Signs of holiness in today’s world
In this third article on Gaudete et Exsultate, we look at the final two chapters in this exhortation. Here, Pope Francis tells us that he does not intend to develop a complete description of the Christian life of holiness. He chooses to speak of five signs of holiness or “five great expressions of love for God and neighbor” that are of “particular importance in the light of certain dangers and limitations present in today’s culture.”
The first of these signs is a “solid grounding in the God who loves and sustains us,” an inner strength that enables us to persevere even to the point of enduring hostility and failings on the part of others. It is a patient constancy in doing good, a faithful accompaniment of others even in their own anxieties and distress. It is a refusal to allow anger to take root and a desire to seek the peace that only Christ can give. This is especially relevant in the verbal violence so prevalent in our internet culture, among other places. As the Holy Father points out, even in Catholic media, defamation and slander can become commonplace – to our shame. It is also a humility that is ready to endure humiliations for the sake of the Gospel, in the way of Christ who also suffered humiliation for us.
The second sign is joy and a sense of humor. The saints, though realistic, “radiate a positive and hopeful spirit.” Christian life is not dour or morose but “joy in the Holy Spirit.” Jesus, Mary, and many other biblical people are portrayed as rejoicing. This joy is often accompanied by a lively and surprising sense of humor, as we see in the lives of many saints such as Thomas More and Philip Neri.
The third sign is boldness and passion. It is the impulse to evangelize and to leave a mark on the world. It is the freedom to speak out, enthusiasm for the Gospel, and apostolic fervor. It is to follow the Lord’s own commands to “be not afraid” and to be willing to put out into the deep and let down our nets. All too often, our witness as Catholics is hampered by a lack of boldness and a too-great desire to conform to others of our own political or economic groups rather than to the Gospel itself. Complacency is a great temptation in our time.
The fourth sign is being in community. Growth in holiness implies journeying with others. Christ Himself sent His disciples in pairs and never alone. Many saints have been fostered in religious communities. Even two people who have been united by their common love of Christ form such a community of mutual support.
The fifth sign is constant prayer. This happens in common prayer, such as the Mass. It happens in times of solitude when each of us can be alone with the Lord. It also happens as each of our daily activities become transformed into means of prayer as we dedicate ourselves more and more fully to the service of God. We remember all that God has already done for us, thus nourishing our gratitude and faith. We intercede for others, thus loving our neighbor. We praise God continually for His goodness to us and to all.
After describing these five signs, Pope Francis reminds us that the Christian life is a constant battle. Fidelity to the Gospel requires strength, courage, and a wise heart. This is because we are not in a battle merely against worldly attitudes or our human weaknesses. We are also engaged in a constant struggle with the devil. Indeed, some of the horrendous evils that people seem capable of can best be explained by such a personal, malignant power in our midst.
Because of this, we also need to foster and cultivate discernment. This is the ability to know if something comes from the Holy Spirit, from the spirit of the world, or from the devil. Discernment is nourished through prayer, reflection, reading and good counsel, and always in union with the whole Church, especially the role of the magisterium. The ultimate goal of discernment is “recognizing how we can better accomplish the mission entrusted to us at our baptism."
In these last two chapters, as in this entire exhortation, Pope Francis offers us a rich feast to aid our reflection on the Christian life of holiness and to serve as an examination of conscience to help us see how well we are living the Christian life.
Father Mark Nolette