Personal holiness as mission
So holiness is not the imitation of abstract models and ideals. References to ordinary holiness are simple, near and popular: a “little holiness.” Francis has often referred to Therese of Lisieux, recalling her life of holiness. He takes her writings with him on his apostolic voyages and has canonized her parents. In the homily given at the Mass celebrated in Tbilisi, Georgia, on October 1, 2016, he quoted the autobiographical writings of Therese of the Child Jesus where she “shows her ‘little way’ to God, ‘the trust of a little child who falls asleep without fear in her Father’s arms,’ because ‘Jesus does not demand great actions from us, but simply surrender and gratitude.’”
But holiness is also tied to the single individual: holiness is living out one’s own vocation and mission on the earth: “Each saint is a mission” (GE 19). This is something else that is taught to us by Little Therese, as he was able to say in the homily given at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Manila on January 16, 2015. Holiness itself is a mission. There is no abstract ideal. Francis had written with fiery words in Evangelii Gaudium: “I am a mission on this earth; that is the reason why I am here in this world. We have to regard ourselves as sealed, even branded, by this mission of bringing light, blessing, enlivening, raising up, healing and freeing. All around us we begin to see nurses with soul, teachers with soul, politicians with soul, people who have chosen deep down to be with others and for others.” (EG 273). The clear practicality of the examples is striking. Bergoglio does not speak and never writes generically: he needs to indicate concrete figures, examples, even lists.
In 1989 Fr. Bergoglio had presented a book by Fr. Ismael Quiles, a Jesuit friend of his who had also been his professor. Francis has even quoted him in Evangelii Gaudium. The volume presented by Bergoglio was titled My Ideal of Holiness. After speaking of holiness in general, Quiles dedicates the second part of his treatise to his own ideal, that is, the holiness that God wants from each person in a different manner. It is a matter then of discerning one’s own road, one’s own way of holiness, that which lets you give the best of yourself, as Francis writes, remembering implicitly the lesson of his brother Jesuit (cf. GE 11).
A gradual, whole and unbounded holiness
It was Quiles who recommended – as Francis does in Gaudete et Exsultate – the use of graduality: God does not want an equal perfection from all the souls; much less does God desire that a soul reach immediately that attainable level of holiness.” Holiness emerges from the whole of life and not from a detailed study of all the particulars of the actions of a person. The virtues are not subject to “bookkeeping.” The mystery of a person able to reflect Jesus Christ in the world today emerges through the whole of life, which is sometimes made of contrasts of light and shade (cf. GE 23). And this, then, is fulfilled “despite your mistakes and missteps” (GE 24).
Human limits need then to be adequately considered, the progressive journey of each person, and also the great mystery of grace that acts in the life of people. The saint is not a “superman.” “Grace acts in history; ordinarily it takes hold of us and transforms us progressively. If we reject this historical and progressive reality, we can actually refuse and block grace, even as we extol it by our words” (GE 50).
Indeed, holiness can be lived “even outside the Catholic Church and in very different contexts” where “the Holy Spirit raises up ‘signs of his presence which help Christ’s followers’” (GE 9), as St. John Paul II wrote.
The most serious risk, in fact, is the presumption to “claim to say where God is not, because God is mysteriously present in the life of every person, in a way that he himself chooses, and we cannot exclude this by our presumed certainties” (GE 42). On the contrary, even when “someone’s life appears completely wrecked, even when we see it devastated by vices or addictions, God is present there” (GE 42).
So we have to seek the Lord in every human life without closely controlling other people’s lives and judging them. Here we find in a few lines the reminder – which frequently appears in Amoris Laetitia (see, for example, AL 112; 177; 261; 265; 300; 302; 310) – to avoid a stance of being controllers of other people’s lives that leads to a judgement which is a condemnation.
This is a very important point in the spiritual perspective of Francis, who learned from St. Ignatius of Loyola to “seek and find God in all things” without placing limits and boundaries on the action of the Holy Spirit or the ways of the Spirit’s presence in the world. In fact, “the spiritual experience of the encounter with God cannot be controlled.”
Enemies of holiness
At this point the pope decides to put before us the two “enemies” of holiness. Once again Francis insists on the danger of neo-gnosticism and neo-pelagianism. These are the same risks highlighted by the recent letter Placuit Deo from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on some aspects of Christian salvation.
Gnosticism is an ideological and intellectual fallout from Christianity when transformed into “an encyclopedia of abstractions.” According to gnosticism, only those capable of understanding the depth of a doctrine can be considered as true believers (GE 37). The pope speaks very harshly of a religion that “feeds on itself and becomes even more myopic” (GE 40) keeping the freshness of the Gospel at a distance.
Holiness has to do with the flesh. In a homily at Santa Marta the pope said: “Our greatest act of holiness is in the flesh of our brother and in the flesh of Jesus Christ. […] It is in the sharing of bread with the hungry, curing the sick, the elderly, those who can give us nothing in exchange: this is what it means to not be embarrassed by the flesh!” (March 7, 2014).
This is why we cannot consider our understanding of doctrine as “a closed system, devoid of the dynamic capacity to pose questions, doubts, inquiries.” In fact, the “questions of our people, their suffering, their struggles, their dreams, their trials and their worries, all possess an interpretational value that we cannot ignore if we want to take the principle of the incarnation seriously. Their wondering helps us to wonder, their questions question us.”
The other great enemy of holiness is pelagianism, that stance which underlines exclusively personal strength, as if holiness were the fruit of the will and not of grace. For Bergoglio personal holiness is above all a process carried out by God who awaits us. This is holiness: “allow the Lord to write our history” (Homily at Santa Marta, December 17, 2013), “docility to the Holy Spirit” (April 16, 2013).
Francis identifies some concrete behaviors and lists them: “an obsession with the law, an absorption with social and political advantages, a punctilious concern for the Church’s liturgy, doctrine and prestige, a vanity about the ability to manage practical matters, and an excessive concern with programs of self-help and personal fulfillment” (GE 57).
What results is an obsessive Christianity submerged under norms and precepts, devoid of its “simplicity, allure” (GE 58) and flavor. A Christianity that becomes a slavery, as St. Thomas Aquinas recalls, stating that “the precepts added to the Gospel by the Church should be imposed with moderation ‘lest the conduct of the faithful become burdensome!’” (GE 59). Francis had reiterated this concept in Evangelii Gaudium and quotes it here almost verbatim. There he had identified in this warning one of “the criteria to be taken into account in considering a reform of the Church and her preaching which would enable it to reach everyone” (EG 43).