Africa And ‘Gaudete et Exsultate’: In Search For Holiness

Pope Francis has written a new Apostolic Exhortation on “the call to holiness in Today’s World”. The Latin title “Gaudete et Exsultate” which translated into English means “Rejoice and Be Glad.” The words are taken from the Gospel of Matthew (5:12) at the end of the discourse on the Beatitudes.

According to Pope Francis, humanity in its entirety is called to holiness and holiness can be found all around us. These include homes, industries, offices, boardrooms, places of entertainment, and so on. Holiness is found wherever there is love, because “holiness is nothing other than charity lived to the full” (21). And it is gifted to all kinds of men and women, despite each one’s human foibles – “Not everything a saint says is completely faithful to the Gospel; not everything he or she does is authentic or perfect”, the Pope specifies in this respect. Rather, “What we need to contemplate is the totality of their life, their entire journey of growth in holiness, the reflection of Jesus Christ that emerges when we grasp their overall meaning as a person” (22). This effort represents the sign and example of godliness.

Sanctity, according to Pope Francis, is really not a matter of what you know or own at any one time “but the kind of life we lead” (47). Sincere dedication to service of the human community in humble obedience to God is what counts; it is what has counted in the vocation to holiness since the beginning of salvation history. The “progressive” group of Catholics in Africa will be pleasantly affirmed by statements of this kind scattered throughout the Exhortation. They essentially replicate the spirit of the Beatitudes. Progressive Catholics will be enlightened and reinvigorated by the Pope’s reflections. They will celebrate the Exhortation as God’s gift through Pope Francis. They will resonate with the document’s spirituality of creative engagement with the world so as to transform it, especially in terms of political, economic and social justice and human rights, so that it might gradually conform to the reign that God intends. For, what God gives us are not rules or commands but “the face of God reflected in so many other faces” of our sisters and brothers.

Pope Francis advances social justice as “The Great Criterion” of holiness. “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me” (95). And he wonders in a rhetorical question, “Can holiness somehow be understood apart from this lively recognition of the dignity of each human being?” (98). And, for him, “each human being” means exactly that: the unborn, the poor, the defenceless, the migrant, the asylum seeker, the helpless elderly, the victim of human trafficking, and so on. This is where both the challenge and the opportunity for holiness are to be found.

As supreme shepherd of the universal Catholic Church, the intention of Pope Francis in this Exhortation is to invite all of the faithful to walk together towards godliness, which is holiness, recognising, appreciating and sympathising with one another’s struggles in community, and holding one another’s hand lest or when they fall. It is only as and in relationships that we can strive to succeed on this earthly pilgrimage. Despite their different initial reactions to the Exhortation, in the long run the hope of Pope Francis applies equally to both groups of people in the African Catholic Church: “It is my hope”, he declares, “that these pages will prove helpful by enabling the whole Church to devote herself anew to promoting the desire for holiness” (177).

However, there will be several – at least five – essential dispositions required of everyone for the journey. They are faith in God, joy, a sense of courage and confidence born of truth, fidelity to the life of one’s community, and perseverance in prayer, that is, a sense of trust in and dependence on God. It is necessary to be aware that these values are constantly threatened in the cultures we live in today by a certain “sense of anxiety, sometimes violent, that distracts and debilitates; negativity and sullenness; the self-content bred by consumerism; individualism; and all those forms of ersatz spirituality – having nothing to do with God – that dominate the current religious marketplace” (111). Pope Francis concludes the Exhortation by affirming that, assisted by the light of the Gospel and the power of the Holy Spirit, it is against these ungodly forces that the entire Church – not least, in our case, the African Catholic Church in all its strands – must wage constant battle.

– Father Laurenti Magesa

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