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Understanding Gaudete et Exsultate

April 9, 2018
CNS photo/Vatican Media
Today, Pope Francis released a new papal document - “Gaudete et Exsultate: On the Call to Holiness in Today’s World”.
The Latin title, “Rejoice and Be Glad”, comes from Matthew 5:12, part of the Sermon on the Mount - “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven”.  The Sermon on the Mount figures heavily into the document, providing a sort of “roadmap” to holiness.
Here are a few points to keep in mind as you read through the document:

Apostolic Exhortation

Gaudete et Exsultate is an apostolic exhortation.  In ranking the authority of Church documents, a papal encyclical holds pride of place and usually concerns an aspect of Catholic doctrine.  For example, the last papal encyclical of Francis, Laudato Si: On Care For Our Common Home, sought to further our understanding of Catholic social teaching as it confronts modern environmental and technological issues.
An apostolic exhortation, on the other hand, does not hold equal weight with a papal encyclical, but is still of great importance.  Most apostolic exhortations discuss aspects of our lived Catholic experience rather than highly theological or doctrinal concepts and issues. Francis’ previous apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia, dealt with concerns facing families and married people in our current age, discussing ways to live out our call to love within the daily reality of our family lives.  In the same way, Gaudete et Exsultate now treats holiness in a down-to-earth, practical manner, asking “What must one do to be a good Christian in the 21st century?”

Historical Context

Before the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), many believed that the ‘call’ to holiness was basically reserved to consecrated people - priests, nuns, and those in “formal” service to the Church.
However, with the proposal of the universal call to holiness at Vatican II, the current of thought around holiness took on a decidedly different tone.  Holiness, the Council Fathers wrote, was for everyone, and “all the faithful of Christ of whatever rank or status, are called to the fullness of the Christian life and to the perfection of charity; by this holiness as such a more human manner of living is promoted in this earthly society” (Lumen Gentium, 40).  Concepts many of us now take for granted as being key to the Gospel, such as seeking justice here on earth and living in solidarity with the poor as part of the Church’s role in bringing about the Kingdom of God, were concretely reaffirmed by the Church at this time and set as an area of priority for both the Catholic imagination and action.
Pope Francis continues this train of thought in Gaudete et Exsultate, especially that holiness is not a lofty ideal.  Rather, holiness is love lived to the full in the particular conditions and situations of every person’s life, through both large acts and small; and that that love, for us to truly be able to call it "holy", must necessarily effect positive change here on earth.
Therefore, nothing that Francis is saying in this document is radical or out of step with Church teaching. Rather, he is synthesizing current trends affecting us as modern people with particularly helpful insights from our "ever ancient, yet ever new" faith.  This includes discussing areas we might not think of as traditional domains for the Pope to touch on, including the online realm and the problem of cyberbullying.

Echoes of the Saints

When reading this document, listen for the voices of not just Pope Francis, but many beloved Saints that inform his words and insights - ideas first formulated by St. Ignatius in his Spiritual Exercises and Rules for the Discernment of Spirits (unsurprising, given that Francis is a Jesuit, after all!), St. Therese of Lisieux’s “Little Way” of trust and simplicity, St. Josemaria Escriva’s focus on the sanctification of daily life, and Jesus’ words to St. Faustina.  If the ideas proposed in Gaudete et Exsultate spark your interest, the works of these saints would be an excellent starting point for further reading.

False Mercy vs True Mercy; Subtle Enemies of Holiness vs. Living the Great Commission

Mercy is love when it meets suffering, sin, and despair.  Mercy is not only the cry of compassion that rings in our hearts when we encounter suffering, but our reaching out in whatever degree possible through merciful deeds, words, or prayers; mercy is a two-part, continual process that involves both emotion and action.
The Pope discusses two "harmful errors" that it may be helpful to view through this ‘lens’ of mercy.  Many headlines have already zeroed in on this particular section of the document, interpreting it as a kind of polemic, a correction of “conservatives” by the Pope, or a “hitting back” at his critics.  I, however, would offer a different interpretation.
Here I see Francis as warning against types of ‘false’ mercy that are rampant in our culture (100-103), and that can flow from the two “subtle enemies” of holiness as he discusses earlier in the document.  These may seem hard to understand at first, but we’ve all likely seen examples of what the Pope is referring to time and again throughout our lives, in Catholics and non-Catholics alike.
One false way of living out mercy is all head and no heart - it separates the Gospel demands from our relationship with Jesus, engaging in “dead” works that don’t flow out of our love for God, becoming activism for its own sake.  So, too, can our journey to holiness be poisoned by a spirituality that Francis calls “contemporary Pelagianism”, the idea that we can save ourselves. This is a faith that turns inwards on itself and becomes highly self-referential.  Pelagianism also involves an obsession with the ‘letter’ of the law, rather than the spirit, informing a false mercy that begins with the best of intentions but ultimately turns into judgement and skepticism of the merciful actions of others; it pits one good - the pope cites the example of “defence of the innocent unborn” - against another, such as advocating for the rights of “the poor, those already born, the destitute, the abandoned” (101).  We can also link this ‘false’ mercy with that other subtle enemy Francis refers to as "contemporary Gnosticism", where intellect is viewed as superior to faith, and the "proper" intellectual approach is the be all, end all of our walk of faith.  Contemporary Gnosticism might not even properly be called a walk of faith anymore, as it has no room for questioning, and accepts no answers that might fall outside of our own views, prejudices, or field of understanding.

The Narrow Path

The Pope offers us an alternative to false mercies and contemporary forms of spiritual heresy in Gaudete et Exsultate - the answer to the question “What must one do to be a good Christian in the 21st century?” is to walk a path centred in deeply understanding the Beatitudes, with our guiding star the “Great Commission” of Matthew 25 (“Whatsoever you did to the least of my brethren, you did it to me”). It is fitting that this document was released the day after Divine Mercy Sunday, as its crux is that the true heart of the Gospel can be found in responding to the Father’s merciful love for us by becoming His very mercy itself, for others, through the day in, day out of our lives.  The true worship acceptable to God, Francis says, is to be “single-minded and tenacious in [your] practice of the works of mercy” (107) - living a life anchored in true mercy is, therefore, true holiness.  Chapters Three, Four, and Five of the document are well worth meditating on in detail as we ask ourselves what a concrete vision of living out mercy could look like in each of our lives and in our broader communities - families, parishes, cities, nations.
Gaudete et Exsultate covers a lot of ground, more than can be discussed in a single blog post.  I haven’t even touched on, for example, the Pope’s words on the importance of discernment,  spiritual combat, or the role of prayer and community.  But if we keep the document’s historical context and focus on mercy in mind throughout a careful reading of the entire text, it should prove to be an excellent companion on our road to true holiness, which is “seeing and acting with mercy” itself.

Click here to read the entire text of Gaudete et Exsultate.

Click here to read a blog post by Fr. Thomas Rosica titled “The Beatitudes: Blueprint for Holiness” from All Saints Day.
Click here for a video reflection on Divine Mercy Sunday: Allowing the Presence of The Risen Jesus to Make a Difference
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