The Second Vatican Council made a radical step in reminding the Catholic faithful that holiness is the striving and goal of everyone, not just priests and nuns: “Therefore in the Church, everyone whether belonging to the hierarchy, or being cared for by it, is called to holiness, according to the saying of the Apostle: ‘For this is the will of God, your sanctification’” (1 Thes 4:3) (39, Lumen Gentium). Pope Francis’ new Apostolic Exhortation Gaudete et Exsultate (Rejoice and Be Glad) is a timely reminder of this universal call to holiness in a world where the forces of secularism have pushed God more and more to the fringes of life.
Holiness has enemies; one of these is gnosticism, as the pope rightly notes. It is alive and well today. In its various forms, gnosticism is anti-body and anti-world. Gnostics believe matter is evil and the flesh cannot be trusted. In fact, a misunderstanding of scripture has always been used to support the gnostic agenda as in John 6:63—“The spirit gives life; the flesh has nothing to offer”. This led to a false understanding of holiness, and sex was the first victim. It endured in our teaching on marriage for centuries: sex between husband and wife was viewed as at least venially sinful. This mentality also prized priesthood and religious life as the superior path to holiness: marriage and family life was left for those who ‘couldn’t make’.
Thankfully, modern reflections on the humanity of Christ (incarnation) as well as John Paul II’s nuptial theology of the body have significantly reversed things. There is a fresh appreciation of marriage and family life as well as the bodiliness of Jesus. He grew hungry and thirsty; He felt tired; He had to deal with his own sexuality—a point scripture is moot on—He craved company; wept; suffered and underwent the finality of all humans, death. Pope Francis is keenly aware of the bodiliness of holiness for he says he likes “to contemplate the holiness present in the patience of God’s people: in those parents who raise their children with immense love, in those men and women who work hard to support their families, in the sick, in elderly religious who never lose their smile” (7, Gaudete et Exsultate).
Caring for the bodies of others is part of holiness too: “Our defense of the innocent unborn, for example, needs to be clear, firm and passionate for at stake is the dignity of a human life, which is always sacred,” the pope wrote. “Equally sacred, however, are the lives of the poor, those already born, the destitute, the abandoned and the underprivileged, the vulnerable infirm and elderly exposed to covert euthanasia” (101, Gaudete et Exsultate).
Curiously, the pope promulgated this apostolic exhortation on March 19, Solemnity of St Joseph. It is therefore a golden opportunity for men to reflect on holiness—single men and single fathers, married men, divorced and separated men. Men and women are equal, but they experience holiness differently because their bodies are not the same. Men must recognise holiness is not a woman’s thing. They, too, are equally called to profound holiness.