What comes to mind when you think of the word saint?
For me, this word brings to mind people who lived a long time ago, wore long robes, and walked around with their eyes raised toward the heavens and their hands clasped in prayer. They never sinned or lost their tempers. Oh, and there’s a good chance they left this life without their heads.
Pope Francis wants to challenge these notions and include a couple more people in the saintly mix—you and me!
It’s hard to fathom myself a saint. Yet, after reading Pope Francis’s new apostolic exhortation, Gaudete et Exsultate (Rejoice and Be Glad), sainthood and holiness don’t seem so far out of reach. In an encouraging and optimistic tone, the Pope sets forth an approach to holiness that demands persistence but not perfection. This approach is unmistakably rooted in the Ignatian tradition.
Finding God in all things, he illuminates day-to-day triumphs in holiness:
I like to contemplate the holiness present in the patience of God’s people: in those parents who raise their children with immense love, in those men and women who work hard to support their families, in the sick, in elderly religious who never lose their smile. In their daily perseverance I see the holiness of the Church militant. Very often it is a holiness found in our next-door neighbours, those who, living in our midst, reflect God’s presence. We might call them “the middle class of holiness.” (GE 7)
And he challenges misconceptions that keep us from progressing in holiness:
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 all called to be holy by living our lives with love and by bearing witness in everything we do, wherever we find ourselves. (GE 14)
In a most eloquent manner, Pope Francis reminds us that God wants each of us to be saints and stresses just how important each one of us is to God: “Each saint is a mission, planned by the Father, to reflect and embody, at a specific moment in history, a certain aspect of the Gospel.” (GE 19) To reinforce the gravity of his message, he continues, “May you come to realize what that word is, the message of Jesus that God wants to speak to the world by your life. Let yourself be transformed. Let yourself be renewed by the Spirit, so that this can happen, lest you fail in your precious mission.” (GE 24) How beautiful and how meaningful our lives are when we view them in this way.
Pope Francis stresses also the importance of discernment and reminds us that we are not on solitary missions, but rather, each is an integral part of the Body of Christ. As parts of the Body, we must strive daily to establish the Kingdom of Heaven on earth:
Just as you cannot understand Christ apart from the kingdom he came to bring, so too your personal mission is inseparable from the building of that kingdom: “Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness” (Mt 6:33). Your identification with Christ and his will involves a commitment to build with him that kingdom of love, justice and universal peace. Christ himself wants to experience this with you, in all the efforts and sacrifices that it entails, but also in all the joy and enrichment it brings. You cannot grow in holiness without committing yourself, body and soul, to giving your best to this endeavour. (GE 25)
Gaudete et Exsultate is a practical guide to holiness for the modern-day Christian. With pearls of wisdom from the Ignatian spiritual tradition, it is both familiar and accessible. And, if we consistently heed Pope Francis’s wise counsel, we might just get our own holy cards one day!