In this week’s discussion, communications manager David Hazen interviews Archbishop George J. Lucas about Pope Francis’ new apostolic exhortation, “Gaudete et Exsultate” (“Rejoice and Be Glad”). Archbishop Lucas urges everyone to read the document and to meditate on it, as in it the pope treats in a very accessible way the primary vocation of every Christian, the invitation to spiritual perfection in imitation of Christ.
Q: Pope Francis recently issued “Gaudete et Exsultate,” an apostolic exhortation. Could you explain to us the purpose of this type of papal document?
The apostolic exhortation is an important form of papal teaching. It is a bit less formal than a papal encyclical. It does not announce new doctrine or new practices in the church, but it amplifies some part of our tradition. The pope uses exhortations to call our attention to a particular part of church life or a teaching that is important for us in our current culture.
Q: What context do you think would be most helpful to the faithful as they read this exhortation?
First, I would encourage people to really read it. Lots of people have thoughts and comments about Pope Francis, but my encouragement is always to let Francis be Francis. I think he writes in a style that is easily accessible; he uses a lot of down-to-earth language and examples. An exhortation is a form of encouragement, and here the pope is encouraging us to respond to the universal call to holiness. That call was issued very clearly in the Second Vatican Council, and it has been part of the life of the church from the very beginning.
As we read the exhortation, I encourage us all to think that the pope is talking to us – that he has something to say to each of us, individually. He speaks about the universal call to holiness which is, of course, not a call to a herd of people but an invitation to each of us in particular. To read it and to meditate on it in this light I think would be an opportunity for rich reflection for any of us.
Q: Pope Francis points out attitudes that are obstacles to holiness, giving particular attention to two heresies: Gnosticism and Pelagianism. Can you help us understand these heresies and how we might be tempted to fall into them?
Heresies are falsehoods – false teachings or false ways of living – and we can look at their content as temptations. As with every temptation, they pull us away from the firm foundation of faith as we attempt to take control of things ourselves. That kind of temptation has been present since the beginning of human history. So the pope dusts off the titles of these ancient heresies, which are not familiar to most people, but which have existed at various times in the church.
Gnosticism has to do in general with the idea that I can figure out all the answers to life in this world and the next, that I am able to claim God’s favor by knowing enough.
Our faith always seeks understanding. A beautiful part of our Catholic faith is that it is not unreasonable, and we can learn more about it. However, it is a lie to think that we can figure out and circumscribe God because we have a certain amount of understanding. This is not uncommon in our culture, following the Enlightenment. We have this sense that we can analyze everything, pick it apart, understand it, put it back together and control it.
We do not achieve holiness by having a particular set of questions answered or a secret knowledge that sets us apart from other people. We ultimately kneel before the mystery, which is God’s love for us in Jesus Christ. God is not hiding from us. God wants to be understood. The coming of Jesus among us is the proof of that. God is very accessible to us, in Jesus and through the Holy Spirit living in and acting in us.
The other heresy that the pope reminds us of is in some ways more common. The Pelagian notion is that by our good works we can earn salvation. It is a falsehood that presumes to make salvation and growth in holiness our own project. It distracts us from the truth that it is God’s initiative, God’s design that we are invited into, in and through Jesus.
These temptations have been known in other ages and the pope points them out now because he sees people in his pastoral experience who, in a sense, sell themselves short and deprive themselves of the fullness of life in Christ.
Q: The pope devotes much of the exhortation to describing several of the spiritual attitudes shared by holy people, giving numerous examples from the lives of canonized saints. How do you think his presentation of saintliness can help us mature in faith?
He is inviting us to think that we know people like that. Nobody embodies holiness perfectly, but we do know people who exhibit those characteristics. They are family members or co-workers, members of our parish, people that we see from a distance; but they all show us that holiness is possible in our time and place. The saints have their feet on the ground, and besides the Blessed Mother, they have all had the experience of being sinners first, needing to rely on the grace and the mercy of God. They have grown from their broken, sinful condition into a fuller experience of what it means to be human, in relationship with Jesus Christ.
The pope is in various ways encouraging us to look around and see that we are in communion with the women and men who have been canonized saints. We are part of the family with them. We venerate them now as those who are united with God in heaven, but they were just like us in various ways at some point.
We also see saints in the making, around us, who exhibit these characteristics that the pope describes. He is inviting us to become part of that company, to be part of that number when the saints come marching in. If we go to the Lord and invite him to reveal to us how he plans for us to experience sanctity – to exhibit sainthood – throughout the day, he will put people in our path and give us the opportunities we need.