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In ‘Gaudete et exsultate,’ Francis calls us on journey of ‘small holiness’

For many Catholics, admitting that “I’m no saint” is a default position, particularly in comparison to those canonised holy women and men who surround us physically and verbally in our churches.

Vatican II changed that. While in its earliest drafts the material in Chapter 5 of Lumen Gentium on “The Universal Call to Holiness” was written for a chapter on religious life, the final version proclaimed that “it is therefore quite clear that all Christians in any state or walk of life are called to fullness of Christian life and to the perfection of love” (40) and that “therefore all the faithful are invited and obliged to holiness” (42).

So why did Francis see the need to “re-propose” this teaching?

First, it seems to be that old habits die hard, particularly if those habits of thought and expectation not only elevate the saints high above our level, but also get us off the hook for not claiming the full vocation to holiness that Lumen Gentium and Gaudete et Exsultate both suggest. “Avoiding sin” is a much easier way of living one’s baptismal life without as much bother.

But even if the call for holiness has been extended beyond the ranks of the clergy and religious, the dominance of the canonised, paradigmatic saints has continued.

This is where Francis’ invocation of “the saints next door” seems so crucial to our growth in understanding the universal call to holiness. The letter highlights all the anonymous women and men who live lives of quiet holiness, and in so doing challenges our expectation that all sanctity is as public and heroic as that of the canonised saints.

Francis underlines the reality of sanctity as a journey, as something experienced as an adventure of a thousand steps rather than as a completed accomplishment. “Lord, I am a poor sinner, but you can work the miracle of making me a little better,” he invites us to pray, calling us toward a holiness not of monumental heroism but of small gestures and small details.

The call to holiness that Pope Francis re-proposes in the beautiful second-person singular spiritual direction of the first chapter is a holiness rooted in Franciscan minoritas, in becoming small and embracing the God who became small for our sake. Such a “small holiness” that can be found next door and that grows in small gestures like yeast in a loaf or a mustard seed in a field seems to me to be radical “innovation,” the “making new,” of Francis’ teaching here. – Brian Flanagan @ NCR 

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