Pope Francis’ ‘Rejoice and Be Glad’ offers us the chance to live ordinary lives of holiness

We had a family tradition of sorts at Sunday dinners. My dad or my mom would say, “This is the day that the Lord has made,” to which his brood of hungry children would reply, “Let us rejoice and be glad.”

I didn’t know it at the time, but the phrase is from Matthew 5:12, and it has been a tradition that I’ve tried to keep with my own kids. These days we need to be mindful of any and all reasons for joy and gladness.

Which is why I was particularly happy to see that “Rejoice and Be Glad” (“Gaudete et Exsultate,” for you Latinists) is the name of Pope Francis’ newest letter. 

Technically, it is an apostolic exhortation, a papal document that asks all of us, his flock, to reflect on a certain theme. The theme of this letter is holiness, and Pope Francis has a rather audacious proposition: that we are all called to be holy. 

Alas, holiness might seem an impossible goal these days. 

Of course, we admire holiness in others — saints like Mother Teresa, working with the dying and the abandoned; martyrs like Father Stanley Rother, an Oklahoma missionary priest murdered by a Guatemalan death squad. 

These examples of holiness, however, make the whole proposition of holiness seem pretty unachievable for ordinary folk. 

After all, we are driving kids to soccer practice and working all day in front of a computer, cleaning dishes, reading our high-schooler’s college essay, mowing our drought-bleached grass and fording the freeways during their ceaseless rush-hour bedlam.

Not exactly going to get us plastered on one of the tapestries in the cathedral, we can be forgiven for thinking. 

Pope Francis, like other commentators on holiness, such as St. Josemaría Escrivá, is talking about a universal call to holiness. 

He is telling us that we don’t need to go live in a hermitage or get gunned down by a persecutor’s bullets. “We are called to be holy by living our lives with love and by bearing witness in everything we do, wherever we find ourselves.”

There is a beautiful passage in “Rejoice and Be Glad” where he describes the “small gestures” of holiness in one woman’s day. 

“She meets a neighbor, and they begin to speak, and the gossip starts. But she says in her heart: ‘No, I will not speak badly of anyone.’ This is a step forward in holiness. Later, at home, one of her children wants to talk to her about his hopes and dreams, and even though she is tired, she sits down and listens with patience and love. That is another sacrifice that brings holiness. Later she experiences some anxiety, but recalling the love of the Virgin Mary, she takes her rosary and prays with faith. Yet another path of holiness. Later still, she goes out onto the street, encounters a poor person and stops to say a kind word to him. One more step.”

This woman is walking her own path of holiness, and it is a path that we are all called to, and more importantly, are all capable of. 

Pope Francis is an unusual pope in that he weaves into his homilies and his writing concrete examples, not just theological declarations. The example of a mother listening to her son’s hopes and dreams reminds me of my own mom, who would do exactly that while making dinner or doing the wash. He is describing St. Théresè of Lisieux’s “little way.” 

This universal call to holiness is both an ennobling and an intimidating message. It doesn’t let us off the hook. We might be tempted to pray a variation of what St. Augustine once prayed: Make me holy, Lord, but not right now!

The exhortation, which is now available in bookstores as well as online, is not a difficult read. But it is a challenging read. It says we all have a mission in life to be holy, and he describes ways that we can begin walking our path to holiness. 

Pope Francis is hard on the distractions of the world. What we often see as excitement and glamour, he sees as temptations to mediocrity. We become obsessed not with joy and gladness but with fun. Too often, “we are obsessed with our own pleasure,” he observes. “We feel a desperate need for free time to enjoy ourselves.”

He suggests that in the age of “instant communication and virtual reality, we can waste precious time and become indifferent to the suffering flesh of our brothers and sisters.”

For Pope Francis, it is always about seeing Christ in every single person around us. Like that prayer of St. Patrick, Christ is around us everywhere and all the time. It might seem like work, but it is really love. And it is where lasting joy and gladness can be found.

Greg Erlandson is director and editor- in-chief of Catholic News Service.

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