God is in the details

God is in the details
Lots of small, kind gestures make saints, writes David Quinn


A few weeks ago during a chat with a renowned Italian journalist, the Pope seemed to call the existence of Hell into doubt, or so it was reported. The journalist, Eugenio Scalfari (94), is founder of the traditionally anti-clerical newspaper, La Repubblica. Pope Francis has granted several interviews to Scalfari and afterwards always Scalfari reports something sensational. The Vatican then has to state that Scalfari – an atheist – is not accurately quoting the Pope.

In any event, this time Scalfari has the Pope doubting whether Hell exists. He has the Pope saying that the souls of unrepentant sinners simply ‘disappear’. This, would, of course, contradict the words of Christ himself who emphatically confirmed the existence of Hell. This is why the Vatican had to say that Scalfari’s account of the interview is not to be taken literally.

A new papal document released on Monday shows that the Pope certainly believes in the existence of the Devil. The document, an Apostolic Exhortation, is called Gaudete et Exsultate (‘Rejoice and Be Glad’). It is essentially a call to holiness.

Pope Francis has repeatedly spoken about the Devil. Contrary to his soft reputation, he speaks about the Devil far more than the average priest or bishop.


In his new Exhortation, he describes the spiritual life as “a constant struggle against the Devil, the prince of evil”.

He speaks of him as “a personal being who assails us”.

He says, “we should not think of the devil as a myth, a representation, a symbol, a figure of speech or an idea”, adding that “this mistake would lead us to let down our guard”, allowing the Devil to “destroy our lives, our families and our communities”. And, Francis might have added, the Church itself.

He tells us how to fight the Devil. He says we “can count on the powerful weapons that the Lord has given us: faith-filled prayer, meditation on the word of God, the celebration of Mass, Eucharistic adoration, sacramental Reconciliation, works of charity, community life, missionary outreach”.

As mentioned, we rarely hear any of this kind of thing from many of our clergy today. They do not warn us that the spiritual life is also a battle, a battle we can lose, and will lose without the grace of God. Maybe this causes us to lower our guard in the way the Pope warns against?

For the most part, though, the purpose of Gaudete et Exsultate is to tell ordinary Catholics that we can all be holy, that holiness is not something only a special elite consisting almost entirely of priests and religious can achieve.

In his typical, down-to-earth style, Francis gives us examples of the sort of very ordinary, day-to-day things any one of us can do on the path to holiness.

He says: “This holiness to which the Lord calls you will grow through small gestures. Here is an example: a woman goes shopping, she meets a neighbour and they begin to speak, and the gossip starts. But she says in her heart: ‘No, I will not speak badly of anyone’. This is a step forward in holiness. Later, at home, one of her children wants to talk to her about his hopes and dreams, and even though she is tired, she sits down and listens with patience and love. That is another sacrifice that brings holiness. Later she experiences some anxiety, but recalling the love of the Virgin Mary, she takes her rosary and prays with faith. Yet another path of holiness. Later still, she goes out onto the street, encounters a poor person and stops to say a kind word to him. One more step.”

The document is also full of his usual impatience with people who try to turn the Faith into an intellectual superstructure, out of reach of the comprehension of ordinary people, something only a handful can understand. He calls these people ‘gnostics’. They put knowledge first. ‘Gnostic’ comes from the Greek word ‘gnosis’, meaning ‘knowledge’.

He also has hard words for those he calls ‘pelagians’, who think they can be saved through their own will and their own efforts. Pelagius was an early Church heretic who believed we did not need the grace of God to be saved.

Here again, he condemns a spiritual elitism that seems to discount ordinary people and puts holiness beyond their reach.

The Pope says: “This [new Pelagianism] finds expression in a variety of apparently unconnected ways of thinking and acting: an obsession with the law, an absorption with social and political advantages, a punctilious concern for the Church’s liturgy, doctrine and prestige, a vanity about the ability to manage practical matters, and an excessive concern with programmes of self-help and personal fulfilment.”

Here he slams legalists, but he also slams those who seem obsessed with the latest New Age spiritual technique. (Does he mean the likes of the Enneagram?)

Sometimes when reading Pope Francis, it’s hard to escape the impression that he is reacting against the excessively clerical and authoritarian Church of his youth in Argentina. He would have found the same thing here in Ireland.

There is lots of clericalism still around today, but almost all of the authoritarianism of the past is gone and has been replaced by a very soft, unchallenging type of religiosity that seems to dispense with almost all law. Laxism has taken over from legalism.

That said, Gaudete et Excultate contains much of Pope Francis at his best. A dominant theme of his papacy is that ordinary Christians can be spiritual heroes in their ordinary day-to-day lives. Holiness is not something that can be obtained only by special people. Ordinary people can become saints through the “small gestures” he lists. Add lots of those together and you have a saint, and that saint could well be your own mother or father. Or you, for that matter.

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