The Only Tragedy

The latest letter (entitled Gaudete et Exsultate) issued by Pope Francis addressed to us is about becoming holy. As an Apostolic Exhortation, it does not carry any weighty doctrine, but in no way does it mean as insubstantial. The contrary is even truer-it does excite and strongly encourage every soul to act. To become holy, that is. Holiness is an action word. We have to do something, a lot of things. We need to transform everything into becoming Christ-like.

The modest intention of the letter is to reiterate holiness. “To re-propose holiness in a practical way for our own time, with all its risks, challenges and opportunities.” Why is a thing or an instruction is being retold actually? It is repeated when it is not being heeded upon due to stubbornness. It is restated when threats are becoming imminent, like that when one is in a jungle surrounded by raging beasts. Hence, by re-proposing, Pope Francis is actually seeing clear and present dangers in the contemporary world. Could it be that humanity has turned obstinate? And what could be those monsters that could swallow easily every journeying soul of the 21st century? My sense is that we could indeed be progressing in our life and in lifestyle, albeit materially, but we could just be forfeiting our soul to hell. And so, holiness must be called upon once again.

Pope Francis identifies two present-day threats – the subtle errors of Gnosticism and Pelagianism. According to him, they are two heresies from ancient times but still are very present now. Both are culpable of the sin of reduction. Gnosticism reduces Christianity to understanding or knowledge while Pelagianism reduces faith to human moral effort and mere willpower. This could well be described as pharisaical since it certainly engenders the prime kind of sin there is – pride. Knowledge combined with power devoid of modesty is blatant arrogance. “When somebody has an answer to every question, it is a sign that they are not on the right road.”  The antidote to which is humility termed as grace. “We are justified not by our own efforts, but by the grace of the Lord…”

The only way not to devoured by beasts is to counter it. Pope Francis invokes us to “go against the flow”. By so doing, he advises the Eight Beatitudes as the tool to slay the monsters that eat up the soul of humanity. Against consumerism, becoming detached brings freer feeling. Instead of revenge, becoming humble is cool. Rather than being aggressive, becoming gentle is of less stress…  And so on and so forth. At the bottom line, the greatest criterion of holiness is by becoming merciful. It is only in doing something for the sake of others that holiness is made genuine – “give drink to the thirsty, food to the hungry, clothing to the naked, etc.”

Further, Pope Francis explicate several signs of holiness that could already be budding in each person. He does so in a manner that he is facilitating spiritual direction to a student. To wit: holiness is perseverance, patience, sense of humor, passion, and the like. Above and beyond, holiness is exercised well in relationships. Nobody becomes a saint by isolation. Our love for each other is the expression of the God within us. This God within finds its home in the heart that constantly prays.

Finally, Pope Francis appears to pull down holiness as a pie in the sky into the soil of daily human experience. One becomes holy through small gestures. To avoid gossiping is holiness. To sacrifice an hour or two to attend to an elderly is a spark of God’s presence in the family. That after a day’s work one still could manage to smile to an officemate is a token of love. Pope Francis considers all these as holiness “next door”.

In terms of holiness, and life in general, Pope Francis cites the French novelist, Leon Bloy, “The only great tragedy in life is not to become a saint.”

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