A ‘Protocol’ for the Good Spiritual Battle: Chapter Five of ‘Gaudete et Exsultate’

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Diego Fares SJ

 Diego Fares SJ / Church Thought / Published Date:11 January 2019/Last Updated Date:27 August 2021


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At the heart of the apostolic exhortation Gaudete et Exsultate (GE) are the Beatitudes, a veritable “program of holiness.”[1] It is interesting to note how Francis, in speaking of holiness, uses the word “protocol,” which indicates a procedure, a series of steps and actions to complete.

Francis re-reads the lives of the saints in the light of this practical key at the close of the chapter on the Beatitudes: “The powerful witness of the saints is revealed in their lives, shaped by the Beatitudes and the criterion of the final judgement.[2] Jesus’ words are few and straightforward, yet practical and valid for everyone, for Christianity is meant above all to be put into practice. It can also be an object of study and reflection, but only to help us to better live the Gospel in our daily lives” (GE 109). With this in mind we can draw up a protocol consisting of four aids for the spiritual battle.

The first aid is the certainty of victory in spiritual conflict. This certainty must animate the life of the Christian which is to be lived out in joy. We can see the importance the pope gives to the need “to rejoice each time the Lord triumphs in our lives” (GE 158). We do this, he says, because “Jesus himself celebrates our victories” (GE 159).

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The second aid is an invitation to think wisely, to avoid falling into the traps of pragmatic reasoning: “We do not insist on viewing life only by means of empirical criteria.” In combatting evil, it is not helpful to think that the evil one is merely a myth, or a representation, a symbol or an idea, because this causes us to “lower our guard” and he takes advantage of this to be destructive. The intention of the Lord is explicit, because in the Our Father he teaches us to ask the Father: “Deliver us from evil.”

The third aid seeks to give order to our dreams and desires, to focus them on the beauty of surrendering ourselves entirely: “Those who renounce the ideal of giving themselves generously to the Lord will never hold out” (GE 163). This attitude responds to the Lord’s desire that we “be saints and not settle for a bland and mediocre existence” (GE 1).

The fourth aid proposes a criterion to verify our mission. The pope uses the Jesuit maxim: Non coerceri a maximo, contineri tamen a minimo, divinum est.[3] He proposes it as a criterion to be used every day as an examination of conscience on our apostolate, particularly our attitude before the greater and the lesser things. “It involves striving untrammeled for all that is great, better and more beautiful, while at the same time being concerned for the little things, for each day’s responsibilities and commitments” (GE 169). The Lord’s attitude that we can give witness to in this sense is that of Jesus who “clears a way to seeing two faces, that of the Father [always greater] and that of our brother [especially in the least among us]” (GE 61; cf. 144).

The word ‘protocol’

Now we will take a brief moment and reflect on the word “protocol.”[4] It is a polysemous term that, given the context, can mean something merely formal, like the rules of behavior in a ceremony, or something that has vital importance, like procedures to be followed in case of being taken hostage or in a catastrophe, where coordination, speed and precision are required for saving the maximum possible number of lives.

In a dramatic context in which the normal answers seem to be inadequate, a protocol lays out precise rules that, in light of the clear, principal objective, aid making decisions designed to strengthen the team, not to thwart it. Often the pope has defined the Church as a “field hospital.”[5] Protocols are standard in medical treatments. We can understand, therefore, why the use of this term does not sound strange. The pope used it in his meeting with the Argentine young people in Rio de Janeiro in 2013: “What should we do, Father? Read the Beatitudes. That will do you good. If you want to know what you really need to do, read Matthew chapter 25, that is, the protocol by which we will be judged. With these two, you have your plan of action: the Beatitudes and Matthew 25. You don’t need to read anything else.”[6]

The pontiff had already used the term the month before, in a homily at Santa Marta. On that occasion, however, he used the term to show that we cannot limit God’s action by a protocol.[7] After the meeting in Rio, Francis used this term every time he made reference to the final judgment. In our opinion, this means: the one thing for which it is worth making protocols is mercy. This, in as much as it is inexhaustibly creative, avoids any risk that a protocol become merely formal; on the contrary, in making it more concrete, it gives it a dynamic quality.

The “criterion of final judgment”[8] by which we will be judged is a special protocol: “Mercy is at the heart of the ‘protocol’ with which Jesus says we will be judged.”[9] In Gaudete et Exsultate, the pope defines it to be “the great protocol,” the “one clear criterion” (GE 95). It is meaningful that the term “protocol” resounds in our ears sine glossa, urging us to concretely live out the Gospel. 

Rejoice each time the Lord wins in our lives

“Rejoice each time the Lord wins in our lives” is like the refrain of a victory hymn in which the spirit of the protocol for the successful spiritual battle resounds. There is a question that must be asked: rejoice when the Lord wins “what”? The answer is this: in every step forward that we, his disciples, make in proclaiming the Gospel. He himself rejoices in our victories when, resisting the temptations and the opposition of the evil one, we progress in announcing the Gospel.

The “festive joy” sets the tone of the battle; the “each time” gives rhythm to the daily routine; and the “proclaiming the Gospel” is the foundational content that allows us to rejoice in time, even if we have not achieved the definitive victory. The union of these elements makes the Christian fight “very beautiful,” as the pope says.

In following the protocol of spiritual battle in the struggle for holiness, this first, definitive step (“each time”) is clearly apostolic and engages the whole person and every person.[10] It is not merely about rejoicing over our own victory; rather, we are called to rejoice each time the Lord wins in the lives of others, too: “Fraternal love increases our capacity for joy, since it makes us capable of rejoicing in the good of others: ‘Rejoice with those who rejoice’ (Rom 12:15). ‘We rejoice when we are weak and you are strong’ (2 Cor 13:9). On the other hand, when we ‘focus primarily on our own needs, we condemn ourselves to a joyless existence’ (AL 110)” (GE 128).

Moreover, given that the Gospel is announced more by deeds than by words, and given that it can be announced even by those who “do not follow in our company” (Lk 9:49), in these victories of Jesus, those who give him joy and who make it so that he rejoices “in the Holy Spirit” (Lk 10:21) belong to every people, culture and religion.

This battle does not have a beauty that can be contemplated “from outside,” as a spectator. In this case, something similar occurs to what happens between players in a soccer match when a goal is scored, or an attempt by the opposing team is blocked: they reciprocally congratulate each other and celebrate. The spectator does not fully understand these constant congratulations, but the players do. For them, these are an integral part of the struggle: celebrating every goal binds them together as a team; it makes them all participants in what one of them has done; it provides a positive result while waiting for the hoped-for victory; it is something beautiful in which they all share, from which to set out for the next goal; and it provides something that is not unimportant in battle, a foretaste of the defeat of the adversary.

This is important because the main temptation into which the evil one leads us is a “defeatist attitude.” It is the primary temptation because, “‘if we start without confidence, we have already lost half the battle and we bury our talents… Christian triumph is always a cross, yet a cross which is at the same time a victorious banner, borne with aggressive tenderness against the assaults of evil’ (EG 85)” (GE 163).

In the course of Spiritual Exercises he preached to the Jesuits in 1978, Bergoglio defined this defeatist spirit, giving it a new connotation. In it, he saw a particular form of vainglory, or spiritual worldliness. Bergoglio said: “Among us Jesuits, although it can appear paradoxical, the most common vainglory is a defeatist attitude. And it is vainglory because we prefer to be generals of defeated armies over being simple soldiers in a huge battalion that, despite being decimated, continues to fight. How often do we yearn for over-ambitious plans, typical of defeated generals! In these cases, individually, we disavow our glorious history as Jesuits, glorious because it is full of sacrifices, hope and daily struggles.”[11]

The enemy sows defeatism: “Faced with a competitive faith, the Enemy, disguised as an angel of light, will sow the seeds of pessimism. No one can engage in a battle without having sure confidence in victory. Anyone who throws himself into battle without confidence has already half-lost before even beginning to fight. Christian triumph is always a cross, but a cross that is a victorious standard. It is among the humble that we learn to make this aggressive faith our own… The defeatist spirit tempts us in order to make us take up battles we will lose. This spirit is deprived of the aggressive tenderness that shines forth in a young child making the sign of the cross, or of the depth of an elderly woman who recites her prayers: behold, the faith, behold the vaccine against a defeatist spirit (1 Jn 4:4; 5:4-5).”[12]

Rejoicing in every victory of the Gospel – each time the Word is made flesh in concrete human history – puts into action the principle according to which “unity [victory] is preferable to conflict” (GE 88).

Do not insist on regarding life only through empirical criteria

A second aid consists in a simple invitation to think clearly: “Do not insist on regarding life only through empirical criteria, without a supernatural perspective.” With a discreet use of the word “no”[13] that avoids those confrontations and abstract discussions where talk about evil remains stagnant, Pope Francis makes room for discernment as the right way to concretely think about and fight the evil one: “The only way is through discernment, which calls for something more than intelligence or common sense. It is a gift which we must implore” (GE 166). This is a way in which we can understand the request the Lord makes us ask in the Our Father, “deliver us from evil,” as an aid that does not come from outside, so to speak, but from within us. Every time we ask the Father to “deliver us from evil,” we ask him, “Teach us to discern,” to recognize it, interpret it, reject it and conquer it (cf. GE 173).

The real problem of the destructive force of evil goes beyond our empirical criteria and imposes itself harshly. When our reason tries to reflect on evil, it can immediately feel that not only is there something in it that repels the light of intelligence when it seeks to “read inside,” but also, in some way, that same something is able to attack the light, so that it is damaged when it is repelled.

Only that which is lovable and loved can be taken in profoundly, intus legere. Love is the vital element of profound knowledge. And given that you cannot love evil, it is unknowable in its essence. Evil is one of those realities that “can only be thought about enough to go in the opposite direction, to repel it without entering into dialogue with it.”[14] For this reason, the pope suggests using the criteria of Sacred Scripture, in which the evil one is present from the opening pages of Genesis until the final pages of the Book of Revelation, and focusing our faith – a supernatural criterion – on the teachings of Jesus, which lead us ask the Father to free us from the evil one. Not only from evil in general and in an abstract manner, but from the evil one, an expression that “indicates a personal being who assails us” (GE 160). This conviction of faith, based on the Gospel, “enables us to understand how evil can at times have so much destructive force” (Ibid.).

The destructive power of the evil one works in the first place against the proclamation of the Gospel and, therefore, directs itself in a particular way against our way of thinking, seeking – with its tricks, its lies and its fallacies – to keep us from reasoning well, to keep us from discerning. For this reason, “our talk about ‘the mystery of Satan,’ has to be modeled entirely and exclusively on the sources of revelation,”[15] as Fr. Miguel Ángel Fiorito said, taking up the declaration of Romano Guardini: “Only Revelation clearly states who Satan is.”[16]

We note this in order to draw attention to the biblical citations the pope chooses in speaking about the evil one. The first, Luke 10:18, offers the fundamental key for the combat because the joy of the Lord is our strength. Without taking anything away from other points of view, the pope exhorts all to go out and announce the Gospel with joy. Going out again to preach is the primary challenge the Church faces today and it brings into focus the primary temptation of the devil as “opposition to this joyous proclamation of the Gospel” and of this joy of holiness. In this we see the importance of the passage from Luke in which the Lord glimpses the defeat of the evil one – “I saw Satan fall from the sky like lightening” – at the hands of the 72 disciples who return joyously after first going out to evangelize. The Lord rejoices and blesses the Father who reveals himself to the little ones.

Insisting on using more than empirical criteria puts into action the principle according to which reality is superior to the idea as abstract concept, which seeks to define reality in order to possess it and manipulate it. Discernment, on the other hand, is a way of thinking and deciding that places itself at the service of reality, seeking to find the best way to receive and put into practice the good and reject the bad. Discernment is “a means of spiritual combat for helping us to follow the Lord more faithfully” (GE 169).

Do not cease dreaming of surrendering yourselves more fully to the Lord

The third help is formulated in this way: “Do not cease to dream of surrendering yourselves more fully to the Lord.” It focuses our dreams and desires on our self-giving, in which we can be protagonists and in which it is always possible to experience beauty. We are speaking of dreaming to offer, not dreaming of possessing.

Speaking of being protagonists means speaking of combat (agōn),[17] a battle which takes place in the interior life of the human heart and which is won by the one who has “the last word,” the one that tips the scales on one side and brings us to act, making us put into action what we have determined to be the best thing to do.[18] Not recognizing or understanding properly this “last word” – which is a dream, a desire – leads us to choose by following the voice of some passion that imposes its own particular good upon reason, or following directly the voice of the evil one, who is the father of lies.

Being protagonists implies discerning one’s own mission.[19] It is an invitation the pope makes to all, but in a particular way to the young people. He encourages them to always be, not to remain merely spectators, not to stand at the window and watch life pass by, not to be couch potatoes. Contrary to those who want to hide young people in a corner, in a life without hope, a life as consumers, the pope urges them to take risks, even at the cost of making mistakes.

Here, it could be of help to consider a difficulty that young people experience: that of “understanding the term discernment, which is not in their lexicon, even if the need to which it refers is felt.”[20] In the Instrumentum Laboris (IL) of the Synod of Bishops on young people, the testimony of one young man was significant. He stated: “Today, like thousands of other young people, both believers and non-believers, I have to make choices, especially regarding my future career. However, I am undecided, lost and worried. … I feel as if I am facing a wall, when I seek a deep meaning for my life. I think I need some discernment in the face of this emptiness” (IL 106).

Between the insight “I have to make a choice” and the intuition that discernment is the correct way to face that which is lived as a “wall” and as “emptiness,” young people find it difficult to make their own a word which does not enter into their vocabulary. This difficulty, expressed so innocently, is already in itself a contribution of young people. In fact, strong reactions against discernment come from those who believe they know perfectly well what it is about and who believe that they do not have much need to discern. Moreover, some even claim that it is a kind of affront to the clarity of doctrinal and moral formulas.

In the pre-Synod encounter, responding to a question about those things that disturb and make one feel a void, the pope affirmed: “We all have need of discernment. This is why the word is in the title of the Synod, isn’t it so? And when there is this void, this unease, one must discern.”[21]

At the center of the chapter on spiritual combat, the pope asks a key question: “How can we know if something comes from the Holy Spirit or if it stems from the spirit of the world or the spirit of the devil?” He responds: “The only way is through discernment” (GE 166), which is a gift and must be requested from the Holy Spirit. In discernment, reinforced by self-giving, the principle that affirms time is superior to space becomes real.

Do not be scared by big things, but focus on the smaller ones

The fourth aid offers a criterion to be used to verify the mission, focusing on the tension between the great and the small. The Jesuit maxim Non coerceri a maximo, contineri tamen a minimo, divinum est, has been given many translations and explanations, as we said at the beginning. The pope here chooses this one: “Do not be scared by greater things, but rather focus on the smaller ones” (cf. GE 169). He develops this thought, inviting us to examine whether we have placed limits on greatness, on the better and the more beautiful, and at the same time if we are focused on the smaller things, on today’s task. This discernment helps to make the dreams of which we spoke earlier find “the concrete means that the Lord provides in his mysterious and loving plan, to make us move beyond mere good intentions” (Ibid.).

The pope proposes to all, but especially to the young, this test, taken faithfully every day: “All of us, but especially the young, are immersed in a culture of zapping (channel surfing). We can navigate simultaneously on two or more screens and interact at the same time with two or three virtual scenarios. Without the wisdom of discernment, we can easily become like puppets, prey to every passing trend” (GE 167).

In one of his lessons, Bergoglio connected this image of a puppet with another equally suggestive one, that of a kite. He warned against two temptations: that of killing the greater desires of youth, “transforming them into a kind of kite without a sky” or, on the contrary, not to translate the same dreams into “a small shop of daily fidelity [that] transforms into a flashy show crowded with marionettes and shadow puppets,” making us like “a kite in a big sky, but without a string: inevitably we will be lost in the obscurity of wasted effort.”[22] 

The parable of the woman who goes to the market

We conclude with the “example of the woman who goes to the market.” If this is read in a moralistic sense, the steps of the woman can appear to be banal. But if we read it keeping in mind the criterion of good spiritual combat, this helps keep it fixed in our minds. Francis tells this story: “a woman goes shopping, 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” (GE 16).

Reading this simple example, we can train ourselves to “rejoice” in the Lord’s victories in each of these encounters of the woman. They are four small victories in the life of a Christian woman who is a part of the legion of “the saints next door.” Four steps ahead, four times she went out, in which, thanks to listening – to her knowing how to listen to her child with patience and love and of her own feeling, heard by the Virgin in her distress – this woman goes from resisting gossip to cultivating a spiritual conversation.

We can see in this example, alongside the unspoken joy present in every step, recourse to the Word to resist temptation (“Do not speak evil of one another” James 4:11), the “offering which makes holy” and the attention to the detail of taking time to speak lovingly with the poor man. The confident prayer to the Virgin connects the example to the final image of the exhortation, the icon of Blessed Mary the listener: “Mary our Mother does not need a flood of words. She does not need us to tell her what is happening in our lives. All we need do is whisper, time and time again: ‘Hail Mary…’” (GE 176). The entire example treats of listening, which is the first step in discernment and, therefore, of holiness. “We must remember that prayerful discernment must be born of a readiness to listen: to the Lord and to others, and to reality itself, which always challenges us in new ways” (GE 172).

Promoting the desire for holiness (cf. GE 177) implies proposing anew “the call to holiness” (GE 2), with the awareness that no call resounds well if there is not an ear disposed to listen, nor is there an ear that listens well if the call of Jesus Christ does not resound in all of its glorious splendor and without interference. The “protocol” helps us to fight well against these obstacles to the proclamation of the Gospel.


DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 3, no. 1, article 4, Jan. 19: 10.32009/22072446.1901.4

[1].Cfr. D. Fares – M. Irigoy, Il programma della felicità. Ripensare le Beatitudini con Papa Francesco, Milan, Ancora, 2016. For a general introduction to GE, cf. A. Spadaro, “Gaudete et Exsultate. Radici, struttura e significato della Esortazione apostolica di papa Francesco,” in Civ. Catt. 2018 II 107-123.

[2].The official English translation uses the word “criterion” rather than “protocol.”

[3].Cf. J. M. Bergoglio, Nel cuore di ogni padre. Alle radici della mia spiritualità, Milan, Rizzoli, 2014, 29. Fr. Miguel Ángel Fiorito, a spiritual teacher of Bergoglio, in the Boletín de Espiritualidad, in which this reflection of Bergoglio was first published, had added his own comment in a note, affirming that the maxim “can be translated in this way: ‘not being constrained by that which is too grand, being restrained in that which is small, this is divine!’ For a long time, the belief that this motto was carved on Saint Ignatius’ tombstone in Rome was common, because it was spoken of as his eulogy. Later, it was discovered that it was part of a Baroque eulogy written in 1650 to celebrate the first centenary of the Society of Jesus. We can also translate it this way: “without retreating before that which is higher, bending down to gather that which appears to be small in the service of God”; or, “looking at what is far away, being concerned with that which is close.” This motto may be applied to religious discipline (cf. M. A. Fiorito, “La opción personal de S. Ignacio,” in Ciencia y Fe 12 [1956] 43f) and is useful for distinguishing Ignatian spirituality as dialectic (in the sense used by Gaston Fessard) (cf. M. A. Fiorito, “Teoría y práctica de G. Fessard,” in Ciencia y Fe 13 [1957] 350f)” (Ibid., 282).

[4].The word comes from the Greek prōtos “first” and kola “glue.” This term was used to describe first page of a papyrus roll, composed by the juxtaposition of different pages, by the manner in which they were glued together.

[5].The first time the pope used this expression was in A. Spadaro, “Intervista a Papa Francesco,” in Civ. Catt. 2013 III 449-477.

[6].Francis, Meeting with the Argentine youth in the cathedral of San Sebastián, Rio de Janeiro, July 25, 2013. Cf. D. Fares – M. Irigoy, Il programma della felicità, op. cit.

[7].“‘When the Lord comes, he does not always do so in the same way. There is not a protocol for God’s action in our lives,’ ‘it does not exist.’ One time ‘he does it in one way, and in another time, in another way,’ but he does so always” (Francis, Homily at Santa Marta, June 28, 2013).

[8].Ibid., June 9, 2014; cf. Id., General audience, August 6, 2014; Id., Incontro con la società civile, Quito, July 7, 2015.

[9].Id., Speech to the winners of the Ratzinger Prize 2016, November 26, 2016.

[10].Cf. Paul VI, Populorum Progressio, No.14.

[11].J.M. Bergoglio, Nel cuore di ogni padre…, op. cit., 112f.

[12].Ibid., 129.

[13].“We are not dealing merely with a battle against the world and a worldly mentality… Nor can this battle be reduced to the struggle against our human weaknesses… It is also a constant struggle against the devil, the prince of evil (GE 159). We will not admit the existence of the devil if we insist on regarding life by empirical standards alone” (GE 160). “Yet this should not lead us to an oversimplification” (Ibid.).

[14].Anonymous, Meditations on the Tarot: A Journey into Christian Hermeticism (1980), New York, Penguin Group, ebook Kindle, pos. 8408-8412.

[15].In fact “sometimes it seems that one of the evils of Satan – who seeks ‘whom to devour’ (1 Pt 5:8) – is that of enveloping in a cloud the large part of the theological truths about it” (M.A. Fiorito, Buscar y hallar la voluntad de Dios, Buenos Aires, Paulinas, 2000, 282f).

[16].R. Guardini, Il potere. Tentativo di orientamento, Brescia, Morcelliana, 1963, 20.

[17].The term agōn in ancient Greek means “contest,” “challenge,” “dispute.” In drama it refers to a formal debate between two characters, with the chorus acting as judge. The prōtos agōnistēs, “protagonist,” is the first to speak; the deuteros agōnistēs speaks second. The character who speaks second always wins the agōn, given that his is the last word.

[18].Cf. M. A. Fiorito, Buscar y hallar la voluntad de Dios, op. cit.

[19].Cf. also D. Fares, “‘Io sono una missione’: verso il Sinodo dei giovani,” in Civ. Catt. 2018 I 417-431.

[20].Instrumentum Laboris of the 15th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, May 8, 2018, No. 107.

[21].Francis, Speech at the presynod meeting with the young people, March 19, 2018, in w2.vatican.va.

[22].J.M. Bergoglio, Il desiderio allarga il cuore, Bologna, EMI, 2014, 130f.