When you enter the Great Upper Church of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, DC, as the clergy and faithful of the Diocese are invited to do on pilgrimage every three years, your attention is immediately focused upon the mosaic of “Christ in Majesty” that adorns the apse behind and above the high altar. If you turn around to look back at the narthex, you will see a white bas relief that stretches from side to side across the back of the Shrine. The artist labeled his work, “The Universal Call to Holiness.” In it you will see portrayed the Holy Spirit descending with the rays of his divine graces upon the Church, represented by the Blessed Mother and figures from every walk of life.
This portrayal of a “universal call to holiness” is rooted in the Dogmatic Constitution of the Church of the Second Vatican Council, Lumen Gentium (November 21, 1964), which states that
… all the faithful of Christ of whatever rank or status, are called to the fullness of the Christian life and to the perfection of charity; by this holiness as such, a more human manner of living is promoted in this earthly society. In order that the faithful may reach this perfection, they must use their strength accordingly as they have received it, as a gift from Christ (Lumen Gentium, V, art. 40).
But, just what is a “universal call to holiness?” What does it mean? Pope Francis has issued an apostolic exhortation on this topic today, April 9, 2018, “Rejoice and Be Glad (Gaudete et Exsultate).” An apostolic exhortation does not carry the doctrinal weight of an encyclical but, rather, expresses an encouragement of the Pope to the Church community. The Pope cautions the reader that this document “is not meant to be a treatise” or an academic, doctrinal text. It is proposed and intended to be a personal, pastoral and practical invitation to each and every one of us in the Church to draw closer to the Lord Jesus Christ in our everyday lives. Many Catholics might not be inclined to read papal documents in detail, whether clergy, religious or lay faithful. This exhortation, however, speaks in simple, accessible language in an attempt to redirect our attention to the everyday “holiness” that we are called to live: “in 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,” people he calls the “saints next door (n. 7).” Holiness is the goal of clergy and religious to be sure but it is, at the same time and no less authentically, not merely a requirement for them. “We are all called to be holy by living our lives and by bearing witness in everything we do, wherever we find ourselves (n. 14),” “each in his or her own way (n. 11).”
“Are you called to consecrated life,” he asks? “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 his Church. Do you work for a living? Be holy by laboring 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 to follow Jesus. Are you a person in a position of authority? Be holy by working for the common good and renouncing personal gain (n. 14).”
Pope Francis writes that “in the Church, holy yet made up of sinners, you will find everything you need to grow towards holiness. The Lord has bestowed on the Church the gifts of scripture, the sacraments, holy places, living communities, the witness of the saints and a multifaceted beauty that proceeds from God’s love (n. 15).”
“At times, life presents great challenges. Through them, the Lord calls us anew to a conversion that can make grace more evident in our lives, ‘in order that we may share his holiness’ [Hebrews 12:10] (n.17).” Pope Francis continues, “At its core, holiness is experiencing, in union with Christ, the mysteries of his life (n. 20).”
His Holiness invites us to realize “the message of Jesus that God wants to speak to the world by your life” requires you to “be transformed. Let yourself be renewed by the Spirit so that this can happen, lest you fail in your precious mission. The Lord will bring it to fulfillment despite your mistakes and missteps, provided that you do not abandon the path of love but remain ever open to his supernatural grace, which purifies and enlightens (n. 24).” This openness is the path to holiness.
“Do not be afraid of holiness,” the Pope cautions (n.32). “Do not be afraid to set your sights higher, to allow yourself to be loved and liberated by God. Do not be afraid to let yourself be guided by the Holy Spirit. Holiness does not make you less human, since it is an encounter between your weakness and the power of God’s grace (n. 34).” What a powerful insight!
It does not take much imagination to recognize that life in the world today presents many obstacles and “enemies” to holiness as the Pope describes it: obstacle and distractions all around us; obstacles and distractions within us. The Holy Father singles out two of the latter kind, ancient heresies that seem to have revived in the present day. The first is “Gnosticism,” a deceptive ideology that turns the human person in on himself/herself, preferring “a God without Christ, a Christ without the Church, a Church without her people (n. 37).” In such an approach, holiness is not possible: reason alone cannot make a person holy. The second is similar, “Pelagianism,” replacing sheer human will for reason, as though “personal effort” alone could make a person holy (n. 48). Neither concept --- human reason or human will ---is sufficient on its own. It is the grace and power of God that initiates the path to holiness and our prayerful acceptance of and personal transformation by that grace that makes one holy (n. 56).
In the document’s third chapter, Pope Francis takes St. Matthew’s “Sermon on the Mount (5:1-11)” and identifies each of the “Eight Beatitudes” found there with true holiness in life, especially the extension of mercy, a favorite topic in the Holy Father’s writings and homilies. The Gospel’s famous call to find Christ in the poor and suffering in chapter 25:31-46 is “not a simple invitation to charity … (but) sheds a ray of light on the mystery of Christ (n. 96), a mystery and a light that “incarnates” holiness through concrete actions of service.
Such service, along with the “means of sanctification already known to us: the various methods of prayer, the inestimable sacraments of the Eucharist and Reconciliation, the offering of personal sacrifices, different forms of devotion, spiritual direction (n.110)," give profound insight into the Church’s call to holiness extended to those who seek to follow Christ.
Pope Francis’ next chapter goes on to identify and describe “signs of holiness in today’s world: perseverance, patience and meekness; joy and a sense of humor; boldness and passion; working in community; and, constant prayer." These should be read reflectively, almost as an examination of conscience, to discern their presence in our movement toward personal holiness.
Finally, the exhortation takes up the question of temptation, evil and the devil in chapter five, opponents in a “spiritual combat” that demands “vigilance and discernment.” “The path of holiness,” Pope Francis advises, “is a source of peace and joy, given us by the Spirit” but “demands that we keep ‘our lamps lit (Luke 12:35) and be attentive (n.164).” Spiritual discernment becomes a certain and constant element in the search for holiness, “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, and the mission to which he has called us, for the good of our brother and sisters (n. 175)."
The preceding quotations and reflections could never hope to replace the true spiritual benefit to be gained by reading the actual text of the Holy Father’s apostolic exhortation “Rejoice and Be Glad” in its entirety. In the end as in the beginning and in every moment in between God Himself is the source and goal of our response to “the universal call to holiness.” Invoking the patronage of Mary, our Blessed Mother, Pope Francis invites us all “to ask the Holy Spirit to pour out upon us a fervent longing to be saints for God’s greater glory, and let us encourage one another in this effort. In this way, we will share a happiness that the world will not be able to take from us (n. 177).”
To read Pope Francis' apostolic exhortation in its entirety, click here.