“Fear not” and its synonym “Do not be afraid” are the most common command in the Bible. This starts in Genesis, when God tells the patriarch, “Fear not, Abram! I am your shield; I will make your reward very great,” and on to the prophet Josua, who says “Do not be afraid, do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.”
Those words are among the first bits of dialog we get in the New Testament: In the Gospel of Mark, the angel tells Joseph to not be afraid to take Mary into his house; in Luke, first Zechariah is to not be afraid because his prayer has been heard; then Gabriel tells Mary, “Do not be afraid, for you have found favor with God.” Jesus himself comforted the apostles by telling them to take courage, to not let their hearts be troubled, to let tomorrow worry about itself.
And now here comes Pope Francis with his own admonition to not be afraid; in this case he encourages us to not fear holiness. “It will take away none of your energy, vitality or joy,” he writes in his new apostolic exhortation, “Gaudete et Exsultate” (“Rejoice and Be Glad.”)
To this list, I’ll add my encouragement, but in a more earthly matter. I’ll say, “Don’t be afraid to pick up this latest missive from Pope Francis. It’s eminently readable. It’s not a theological text or an academic paper. In fact, the Holy Father makes it clear that it ‘is not meant to be a treatise on holiness, containing definitions and distinctions helpful for understanding this important subject, or a discussion of the various means of sanctification. My modest goal is to repropose the call to holiness in a practical way for our own time, with all its risks, challenges and opportunities.’”
Pope Francis writes in an engaging manner, eschewing what my grandfather might have called “25-cent words.” “Gaudete et Exsultate” is meant to be read, not by academics and theologians (although they might well benefit), but by you and me, the Catholics in the pews.
Even the length of the exhortation is approachable – at 177 paragraphs it’s about the length of a short story.
All of this makes an easy read, but this is a text to be “chewed and digested thoroughly,” not tasted or devoured, to paraphrase Sir Francis Bacon.
The exhortation was published on Monday, and I did a quick read-through, intending to give a synopsis for this column. That’s not going to be possible; like everything else I’ve read from Pope Francis, once I get going I can’t condense him into just a few words. On the landing page of this site you’ll find a link to a collection of selected quotes from “Gaudete et Exsultate,” so I won’t repeat that effort. Rather, I’ll mention just two reasons why I’m going to spend the next couple of weeks studying this in depth.
The first reason is that Pope Francis makes it clear that each of us is “called to be holy by living our lives with love and by bearing witness in everything we do, wherever we find ourselves.” He acknowledges that this is a difficult path, and offers this advice: “When you feel the temptation to dwell on your own weakness, raise your eyes to Christ crucified and say, ‘Lord, I am a poor sinner, but you can work the miracle of making me a little bit better.’”
Isn’t that a beautiful prayer? I’ve said it three times already today, and it does make me feel a little bit better, which is all I need at this moment to continue on.
Pope Francis quotes a number of saints and theologians whom I’m going to have to follow up on, but the other reason I want to re-read and read again this exhortation is that he gives very practical advice on how to grow in holiness. The prayer I just referenced is but one example; he also speaks of spiritual combat, vigilance and discernment.
Will I ever be a saint? Probably not on the scale of Mother Teresa of Calcutta or Joan of Arc, but by following Pope Francis’ advice in his exhortation and with the grace of God perhaps one day I’ll be able to join those who have gone before, marked with the sign of faith.
Marie Mischel is editor of the Intermountain Catholic.