Pope Francis greets the crowd during his general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican April 11. CNS photo/Paul Haring

Glen Argan: Pope offers a practical guide to a holy life

  • April 19, 2018

Pope Francis has long held in esteem the late Cardinal Francois-Xavier Nguyen van Thuan, the archbishop of Saigon who spent 13 years in a communist prison camp, including nine years in solitary confinement.

In Gaudete et Exsultate (Rejoice and Be Glad), the Pope turns to Nguyen van Thuan’s prison reflections for one of the key remarks in his new apostolic exhortation. The cardinal refused to focus on waiting for the day he would be released. Instead, he chose “to live the present moment filling it to the brim with love.”

Holiness, the Pope writes, is too often interpreted as “swooning in mystical rapture” when it should be seen as an interplay of contemplation and action. Rather than withdrawing from ordinary life, the holy person is deeply engaged in the ordinary, an engagement which flows from love.

It’s a thought worth dwelling upon. One landmark teaching of the Second Vatican Council is “the universal call to holiness” — that it is not just priests and religious who are called to be holy, but every baptized Christian. Considering the importance of that notion to the council fathers, it is odd that it has taken more than 50 years for a major Church document devoted to the universal call.

In the contemporary world, our relationship with God is typically seen as something we choose, not as something intrinsic to being human. As long as holiness is seen within such a framework, the Church itself will be an option which one can accept or reject.

However, to be in relationship with God is intrinsic to being fully human. Those who reject that relationship live truncated lives, alienated from the essence of being human. We are, after all, creatures — creatures imbued with the mission of being responsible for the rest of creation as well as creatures whose deepest longing is to be united with God.

In that light, the Vietnamese cardinal’s desire to fill each moment with love expresses the most rational yearning of the human soul. He avoids the self-focus of individualism and realizes living in the mystery of God’s love can be carried out in a hellish prison camp as well as in a prosperous middle-class neighbourhood. Maybe even more so. In solitary confinement, one does not have to contend with the distractions of our technological utopia.

Pope Francis counters the assumption, found in both secular and Christian circles, that we can create our own salvation. This assumption, which he labels “Pelagianism,” denies the relatedness of the human person to God and to other people. The path to holiness is not a do-it-yourself campaign.

To overcome this temptation, we need to become “contemplatives in the midst of action.” We do this by uniting ourselves personally to Christ’s death and resurrection. This may sound like the sort of holy talk the Pope is anxious to avoid. But he immediately makes it concrete by calling us to reproduce aspects of Christ’s earthly life in our own lives: “His hidden life, His life in community, His closeness to the outcast, His poverty and other ways in which He showed His self-sacrificing love.

“The contemplation of these mysteries, as St. Ignatius of Loyola pointed out, leads us to incarnate them in our choices and attitudes.” 

Nor do our actions need to be so outstanding that they attract the attention of others. Pope Francis calls us to “the middle class of holiness,” a holiness which grows through small gestures. He gives the fictitious example of a woman who, in the course of her day, resists the temptation to gossip, listens patiently to her children even though she is tired, prays the rosary with faith and says a kind word to a poor person on the street. Through such mundane actions, holiness becomes real.

Despite the Pope’s homely examples and prescriptive counsels sprinkled through the text, Gaudete et Exsultate is not a manual on how to live the holy life. 

The document is practical, but also theological. Pope Francis is a spiritual guide, but also an advocate for holiness as the path to a better world. 

For the world to be more fully human, society’s members need to take up the call to themselves become more fully human. This is the path of loving God and neighbour, a path written in our hearts.

(Argan is the interim editor of Living with Christ and lives in Edmonton.)

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