When reading Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation, Gaudete Et Exsultate, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Leon Bloy’s famous line, “The only real sadness, the only real failure, the only great tragedy in life, is not to become a saint,” which Pope Francis actually quotes in the document. In a time of the Church when the verbiage of evangelization is at the fore, and praise God for that, we must be careful not to make evangelization something less than it is. Evangelization is not inviting those who are not part of the Church to simply join our club. It is an encounter with the living God made manifest in the person of Jesus Christ. With that in mind, the ideals of Pope Francis in this exhortation are both timely and a serious reminder of the purpose of sharing Christ, which is to become holy and invite others into a life of holiness. Holiness is attractive. Holiness is life-affirming. Holiness is something that causes the transcendent to become apparent in everyday life. I’m reminded of the life of St. Benedict who, when trying to live the simple life of a hermit, was sought after and begged to begin teaching his way of life. Holiness was so attractive that wealthy people were willing to give everything up and live in a cave covered in rags simply to attain what Benedict imbued.
In light of the Word on Fire Movement and its charism of evangelization, we ought to take heed to Francis’ words, which call all men and women to holiness. If we want to be successful in our evangelical zeal, we must consistently seek to be holy. The first principle of the Word on Fire Movement is Christo-centricity, making Christ the center of our lives, and thereby arranging our everyday life, the logoi of our life, around the Divine Logos. Pope Francis proposes a renewed call to universal holiness, and there are several aspects of the document that speak boldly to those of us who wish to be effective evangelists.
I think my favorite part of the document is that Pope Francis leads with a call to remember the saints, to remember those who’ve gone before us. They weren’t perfect, yet they kept moving forward. In particular, he points to the incredible witness of the martyrs. This reminds of another principle of the Movement, which is a rootedness in the mystical body of the Church, holding our relationships with the saints as an uncompromising aspect of our life in Christ. In forming these bonds, we come to love that which they loved, we come to find a guide and a life worth emulating in someone who both inspires and can literally intercede for us. The saints give us a prime example of those who’ve lived through their mission, unique and unrepeatable, and did so in a way that became their path of holiness.
Pope Francis says, “This is a powerful summons to all of us. You too need to see the entirety of your life as a mission. Try to do so by listening to God in prayer and recognizing the signs that he gives you.” So often we can get caught up in thinking that God wants us to have a mission akin to St. Francis Xavier, or St. Catherine of Sienna, yet, for the majority of us, our mission, our path of holiness, is to be the best mother or father we can united in Christ. We are called to share the Gospel with those who we see day in and day out at work, at the grocery store, with our own families while we juggle changing diapers and washing dishes. Our ‘sanctifying activity’ could simply be waking up each and every day, embracing what God has given us to look after. We mustn’t confuse the mission that God has for us as something beyond living a life of holiness in the present moment. We should always discern what God is calling us to, but we can rest assured that living the present moment to the fullest will keep us in His will. As evangelists, particularly of the Word on Fire Movement, we must be willing to embrace the opportunities for holiness and sanctification so that we, in turn, sanctify the world. We cannot confuse fame with holiness. There’s a piece in all of us that desires to be recognized for our holiness. However, the greatest saints were those who sought to disappear into the mission, meaning that we fulfill our daily tasks, even the most menial, with great love. If we are called to witness in a more public manner, do it with great love and humility, but always recall that should we lose our centered life on Christ, then the mission is compromised.
Pope Francis points out two heretical ‘enemies of holiness’, these being ‘Contemporary Gnosticism’ and ‘Contemporary Pelagianism’. In regard to Gnosticism, he powerfully states, “A dangerous confusion can arise. We can think that because we know something, or are able to explain it in certain terms, we are already saints, perfect and better than the ‘ignorant masses’” A major facet of the Word on Fire Movement is reinvigorating the intellectual power found in the doctrines of the Church, and our ability to defend that which we believe. Yet, we must take heed to Francis’ words here. We must take the disposition of humility in our knowledge. We can be smart as a whip and have all the right answers, but it takes true wisdom to know how to disseminate that knowledge. Francis continues by pointing out the other extreme, Palagianism, which relies solely on personal effort, the human will, to accomplish the mission. That God’s grace is secondary to the activity and pulling ourselves up by the bootstraps will get us where we want to go. These interior dispositions can interrupt and derail the mission of evangelization. I think that the words we must continue to reflect and meditate on to keep us grounded are one of Bishop Barron’s recommended paths of holiness, “my life is not about me”. In humility and charity, we seek to bring the Gospel to the culture, which requires a sincere desire for the truth it contains and the gumption to follow its call, but we ought to always keep in mind that our mission is not about us.
While I could comment paragraph by paragraph of this document, let me jump to chapter 4, where Francis explains the signs of holiness today. We find perseverance, meekness, joy, humor, boldness, community, and constant prayer. If we are going to truly proclaim Christ in the culture, which could mean something as simple as bringing up the faith with a co-worker, we must consistently self-diagnose whether these attributes are part of our life. Do we shut down every time our first attempt is neglected? Do we allow our pride to get hurt if the person we seek to evangelize answers us with rude comments? Are we fearful of actually using the name Jesus in public? Do we neglect to laugh at ourselves when we fall face first in our attempts? Do we seek community with other believers, not as a hideaway but as a place of invigoration and challenging one another in mission?
Lastly, I want to touch on Francis’ words regarding constant prayer. You cannot share a relationship you do not have. Perhaps you are feeling a little distant from Christ in your prayer life. Put in the time. As a Movement, we hold dear the sacrifice of the Mass and Eucharistic adoration. Relinquish your desire for control and perfection and allow Christ to do his work in you. Unless we are praying, unless we are intentionally setting aside time to find the Center, we cannot successfully evangelize the culture. Pope Francis leaves us with a short reflection on Mary as the example of holiness and beatitude, may we, in a special way, emulate her Fiat and embrace the mission of holiness and evangelization we are all called to.