Although a new document from Pope Francis on holiness reflects permanent themes in his thinking and in Catholic spirituality, in context, it also offers indirect commentary on two recent burning questions: First, what does the pope really believe about Hell, the afterlife, and the spiritual realm? Second, how would he answer critics such as the several hundred who gathered in Rome on Saturday to contest his 2016 document Amoris Laetitia?
With the release of his new apostolic exhortation Gaudete et Exsultate on Monday, and almost without trying, the pontiff addressed both points.
- While Francis doesn’t deal with Hell, he makes clear he obviously believes in a Devil and takes his malign influence seriously, saying the Devil is not “a myth, a representation, a symbol, a figure of speech or an idea.”
- Francis is also well aware of his critics over the merciful line expressed in Amoris, in a moment in which the document just marked the second anniversary of its release on Sunday, and he takes a dim view of what’s driving them.
“Contrary to the promptings of the Spirit, the life of the Church can become a museum piece or the possession of a select few,” the pope writes. “This can occur when some groups of Christians give excessive importance to certain rules, customs or ways of acting. The Gospel then tends to be reduced and constricted, deprived of its simplicity, allure and savor.”
“This may well be a subtle form of Pelagianism, for it appears to subject the life of grace to certain human structures,” Francis said. “It can affect groups, movements and communities, and it explains why so often they begin with an intense life in the Spirit, only to end up fossilized… or corrupt.”
In the course of the document, Francis also delivers a full frontal critique of a form of Catholic pro-life activism that becomes focused on the abortion issue at the exclusion of other matters, such as immigration.
Francis’s attitude on Hell became a hot topic after an alleged “interview” with 93-year-old Italian journalist Eugenio Scalfari briefly created a frenzy that came to be known as “Hellgate.” While the new document doesn’t shed any light on that front, it does confirm that for this pope, the Devil, anyway, is decidedly real.
The final chapter of the new document, “Spiritual combat, vigilance and discernment,” is a call to be both alert against the temptation of the Devil, who the pope says is “more than a myth,” but also to trust in the “powerful weapons that the Lord has given us” to face this “spiritual combat”: Faith-filled prayer, meditation on the word of God, the celebration of Mass, Eucharistic adoration, sacramental Reconciliation, works of charity, community life, missionary outreach.
Subtitled “On the call to holiness in the contemporary world,” the text of Gaudete et Exsultate is presented by the pope as an attempt to “re-propose the call to holiness in a practical way for our own time, with all its risks, challenges and opportunities.”
Compared to Francis’s last apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia, dedicated to exploring the “Christian proclamation on the family,” Gaudete et exsultate is a short document. The 2016 text had 256 pages, almost five times the 44 pages in the document released Monday.
In effect, the exhortation is an attack against two modern day heresies – Gnosticism and Pelagianism, and two related ideologies. In the course of describing them, Francis offers some critical words about what he sees as certain distortions of the pro-life cause.
“[A] harmful ideological error is found in those who find suspect the social engagement of others, seeing it as superficial, worldly, secular, materialist, communist or populist,” Francis wrote. Those who fall under this category, he said, at times reduce this social engagement to “one particular ethical issue or cause that they themselves defend.”
To exemplify, he speaks about the defense of the unborn, which “needs to be clear, firm and passionate, for at stake is the dignity of a human life, which is always sacred and demands love for each person.”
Yet, he argues, the lives of those yet to be born cannot be the only ones defended: “Equally sacred, however, are the lives of the poor, those already born, the destitute, the abandoned and the underprivileged, the vulnerable infirm and elderly exposed to covert euthanasia, the victims of human trafficking, new forms of slavery, and every form of rejection.”
An ideal of holiness that ignores justice amidst a world in which some live only “for the latest consumer goods,” while others live their entire lives in abject poverty “cannot be upheld.”
In a move that is bound to enrage some of the pope’s most conservative critics, he doubled down on this issue, saying that the situation of immigrants is often presented as a lesser issue, with some Catholics considering it “a secondary issue compared to the ‘grave’ bioethical questions.”
Quoting Matthew’s passage, Francis argued: “Can we not realize that this is exactly what Jesus demands of us, when he tells us that in welcoming the stranger we welcome him?”
A call for ordinary saints
The “Universal call to Sainthood” was outlined by a document from the Second Vatican Council, Lumen Gentium, and Francis picks up on it, saying that it’s not only a call for bishops, priests and consecrated people, nor only for those who live a life dedicated exclusively to prayer.
Real history, he writes, is made up by the witness to Christ offered by the “humblest members” of the people of God.
Though there are some testimonies that may prove inspiring, Christians shouldn’t “grow discouraged before examples of holiness that appear unattainable,” recognizing instead that there are many ways of bearing witness.
Here, the pope dedicates a graph to the “genius of woman,” seen in “feminine styles of holiness,” an essential means of reflecting “God’s holiness in this world.”
“I think too of all those unknown or forgotten women who, each in her own way, sustained and transformed families and communities by the power of their witness,” he wrote.
He expands on the twin dangers of Gnosticism and Pelagianism.
Those who yield to the latter mindset, the pontiff wrote, may speak warmly of God’s grace, but ultimately trust in their own powers and feel superior because they “remain intransigently faithful to a particular Catholic style.”
When they tell “the weak that all things can be accomplished with God’s grace,” Francis wrote, they project that all is attainable by mere human will. “They fail to realize that ‘not everyone can do everything,’ and that in this life human weaknesses are not healed completely and once and for all by grace,” he wrote, quoting St. Bonaventure.
This leads to a “self-centered and elitist complacency, bereft of true love,” translated into a variety of ways of thinking and acting, which include obsessing over the law, being absorbed with social and political advantages, being “punctilious” over the Church’s “liturgy, doctrine and prestige,” and an excessive concern with self-help programs.
What’s holiness about?
According to Francis, “nothing is more enlightening than turning to Jesus’ words and seeing his way of teaching the truth.”
Here, he writes about the Beatitudes, found in the Books of Matthew and Luke, calling them a “Christian identity card,” meaning the response to the question “What must one do to be a good Christian?”
Francis lists the eight Beatitudes, which always begin with “Blessed are those who,” and include those who are poor in spirit, are meek, are capable of mourning, have hunger and thirst for righteousness, are merciful, are pure of heart, are peacemakers and are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.
Following these principles, Francis writes after detailing each, “is holiness,” and warns that Jesus himself acknowledged following him means “going against the flow.”
“Persecutions are not a reality of the past, for today too we experience them, whether by the shedding of blood, as is the case with so many contemporary martyrs, or by more subtle means, by slander and lies,” Francis writes.
Holiness, Francis writes, is not about “swooning in mystic rapture,” but about following the Beatitudes and Matthew 25, which is a call to recognize Jesus in the poor and the suffering: “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”
Jesus’ demands, the pope adds, are “uncompromising,” and as such, he sees it as his duty to ask Christians to accept them in a spirit of “genuine openness,” without any “ifs or buts.”
As if expecting that this point might be contested by some within his own fold, Francis says that “This is not a notion invented by some Pope, or a momentary fad,” quoting from the Book of Exodus, in the Old Testament, to further make his point: “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you yourselves were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
Neither worship and prayer alone, nor following certain ethical norms, are enough to give glory to God, the pontiff wrote, because even though “the primacy belongs to our relationship with God,” we cannot forget “that the ultimate criterion on which our lives will be judged is what we have done for others.”