How can we become good Christians then? The response is clear: “We have to do, each in our own way, what Jesus told us in the Sermon on the Mount” (GE 63). For Francis, contemplation of the mysteries of the life of Jesus, “as Saint Ignatius of Loyola pointed out, leads us to incarnate them in our choices and attitudes” (GE 20). The life of Christ needs to be contemplated and we should follow his practical “program of holiness” – the beatitudes. This belief is what is behind the pontiff’s concentration on the Beatitudes in the central chapter of the exhortation. “A few words, simple words, but practical for all, for Christianity is a practical religion: it is not there to be thought about, but to be practiced, to be done.”
Gaudete et Exsultate considers each and every phrase of the Gospel text of the Beatitudes and offers a comment. In this way Francis presents a clearly evangelical holiness, sine glossa and without apology. “Our Lord made it very clear that holiness cannot be understood or lived apart from these demands” (GE 97). And so he distances himself from an abstract spirituality that separates prayer from action or that on the contrary flattens out all in the secular world. And the pope uses this opportunity to repeat “the global political knot”– as he defines it – of migrants which sadly “some Catholics” consider a “secondary issue compared to the ‘grave’ bioethical questions” (GE 102). It is truly significant that the theme of migrants finds a place as a primary theme in an exhortation on holiness.
The characteristics of holiness
In the fourth chapter Francis presents some characteristics of holiness in the contemporary world. There are in all “five great expressions of love for God and neighbor that I consider of particular importance in the light of certain dangers and limitations present in today’s culture” (GE 111). The pope is aware that there are risks and limits in this culture and he even lists them: “a sense of anxiety, sometimes violent, that distracts and debilitates; negativity and sullenness; the self-content bred by consumerism; individualism and all those forms of ersatz spirituality – having nothing to do with God – that dominate the current religious marketplace” (GE 111).
The first characteristic has the traits of putting up with, of patience, and meekness. We need to “recognize and combat our aggressive and selfish inclinations, and not let them take root” (GE 114). Humility that is obtained partially by accepting daily humiliations is a feature of the saint who has a heart “set at peace by Christ, freed from the aggressiveness born of overweening egotism” (GE 121).
The second characteristic is joy and a sense of humor. Holiness, in fact, does not imply a spirit that is “timid, morose, acerbic or melancholy, or putting on a dreary face. Indeed, “ill humor is no sign of holiness” (GE 126). On the contrary, “the saints are joyful and full of good humor. Though completely realistic, they radiate a positive and hopeful spirit” (GE 122). The Lord “wants us to be positive, grateful and uncomplicated” (GE 127).
The third characteristic is courage and fervor. The recognition of our fragility should not lead us to be lacking in courage. Holiness conquers fears and reservations and the need to find safe places. Francis lists some: “individualism, spiritualism, living in a little world, addiction, intransigence, the rejection of new ideas and approaches, dogmatism, nostalgia, pessimism, hiding behind rules and regulations” (GE 134). The saint is neither a bureaucrat nor a functionary, but a passionate person who does not know how to live in “dull and dreary mediocrity” (GE 138). The saint shocks and surprises because the saint knows that “God is eternal newness. He impels us constantly to set out anew, to pass beyond what is familiar, to the fringes and beyond” (GE 135).
The fourth characteristic is the communal journey. Sometimes, indeed, the Church has “canonized entire communities that lived the Gospel heroically or offered to God the lives of all their members” (GE 141). Such groups have prepared themselves together even for martyrdom, as in the case of the blessed Trappist monks of Tibhirine in Algeria (cf. GE 141). For Francis, community life keeps us from the “growing consumerist individualism that tends to isolate us in a quest for well-being apart from others” (GE 146).
The fifth characteristic is constant prayer. The saints have a “need for communion with God. They find an exclusive concern with this world to be narrow and stifling, and, amid their own concerns and commitments, they long for God, losing themselves in praise and contemplation of the Lord” (GE 147) who does not domesticate the power of the face of Christ (cf. GE 151).
But the pope also makes something else clear: “I do not believe in holiness without prayer, even though that prayer need not be lengthy or involve intense emotions” (GE 147). Indeed, he puts us on guard for spiritualist prejudices that lead us to think “that prayer should be pure contemplation of God, free of all distraction, as if the names and faces of others were somehow an intrusion to be avoided” (GE 154). Quite the opposite, intercessions and prayers of supplication are pleasing to God because they are tied to the reality of our lives.
Alternatives such as “either God or the world” or “God or nothing” are wrong. God is at work in the world, to bring it to fulfillment, that the world may be fully in God. Discernment of the ways of holiness that the Lord offers us come to fruition in prayer.
A holiness of battle and discernment
“The Christian life is a constant battle. We need strength and courage to withstand the temptations of the devil and to proclaim the Gospel. This battle is sweet, for it allows us to rejoice each time the Lord triumphs in our lives” (GE 158). These initial words summarize well the meaning of the last chapter of the exhortation Gaudete et Exsultate.
And so the pope does not reduce the fight to a battle against the worldly mentality that “would deceive us and leave us dull and mediocre,” nor to a battle against our own fragility and inclinations – and everybody has their own. Francis lists laziness, lust, envy, jealousy and so on. It is also a “constant struggle against the devil, the prince of evil” (GE 159), and so not only a “myth, a representation, a symbol, a figure of speech or an idea” (GE 161).
The path of holiness asks that we keep “our lamps lit,” as those who do not commit serious failures against the Law of God can nevertheless “fall into a state of dull lethargy” (GE 164). This can lead to a corruption that is “worse than the fall of a sinner, for it is a comfortable and self-satisfied form of blindness. Everything then appears acceptable” (GE 165).
The gift of discernment helps in this spiritual battle because it helps us “know if something comes from the Holy Spirit or if it stems from the spirit of the world or the spirit of the devil” (GE 166). And here Pope Francis follows the lesson of his own spiritual director, Fr. Miguel Ángel Fiorito, who had written a commentary on the rules for discernment of St. Ignatius under the title Discernimiento y lucha espiritual to which Bergoglio himself wrote the preface in 1985. We read there, among other things, that the spiritual battle is “to see in our human footprints the footprints of God,” overcoming self-referentiality.
The beating heart of the apostolic exhortation is the section on battle and discernment. For Bergoglio a holy life is not simply a virtuous life in the sense that it pursues virtues in general. It is virtuous because it knows how to embrace the action of the Holy Spirit and its movements, and it follows them.
“Without the wisdom of discernment, we can easily become prey to every passing trend” (GE 167) in a period of continual existential “zapping.” There is a risk even of living a spiritual “channel surfing,” we could say, if one is not led by discernment.
This gift is important as it allows us to “recognize God’s timetable, lest we fail to heed the promptings of his grace and disregard his invitation to grow.” Once again the pope insists on the fact that this is played out in the small things of each day: “Often discernment is exercised in small and apparently irrelevant things, since greatness of spirit is manifested in simple everyday realities. It involves striving untrammeled for all that is great, better and more beautiful,” he states, “while at the same time being concerned for the little things, for each day’s responsibilities and commitments” (GE 169). Francis recalls here a motto attributed to St. Ignatius so dear to him that he dedicated an insightful essay to it: Non coerceri a maximo, contineri tamen a minimo divinum est (“Do not be forced by what is greater, be contained in what is smaller, this is divine”).
And discernment is not a wisdom for the wise, the elite and the enlightened. The pope said as much to the Jesuits of Myanmar during his apostolic visit, illustrating what for him is the vocational criterion of the Society: “Can the candidate discern? Will he learn to discern? If he knows how to discern, he knows how to recognize what comes from God and what comes from the bad spirit, then this is enough for him to go on. Even if he does not understand much, even if they fail him at the exams … it is OK, as long as he knows spiritual discernment.” Discernment is a charism: “it requires no special abilities, nor is it only for the more intelligent or better educated. The Father readily reveals himself to the lowly (cf. Matt 11:25)” (GE 170).
Francis concludes his reflection on discernment with a paragraph of particular importance that seems to summarize the meaning of his journey up to this moment: “When, in God’s presence, we examine our life’s journey, no areas can be off limits. In all aspects of life we can continue to grow and offer something greater to God, even in those areas we find most difficult. We need, though, to ask the Holy Spirit to liberate us and to expel the fear that makes us ban him from certain parts of our lives. God asks everything of us, yet he also gives everything to us. He does not want to enter our lives to cripple or diminish them, but to bring them to fulfillment. Discernment, then, is not a solipsistic self-analysis or a form of egotistical introspection, but an authentic process of leaving ourselves behind in order to approach the mystery of God, who helps us to carry out the mission to which he has called us, for the good of our brothers and sisters” (GE 175).