I’ve been working through Rejoice and be Glad (Gaudete et Exsultate) by Pope Francis. Gaudete et Exsultate is an “Apostolic Exhortation.” An apostolic exhortation is a type of communication from the Pope of the Roman Catholic Church. It encourages a community of people to undertake a particular activity but does not define Church doctrine like an ”encyclical” might. The sub-text of the Holy Father’s work is “The Call to Holiness in Today’s World.” I must say that I’m enjoying it. I am finding his words optimistic and encouraging and his style quite easy to read. I recommend it. An on-line copy can be found courtesy of America Magazine or it can be purchased on-line as well.
One section that I found particularly fruitful was “Chapter Three: In The Light Of The Master.” It is Pope Francis’ reflection on “The Beatitudes.” I must confess that I have never been a big “beatitudes fan.” We hear them very often read at funerals so I have heard them often. I have always found the wording clunky and anachronistic. I have also never really been moved by homilies that I have heard preached, based on the beatitudes. Thus I was surprised by what Pope Francis has written. His insights are compelling and relevant to modern times. I’d like to share them with you over the next few weeks. Hopefully you will find something to feed your spirit as well.
The Holy Father starts at by writing that, “There can be any number of theories about what constitutes holiness, with various explanations and distinctions. Such reflection may be useful, but nothing is more enlightening than turning to Jesus’ words and seeing his way of teaching the truth. Jesus explained with great simplicity what it means to be holy when he gave us the Beatitudes (cf. Matthew 5:3-12; Luke 6:20-23). The Beatitudes are like a Christian’s identity card. So if anyone asks: “What must one do to be a good Christian?”, the answer is clear. We have to do, each in our own way, what Jesus told us in the Sermon on the Mount. In the Beatitudes, we find a portrait of the Master, which we are called to reflect in our daily lives.
The word “happy” or “blessed” thus becomes a synonym for “holy”. It expresses the fact that those faithful to God and his word, by their self-giving, gain true happiness.
Going Against The Flow:
Although Jesus’ words may strike us as poetic, they clearly run counter to the way things are usually done in our world. Even if we find Jesus’ message attractive, the world pushes us towards another way of living. The Beatitudes are in no way trite or undemanding, quite the opposite. We can only practice them if the Holy Spirit fills us with his power and frees us from our weakness, our selfishness, our complacency and our pride.
Let us listen once more to Jesus, with all the love and respect that the Master deserves. Let us allow his words to unsettle us, to challenge us and to demand a real change in the way we live. Otherwise, holiness will remain no more than an empty word. We turn now to the individual Beatitudes in the Gospel of Matthew (cf. Matthew 5:3-12).
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”
The Gospel invites us to peer into the depths of our heart, to see where we find our security in life. Usually the rich feel secure in their wealth, and think that, if that wealth is threatened, the whole meaning of their earthly life can collapse. Jesus himself tells us this in the parable of the rich fool: he speaks of a man who was sure of himself, yet foolish, for it did not dawn on him that he might die that very day (cf. Luke 12:16-21).
Wealth ensures nothing. Indeed, once we think we are rich, we can become so self-satisfied that we leave no room for God’s word, for the love of our brothers and sisters, or for the enjoyment of the most important things in life. In this way, we miss out on the greatest treasure of all. That is why Jesus calls blessed those who are poor in spirit, those who have a poor heart, for there the Lord can enter with his perennial newness.
This spiritual poverty is closely linked to what Saint Ignatius of Loyola calls “holy indifference”, which brings us to a radiant interior freedom: “We need to train ourselves to be indifferent in our attitude to all created things, in all that is permitted to our free will and not forbidden; so that on our part, we do not set our hearts on good health rather than bad, riches rather than poverty, honor rather than dishonor, a long life rather than a short one, and so in all the rest”
Luke does not speak of poverty “of spirit” but simply of those who are “poor” (cf. Luke 6:20). In this way, he too invites us to live a plain and austere life. He calls us to share in the life of those most in need, the life lived by the Apostles, and ultimately to configure ourselves to Jesus who, though rich, “made himself poor” (2 Corinthians 8:9). Being poor of heart: that is holiness.
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth”
These are strong words in a world that from the beginning has been a place of conflict, disputes and enmity on all sides, where we constantly pigeonhole others on the basis of their ideas, their customs and even their way of speaking or dressing. Ultimately, it is the reign of pride and vanity, where each person thinks he or she has the right to dominate others. Nonetheless, impossible as it may seem, Jesus proposes a different way of doing things: the way of meekness. This is what we see him doing with his disciples. It is what we contemplate on his entrance to Jerusalem: “Behold, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey” (Matthew 21:5; Zechariah 9:9).
Christ says: “Learn from me; for I am gentle and humble of heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:29). If we are constantly upset and impatient with others, we will end up drained and weary. But if we regard the faults and limitations of others with tenderness and meekness, without an air of superiority, we can actually help them and stop wasting our energy on useless complaining. Saint Thérèse of Lisieux tells us that “perfect charity consists in putting up with others’ mistakes, and not being scandalized by their faults”.
Paul speaks of meekness as one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit (cf. Galatians 5:23). He suggests that, if a wrongful action of one of our brothers or sisters troubles us, we should try to correct them, but “with a spirit of meekness”, since “you too could be tempted” (Galatians 6:1). Even when we defend our faith and convictions, we are to do so “with meekness” (cf. 1 Peter 3:16). Our enemies too are to be treated “with meekness” (2 Timothy 2:25). In the Church we have often erred by not embracing this demand of God’s word.
Meekness is yet another expression of the interior poverty of those who put their trust in God alone. Indeed, in the Bible the same word – anawim – usually refers both to the poor and to the meek. Someone might object: “If I am that meek, they will think that I am an idiot, a fool or a weakling”. At times they may, but so be it. It is always better to be meek, for then our deepest desires will be fulfilled. The meek “shall inherit the earth”, for they will see God’s promises accomplished in their lives. In every situation, the meek put their hope in the Lord, and those who hope for him shall possess the land… and enjoy the fullness of peace (cf. Psalm 37:9.11). For his part, the Lord trusts in them: “This is the one to whom I will look, to the humble and contrite in spirit, who trembles at my word” (Isaiah 66:2). Reacting with meekness and humility: that is holiness.