Julian Browning reads the latest Apostolic Exhortation by Pope Francis

I took Pope Francis’s third Apostolic Exhortation on the parish pilgrimage I was leading at Walsingham this summer. This proved to be a good choice. Here is a tract for our time, a new guide to holiness. Francis tells us that ‘growth in holiness is a journey in community, side by side with others’ and that this is no holy huddle and is certainly not the passage to individual sanctification. As so often in current papal exhortations, we go back to basics. We study basic definitions of holiness with a view to practical results in our lives, not to understand a theological treatise. Those of us who are still getting to grips with Tractarian ideals and the hopes of the Oxford Movement might instinctively flinch at the phrase ‘in today’s world’ and sigh deeply at the very thought of ‘community,’ but the truth is that the only time we can be holy is today. ‘Holiness is a gift that is offered to everyone, no one is excluded; it constitutes the distinctive character of every Christian.’

Anglican readers of the exhortation have an advantage: we do not have to take sides in the perennial arguments along the Benedict/Francis axis. Shed of that prejudice, we can take Francis’s words at face value. He has the great gift of direct speech, as if addressing every individual believer. He goes to the heart of the matter. His first biblical quotation and the title of this exhortation is ‘Rejoice and be glad’ (Matt. 5.12). Jesus offers us true life, the happiness for which we were created. Holiness is the way we live this God-given life. The Pope is clear that one size does not fit all. Wonderful as the saints were and are, we cannot copy them. ‘The important thing is that each believer discern his or her own path, that they bring out the very best of themselves, the most personal gifts that God has placed in their hearts [cf. 1 Cor. 12.7], rather than hopelessly trying to imitate something not meant for them.’ Our entire life is to be a path of holiness, wherever it leads. Pope Francis is at his best as an author when up close, local and personal. He gives a number of examples of how holiness is inseparable from the ordinary words and deeds of daily life: an ordinary life fired by an extraordinary love. ‘Seeing and acting with mercy: that is holiness.’ However, should any of us think that being nice to people and smiling in shops can constitute a holy day, the Pope soon disillusions us. He stresses the urgency and seriousness of every Christian vocation. ‘The path of holiness is a source of peace and joy, given to us by the Spirit. At the same time, it demands that we keep our lamps lit [Luke 12.35] and be attentive.’ Jesus’s words ‘clearly run counter to the way things are usually done in this world. Even if we find Jesus’s message attractive, the world pushes us towards another way of living.’ There follows an account of the Beatitudes so succinct and challenging that any clerical reader short of a homily on the Beatitudes should order this booklet immediately.

Be prepared to be challenged. Beyond the papal charm, there is anger, the attractive righteous anger of the prophet. Jesus ‘wants us to be saints and not to settle for a bland and mediocre existence.’ Francis devotes many pages to timely warnings about false holiness and about the current threats to a holy life: ‘Consumerism only bloats the heart.’ We shall feel a sharp papal elbow digging into our ribs when we participate shamelessly in that ‘individualistic and consumerist culture’ which we affect to deplore. More seriously for the church, in his second chapter entitled ‘Two Subtle Enemies of Holiness’ Francis names two early heresies, Gnosticism and Pelagianism, and explains how they still plague us today. Quoting an earlier exhortation (Evangelii Gaudium, 2013), Francis asserts that these two forms of doctrinal or disciplinary security give rise ‘to a narcissistic and authoritarian elitism, whereby instead of evangelizing, one analyses and classifies others, and instead of opening the door to grace, one exhausts his or her energies in inspecting and verifying. In neither case is one really concerned about Jesus Christ or others.’ Francis repeats Church teaching that we are justified not by our own works or efforts, but by the grace of the Lord, who always takes the initiative. So we do not become holy through moral perfection; nor does approbation by others matter in the slightest. Francis lays into the ‘New Pelagians,’ those who see themselves justified by their own efforts and abilities. ‘The result is a self-centred and elitist complacency, bereft of true love. This finds expression in a variety of apparently unconnected ways of thinking and acting: an obsession with the law, an absorption with social and political advantages, a punctilious concern with the Church’s liturgy, doctrine and prestige, a vanity about the ability to manage practical matters, and an excessive concern with programmes of self-help and personal fulfilment.’

The challenge goes deeper; this, after all, is a Jesuit Pope. Neutrality is not acceptable. ‘Those who choose to remain neutral, who are satisfied with little, who renounce the ideal of giving themselves generously to the Lord, will never hold out.’ That can be a hard teaching for Anglicans who have been taught to welcome compromise, even in matters of faith, order and morals. But for Francis, in his final chapter, ‘Spiritual Combat, Vigilance and Discernment,’ the battle with the prince of evil is real, ‘more than a myth’ as he says. The weapons we use for this combat are real too. ‘Reality is greater than ideas’ (Evangelii Gaudium). Maybe for us the metaphor of the pilgrimage or journey is more useful than that of battle. We can lose the path of holiness. We find ourselves alone in a dark wood, unsure how we got there, like Dante in The Inferno just before the sun rises on Good Friday. Francis says the Lord has given us the means to get back on the path: the cultivation of all that is good, daily prayer, meditation on the Word of God, the Mass, works of charity, and much else, including that divine gift encouraged by the Jesuits, discernment, to decide whether something new to our lives is ‘new wine brought by God or an illusion created by the spirit of this world or the spirit of the devil.’

The weekend pilgrimage at Walsingham includes an evening procession of Our Lady by candlelight and Benediction: a living metaphor, so I thought the evening we joined it, of the call to holiness in today’s world. We stay on the path, individuals but together and mindful of each other, giving ourselves to the one journey, unashamedly counter-cultural or ‘against the flow’ as Francis puts it, our lamps lit in the gathering darkness, moving forward joyfully and, as Pope Francis heads his chapter on the Beatitudes, ‘In The Light of The Master.’

Apostolic Exhortation Gaudete Et Exsultate Of The Holy Father Francis on the Call to Holiness in Today’s World. 66 pp. Catholic Truth Society, 2018. £4.95

Fr Julian Browning is an Honorary Assistant Priest at All Saints’, Margaret Street