what damage rumours can do, especially when they are neither confirmed nor denied in any clear way..

twitterThat said, there is always social media, and a number of Synod delegates are enthousiastic (or less so) users of those media. Below, I present a short (probably incomplete) list of delegates who use Twitter. It is mostly western prelates using the medium, with English being the dominant language. Other languages used are Italian, French, Spanish, German and Maltese.

  1. Pope Francis (obviously). As pope he convenes the Synod and acts as its president, although he delegates that duty to four delegate presidents. Pope Francis will not be commenting on the Synod proceedings, but offer prayers and short items to reflect on spiritually.
  2. Archbishop Charles Scicluna. Archbishop of Malta. One of three members of the Commission for Disputes.
  3. Bishop Robert Barron. Auxiliary Bishop of Los Angeles and CEO of Word On Fire.
  4. Bishop Frank Caggiano. Bishop of Bridgeport, Connecticut.
  5. Archbishop José Gómez. Archbishop of Los Angeles.
  6. Archbishop Leo Cushley. Archbishop of Edinburgh.
  7. Archbishop Eamon Martin. Archbishop of Armagh.
  8. Archbishop Anthony Fisher. Archbishop of Sydney.
  9. Leonardo Cardinal Sandri. Prefect of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches.
  10. Robert Cardinal Sarah. Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments.
  11. Kevin Cardinal Farrell. Prefect of the Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life.
  12. Peter Cardinal Turkson. Prefect of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development.
  13. Gianfranco Cardinal Ravasi. President of the Pontifical Council for Culture.
  14. Gérald Cardinal Lacroix. Archbishop of Québec.
  15. Daniel Cardinal Sturla Berhouet. Archbishop of Montevideo.
  16. Blase Cardinal Cupich. Archbishop of Chicago.
  17. Carlos Cardinal Aguiar Retes. Archbishop of Mexico City.
  18. Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia. President of the Pontifical Academy for Life,
  19. Archbishop Peter Comensoli. Archbishop of Melbourne.
  20. Father Antonio Spadaro. Member of the Vatican Media Committee.
  21. Christoph Cardinal Schönborn. Archbishop of Vienna.
  22. Wilfrid Cardinal Napier. Archbishop of Durban.
  23. Luis Cardinal Tagle. Archbishop of Manila.
  24. Vincent Cardinal Nichols. Archbishop of Westminster.
  25. Carlos Cardinal Osoro Sierra. Archbishop of Madrid.

KLqGjJTk_400x400Not all of the prelates above use their accounts equally often or in the same way. For example, Cardinal Tagle only posts links to his ‘The Word Exposed’ Youtube catechesis talks, Cardinals Sturla Berhouet and Farrell mostly retweet, Archbishop Fisher hasn’t tweeted since February of 2017, and most use Twitter as a one-way channel. Among those who do respond to what their followers say are Cardinal Napier, Archbishop Comensoli (his Twitter profile picture at left) and Bishop Barron.

Other delegates, such  as Philadelphia’s Archbishop Charles Chaput and Passau’s Bishop Stefan Oster, are active on Facebook, while Belgian Bishop Jean Kockerols keeps the youth of his country up to speed via a blog.

Several delegates have already shared their arrival in Rome, and it is these (such as Archbishop Comensoli and Bishop Barron) who will perhaps offer the best idea of what goes on in the coming weeks. That said, all we will get are glimpses, and no tweeting delegate will share what goes on in the debates. So, in this age of social media and high-speed communication, the Synod of Bishops remains firmly behind closed doors.

 

Careful criticism – Bishop de Korte’s thoughts after the cardinal’s comments

While there has been much said and written about Cardinal Willem Eijk’s criticism on how the Pope handled the German plans to allow non-Catholics to receive Communion under certain circumstances, and the opposition that triggered from seven German bishops, the Dutch bishops have been rather quiet about the comments of the metropolitan of the Dutch Church province.

Bishop Jan Hendriks, auxiliary of Haarlem-Amsterdam and easily the most social media-minded among the bishops, wrote on Facebook that that was not the place to offer any commentary. Via his spokesman, Bishop Hans van den Hende of Rotterdam, president of the Dutch bishops’ conference, let it be known that he “hopes and expects that the agreements as described in the aforementioned documents [the Code of Canon Law, the Catechism and the Ecumenical Directory] remain the guideline.”

bisschop-de-korteThe most extensive comment, although one without directly addressing the cardinal, comes from Bishop Gerard de Korte of ‘s-Hertogenbosch. In his regular contribution to the diocesan website, the bishop addresses the accusation that Pope Francis causes confusion through his words and actions, a position that Cardinal Eijk – and others with him  – very clearly takes in his commentary. Bishop de Korte defends the Pope when he writes, “It is nowhere apparent that the Pope violates the teachings of the Church. But he does want to take into account the stubbornness of our existence.”

Addressing the topic of alleged confusion, the bishop writes:

“Some faithful, including high prelates, think that the pope allows room for confusion. But isn’t it better to speak about a papal willingness for permanent dialogue? Such an attitude does not flow from modernism of liberalism, but from the heart of the gospel. In Christ, God came to stand next to us. We in our turn are also called to accept one another. At stake is the willingness to a permanent dialogue, which does not mean the denial of our deepest convictions, but that we are open to the workings of the Holy Spirit in the other.

In the end, we all live from pure mercy. That faithful realisation can make us humble, mild and modest.”

Bishop de Korte focus on dialogue is worthy, and he is correct when he says the pope, and all Catholics, should never be closed in on themselves, open to dialogue with everyone. But, and here’s what is almost absent from the bishop’s text (except from the reference to “our deepest convictions”), dialogue has to be about something. Speaking with each other for its own sake is a good starting point to create trust and friendship, but ultimately, we must speak about something. Jesus Christ spoke with people, sinners and righteous alike, but never just for the sake of speaking. He had a clear message, and did not refrain from admonishing when necessary. We are called to continue sharing that message, which is about love, hope and faith, about charity, but also salvation, about changing our behaviour and leaving things behind to follow Him.

Rather than limiting ourselves to being kind and listening, or only quoting rules, we must take the best of both, and approach the other in kindness, love and, no less important, honesty.

Ideally, the messages of both Cardinal Eijk and Bishop de Korte are read and appreciated by readers, who can find value in both. Reality, however, shows that people would rather put the one against the other and resort to name-calling or mocking in social media. Whatever the intention of a bishop in writing an article, I am quite sure that is never it.

“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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