Reflections on the call to holiness

By Steve Atherton, Justice and Peace fieldworker

Pope Francis has just brought out a beautiful apostolic exhortation called Gaudete et Exsultate ('On the Call to Holiness in Today's World') in which he writes about the universal call to holiness.

Holiness, he says, is for all of us. He is quite clear that we are holy when we live our lives well in all their ordinariness. 'To be holy does not require being a bishop, a priest or a religious. We are frequently tempted to think that holiness is only for those who can withdraw from ordinary affairs to spend much time in prayer. That is not the case. We are all called to be holy by living our lives with love and by bearing witness in everything we do, wherever we find ourselves. Are you called to the consecrated life? Be holy by living out your commitment with joy. Are you married? Be holy by loving and caring for your husband or wife, as Christ does for the Church. Do you work for a living? Be holy by labouring with integrity and skill in the service of your brothers and sisters. Are you a parent or grandparent? Be holy by patiently teaching the little ones how to follow Jesus. Are you in a position of authority? Be holy by working for the common good and renouncing personal gain.'

We are not holy in the abstract or in isolation. Holiness is all around us in our communities. He continues: 'I like to contemplate the holiness present in the patience of God's people: in those parents who raise their children with immense love, in those men and women who work hard to support their families, in the sick, in elderly religious who never lose their smile. In their daily perseverance I see the holiness of the Church militant. Very often it is a holiness found in our next-door neighbours, those who, living in our midst, reflect God's presence. We might call them "the middle class of holiness".'

Pope Francis lists two pitfalls to avoid, Gnosticism and Pelagianism. The first is the temptation to think that our faith journey is about gaining ever more information, as if holiness were the same as knowledge. He writes: 'Thanks be to God, throughout the history of the Church it has always been clear that a person's perfection is measured not by the information or knowledge they possess, but by the depth of their charity. "Gnostics" do not understand this, because they judge others based on their ability to understand the complexity of certain doctrines. They think of the intellect as separate from the flesh, and thus become incapable of touching Christ's suffering flesh in others, locked up as they are in an encyclopaedia of abstractions.'

The second is to think that we can rely on our own efforts. The pontiff writes that those 'who yield to this pelagian or semi-pelagian mindset ... "ultimately trust only in their own powers and feel superior to others because they observe certain rules or remain intransigently faithful to a particular Catholic style". When some of them tell the weak that all things can be accomplished with God's grace, deep down they tend to give the idea that all things are possible by the human will, as if it were something pure, perfect, all-powerful, to which grace is then added ... Ultimately, the lack of a heartfelt and prayerful acknowledgment of our limitations prevents grace from working more effectively within us ... Grace acts in history; ordinarily it takes hold of us and transforms us progressively.'

Gaudete et Exsultate is available to buy (£4.95) at Pauline Books & Media on 82 Bold Street, Liverpool, and also free to download from the Vatican website: