Catholic Extension was founded in 1905 as a papal society dedicated to serving mission dioceses of the United States. For well over a century, we have sought to advance the mission of the Church among marginalized communities in our country. The publication of Pope Francis’ most recent apostolic exhortation, Gaudete et Exsultate (“Rejoice and be glad”) offers us an opportunity to reflect on how the gospel calls us to renew our efforts at growing as a holy people called to serve others.
The document is subtitled “the call to holiness in today’s world,” and exhorts us to grow in faith both as individuals and as members of a church in service to the world.
“Saints Next Door”
It calls to mind the examples of the canonized saints, but also reminds us of the many “saints next door” who quietly preach the gospel through their actions.
We at Catholic Extension see these kinds of saints regularly. I think of the dozens of men and women who have been nominated for Lumen Christi awards over the past 41 years. Many have spent decades in ministry, often in very difficult conditions. Last year, for example, we learned of the inspiring stories of 45 nominees, including:
- Father John O’Grady, a chaplain at Walter Reed Medical Center, who has spent decades caring for military men and women who have been wounded.
- Sister Carmen Brenes-Álvarez, who has spent 55 years caring for pregnant, homeless, and high-risk teens in Arecibo, Puerto Rico.
- Rubén and Rosario Cano, who spent four years traveling over a hundred miles each month to be trained in lay ministry for their work among mining families in the diocese of Salt Lake City.
There are many, many other stories of saints next door that we see in our work.
The pope reminds us that God calls each of us to the unique holiness that comes from being transparent to his grace. He points to “small everyday things” and paying attention to details in our lives and work. Attention to the small things — acts of love and generosity, care for others — these are places where the risen Lord is present.
Many places in mission dioceses are “small” — they are not corporate boardrooms or even soaring cathedrals. Often, they are parish halls or rented-out spaces for worship. They exist in what some coastal elites might call “flyover country.” Yet like the manger at Bethlehem or the obscure tomb not far from Calvary, they are places where the glory of the Lord shines brightly.
What can prevent us from seeing the glory of the Lord — which the pope explores in a mini-treatise on grace (the word appears 45 times in the document) — are attitudes of mind which block grace.
We all have certain attitudes which can block God’s grace.
One such attitude is a new form of the ancient heresy called Gnosticism: that is, getting trapped by our own clever ideas rather than seeing Christ’s work in the world. The other is a new form of Pelagianism, defined as an overemphasis on our ability to please God through the power of our will. Both, the pope writes, are failures to appreciate that it is God’s grace that moves us to do what is good.
Pope Francis’ conviction that grace is at the root of all that is good in the world is a reminder to us at Catholic Extension that we cooperate in the work of grace — that the good that we do is the fruit not only of our great ideas or hard work, but rather our willingness to harvest the fruits of others’ desire for holiness.
Our donors come from all walks of life all over the country, and it is through grace that they are moved to see the poor in our midst and work together with saints next door to extend the Church’s ministry to those who are easily forgotten.
Being happy means being holy.
The document includes an extended reflection on the Beatitudes, so named because Jesus declares “blessed” or “happy” (beatus in Latin) those who are faithful to God’s desires for the world. According to Pope Francis, being happy means being holy.
Yet this holiness can be unsettling, even challenging, for it can mean seeing the poor and marginalized with new eyes. He points to St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuit order, and his Spiritual Exercises, in which Ignatius describes “holy indifference” as an attitude of the heart rooted in the desire to do God’s will regardless of circumstances.
Francis writes, “a person who sees things as they truly are and sympathizes with pain and sorrow is capable of touching life’s depths and finding authentic happiness.” Being happy means being willing to see injustice for what it is, and to walk with those who suffer it.
Francis points to “the great criterion” described in Matthew’s gospel: namely, the exhortation to reach out to those experiencing hunger, thirst, nakedness, or sickness, and to those in prison in Matthew 25.
Reaching out to “the least” is the key to mercy and happiness.
That theme is at the heart of what drives our work at Catholic Extension, seeking as we do to “awaken the missionary spirit” in the United States, as our founder Francis Clement Kelley described. Being awakened to the mission of the gospel means reaching out to all people who lack a voice: the unborn, the migrant, the destitute, the vulnerable elderly at risk of euthanasia, the victims of trafficking and slavery.
The key to growing in holiness, and to developing a heart for those most needy in our world, is a life of prayer and the practice of discernment. Doing these things, Pope Francis writes, leads us to interior freedom and a joy in living the gospel. It is worth noting that the pope has used the word “joy” (gaudium or laetitia) in the title of four of his major writings, signaling that the Christian life is rooted in the joy of the resurrected Christ.
Catholic Extension sees this joy lived out in the ministries of many people around our country, and so we welcome the pope’s call to share in the path of everyday holiness which sustains our ministry.