In March, Pope Francis issued his apostolic exhortation “Gaudete et Exsultate” (“Rejoice and Be Glad”), calling all Catholics to be holy in their daily lives. I spoke with Dr. Matthew Bunson, the faculty chair of Catholic Distance University and senior fellow at the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology, about the pope’s words and what they mean for the Church today.
Kris McGregor: The goal of this exhortation, the universal call to holiness, has been resonating in the heart of the Church.
Dr. Matthew Bunson: This is something that has been taught forever. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that “all Christians, in any state or walk of life, are called to the fullness of Christian life and to the perfection of charity. All are called to holiness.”
Pope Francis is especially drawn to the saints themselves, and one in particular — St. Francis de Sales, somebody who understood the absolute necessity for holiness to be for everyone. He recognizes that there’s great diversity in the Church, but there’s also great holiness and striving for perfection. I think that’s one of the keys to understanding this exhortation and the Church’s teachings on holiness.
McGregor: You quoted the theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar regarding our understanding of who the saints are. Saints don’t have to have the perfect lives, but he’s imploring us to look at the totality of their lives.
Dr. Bunson: Pope Francis lays out Church teaching throughout the exhortation as kind of a given, and adds to the conversation based on that. He’s not denigrating what the Church teaches on key elements, but he wants to talk about what we can learn from these teachings.
He notes that the processes of beatification and canonization recognize the signs of heroic virtue, the sacrifice of life in martyrdom, and certain cases where a life is constantly offered for others even unto death, and then he gives examples. This is an imitation of Christ.
It’s this idea of the quiet saints, the “invisible saints,” as he has said — those who simply lead their lives in the pursuit of holiness, who may not even be conscious of their own holiness, in the sense that they live in such humility.
We emulate Christ, but one of the ways we can personalize it is in the examples and the role models of the saints, and Pope Francis has given us quite a few saints to look at throughout this exhortation.
McGregor: He also brings up the genius of women, tying into what Pope Benedict XVI exhorted in his audiences on the holy women of the Middle Ages, where he said that women have something to offer, not only theology, but the Church.
Pope Francis brings forth the four women Doctors of the Church — St. Hildegard of Bingen, St. Catherine of Siena, St. Teresa of Ávila, and St. Thérèse of Lisieux. But he also brings forward an interesting woman who may surprise some: St. Bridget of Sweden. She was a wife, a mother, she was very active in her community, the world and in the life of the Church.
Dr. Bunson: Exactly. He’s including her in this group of these great Doctors of the Church, because there’s something about St. Bridget that strikes him as especially interesting. We are talking about a mystic, a saint, somebody who did not hide from the world.
That’s one point he makes in this exhortation, and it’s been interpreted by some critics as an attack on those who seek the contemplative life. But what he is saying is, there is a temptation to flee from the world, and he gives us the example of St. Bridget of Sweden for guidance.
McGregor: He also brings us a saint whom we all know so well as a role model — St. Teresa of Calcutta.
Dr. Bunson: In his pontificate, Pope Francis has repeatedly held her up as one of the great role models for the modern age.
If we are looking for somebody who embodies everything Pope Francis is talking about in this exhortation, Mother Teresa represents it: rejoice, be glad, but take that holiness into the world and live it.
Mother Teresa is the saint next door. Her holiness is practical — she doesn’t hide that sanctity from the world, but rather, to a truly heroic degree, brought Christ to others, because she saw Christ in them.
McGregor: Pope Francis also talks about the importance of encountering Christ in our prayer. He’s not negating the importance of contemplation.
He’s actually saying that we have to be in Christ. We hear that in Mass all the time: “through him, with him, and in him.” We are called to be him in the world.
Dr. Bunson: He says that the mission has its fullest meaning in Christ, and can only be understood through him.
At its core, holiness is experiencing, in union with Christ, the mysteries of his life. It consists of uniting ourselves to the Lord’s death and resurrection in a unique and personal way, constantly dying and rising anew with him.
It can also entail reproducing, in our own lives, aspects of Jesus’ earthly life, his life in communities, closest to outcasts, his poverty, his self-sacrificing love. By contemplating Christ in our lives, by emulating him, we begin to appreciate a deeper plan for our lives.
Holiness is charity lived to the full. In a way, this entire exhortation is built around charity in action, love that cannot be hidden, love that cannot be suppressed, but love that must express itself.
McGregor: The spiritual director in Pope Francis continually comes out in this document, and he tells us that we should be living a life of the virtues.
Dr. Bunson: He starts by noting some of the debilitating negatives that can develop — negativity, sullenness, self-content, consumerism, individualism — all what he calls “forms of ersatz spirituality” that have nothing to do with God, but that dominate the current religious marketplace.
But he also looks at the great signs of solid grounding from the God who loves and sustains us — perseverance, patience and meekness. In my favorite part of this, he includes joy and a sense of humor as qualities we need.
I’ve done a pretty extensive search of all papal writings, and as far as I know, he’s the first and only pope to use the term “sourpuss.” He doesn’t use it here, but he makes note of the fact that joy has to surround us, accompanied by a sense of humor.
He’s not talking about the joy held out by today’s individualistic and consumerist culture. Consumerism can only offer occasional and passing pleasures, but not joy. He’s speaking of a joy lived in communion, which shares and is shared.
There’s more happiness in giving than in receiving, and he quotes 2 Corinthians: fraternal love increases our capacity for joy. It makes us capable of rejoicing at the joy of others.
When we think about saints throughout the ages, they always seem to know other saints because holiness, when lived properly, can be really infectious, but it also tends to help us select the people we want to spend time with, and that means those who are holy.
McGregor: And when he talks about joy, or that experience of humor, it’s done even in the throes of suffering. There’s something that sustains the soul that is going through a challenge. You need to be rock steady, and you have to be silent. There is a grace in knowing that God will provide for that soul, if he is sought out.
Dr. Bunson: It’s that seeking, that idea he develops, of being in constant, trust-filled prayer. He’s saying that, inside of us, we can discern, through the light of the Spirit, the paths of holiness to which the Lord is calling us.
It is in that silence that we need to be able to listen, to hear God properly.
McGregor: Toward the end of the exhortation, Pope Francis says, “This attitude of listening entails obedience to the Gospel as the ultimate standard, but also to the magisterium that guards it, as we seek to find, in the treasury of the Church, whatever is most fruitful for the today of salvation.”
Dr. Bunson: He’s trying to anchor, I think, the importance of listening, of obedience, but also having that touchstone of the magisterium that guards our understanding of the faith. We seek to find, as he writes, that treasury of the Church, but it’s for today, in our lives today.
The humility to the teachings of the Church allows us to have the humility in our spiritual lives, which allows us to have the humility to turn to Christ and emulate his great humility.
McGregor: Any final thoughts for those who want to dive into this exhortation?
Dr. Bunson: Pope Francis is giving us a distillation of a lot of the teachings he has given us from the last five years, in this one document, and it’s a very easy read.
We find real thoughts that we should reflect on. In an age in which sin and hell and the devil are being rejected as not existing, it is a potent reminder of obstacles to our spiritual life, obstacles to spiritual progress, that have to be anchored in the sacraments, in the virtues, in the perfection of the moral life, in discernment, and in that humility and trust.
I think Pope Francis is trying to teach us to take all of those things with us on our daily lives. And let’s all remember that holiness truly is for everyone.
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