Opinion Thomas Reese: Signs of the Times

Pope Francis, the spiritual guide

Pope Francis is silhouetted at the end of a private audience with then-Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan at the Vatican on April 5, 2018. (Alberto Pizzoli/Pool Photo via AP)

(RNS) — Before he was pope, before he was archbishop of Buenos Aires, Francis spent much of his Jesuit life as a spiritual guide to young Jesuits. He was not a great theologian, although he was well read in theology. Nor was he the president of one of the order’s universities. Rather his job was to introduce young men to the Jesuits and help form them in their spiritual lives. He was the director of novices and rector of the community where young Jesuits studied philosophy and theology.

This background and experience helped make Francis the person he is today. It also explains why he naturally felt impelled to write “Gaudete et Exsultate,” his recently released apostolic exhortation on the call to holiness. For Francis, all Christians, not just religious and priests, are called to holiness. But as an experienced spiritual guide, he knows that most people are confused about what holiness really is and therefore can easily get lost on their spiritual quest.

Francis’ goal was not to write an abstract theological treatise on holiness but to present a practical way to holiness for our time. He does this with a simple style that is full of spiritual wisdom that can enrich any reader, whether a beginner or experienced practitioner of the spiritual life.

Francis begins by reminding us that “no one is saved alone, as an isolated individual. Rather, God draws us to himself, taking into account the complex fabric of interpersonal relationships present in a human community.” Rather than presenting the hermit as the ideal Christian, he invites us to look at the ordinary holiness of our next-door neighbors, especially in the patience and persistence of their lives.

Nor does he believe that everyone’s road to holiness is the same. People must discern their own paths to holiness rather than “hopelessly trying to imitate something not meant for them.”

“Are you married?” he asks. “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 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 how to follow Jesus. Are you in a position of authority? Be holy by working for the common good and renouncing personal gain.”

In short, “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.” Holiness does not come from grandiose achievements but by “many small gestures.”

Quoting Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, he explains that “holiness is nothing other than charity lived to the full.” Put another way, it entails “reproducing in our own lives various aspects of Jesus’ earthly life: 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.”

While recognizing the need for moments of quiet and solitude before God, Francis argues that “It is not healthy to love silence while fleeing interaction with others, to want peace and quiet while avoiding activity, to seek prayer while disdaining service.”

Rather, “Your identification with Christ and his will involves a commitment to build with him that kingdom of love, justice and universal peace.”

“Everything can be accepted and integrated into our life in this world, and become a part of our path to holiness,” he writes. He calls this “contemplation in action,” a term well known in Jesuit spirituality.

But this action is not frantic. “How can we fail to realize the need to stop this rat race and to recover the personal space needed to carry on a heartfelt dialogue with God?” he writes. “Sooner or later, we have to face our true selves and let the Lord enter.”

Quoting the Jesuit cardinal and writer Carlo Martini, he notes “This may not happen unless ‘we see ourselves staring into the abyss of a frightful temptation, or have the dizzying sensation of standing on the precipice of utter despair, or find ourselves completely alone and abandoned.’”

All of this and more Pope Francis relates in just the first chapter of “Gaudete et Exsultate,” or “Rejoice and be Glad” (Matthew 5:12). It is a rich and powerful message easily accessible to the people of our time from the world’s preeminent spiritual guide.

About the author

Thomas Reese

The Rev. Thomas J. Reese, a Jesuit priest, is a Senior Analyst at RNS. Previously he was a columnist at the National Catholic Reporter (2015-17) and an associate editor (1978-85) and editor in chief (1998-2005) at America magazine. He was also a senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University (1985-98 & 2006-15) where he wrote Archbishop, A Flock of Shepherds, and Inside the Vatican. Earlier he worked as a lobbyist for tax reform. He has a doctorate in political science from the University of California Berkeley. He entered the Jesuits in 1962 and was ordained a priest in 1974 after receiving a M.Div from the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley.

16 Comments

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  • Religious patriarchy is an obstacle to grace, and therefore an obstacle to holiness. It is a cultural tragedy that is becoming a doctrinal travesty and a pastoral disgrace. It is wrong to confuse the faithful into thinking that apostolic succession is contingent on masculinity. We need women priests and women bishops.

  • No the RCC does not need women priests and bishops. The RCC needs to come to grips with error filled theology, dogma and history after which there will be no need for priests or bishops of any gender. As a starting point:

    The Apostles’ Creed 2018: (updated by yours truly and based on the studies of historians and theologians of the past 200 years)

    Should I believe in a god whose existence cannot be proven and said god if he/she/it exists resides in an unproven, human-created, spirit state of bliss called heaven??

    I believe there was a 1st century CE, Jewish, simple,
    preacher-man who was conceived by a Jewish carpenter named Joseph living in Nazareth and born of a young Jewish girl named Mary. (Some say he was a mamzer.)

    Jesus was summarily crucified for being a temple rabble-rouser by the Roman troops in Jerusalem serving under Pontius Pilate,

    He was buried in an unmarked grave and still lies
    a-mouldering in the ground somewhere outside of
    Jerusalem.

    Said Jesus’ story was embellished and “mythicized” by many semi-fiction writers. A descent into Hell, a bodily resurrection and ascension stories were promulgated to compete with the Caesar myths. Said stories were so popular that they grew into a religion known today as Catholicism/Christianity and featuring dark-age, daily wine to blood and bread to body rituals called the eucharistic sacrifice of the non-atoning Jesus.

    Amen
    (references used are available upon request)

  • Real name ? Of course but kept private for family security considering the number of red neck Christians and rabid Muslims out there.

  • Well, if you are not willing to say who you are, your witness is not persuasive, no matter how rational it might be.

  • I use my real name and feel that IF I want to say something i should be willing to stand by my words.

    BUT I can understand how some people are not in the same position that I am in. The use of an alternate name doesn’t negate the truth or lies of their words.

    Words of wisdom stand or fall on their own merits, they need no claims of divine authorship, or scholarly credentials, or even a real name to prove their worth.

  • Words are useful as long as they are not confused with the realities they represent, but actions speak louder than words.

  • Yes. And the action in this case tells us that someone is NOT in a position to or feel comfortable using their real name. That is all we can say. It doesn’t reflect on what he says.

  • It does not reflect on the person, but it reflects on the persuasiveness of the message. I also think that requiring people to give their real name tends to discourage trolling.

  • Obviously, today’s followers of Paul et al’s “magic-man” are also a bit on the odd side believing in all the Christian mumbo jumbo about bodies resurrecting, and exorcisms, and miracles, and “magic-man atonement, and infallible, old, European/Utah/Argentine white men, and 24/7 body/blood sacrifices followed by consumption of said sacrifices. Yummy!!!!

    So why do we really care what a first century CE, illiterate, long-dead, preacher/magic man would do or say?

  • The Pope is Satan’s man for the hour. The Anti-Christ the False-Christ. Satan hates Jesus Christ the Savior of Humanity and so does the Pope. Those who worship the Pope are worshiping at Satan’s throne.

  • “It is not healthy to love silence while fleeing interaction with others, to want peace and quiet while avoiding activity, to seek prayer while disdaining service” – Pope Francis.

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