Much has been and will be written about the Holy Father’s latest teaching in his Apostolic Exhortation, Gaudete et Exsultate. Some have latched onto it as an opportunity to bash their perceived opponents in the Church. One writer felt compelled to rush a tweet gleefully proclaiming certain passages as “taking aim” at particular Catholics with whom the well-known tweeter obviously has problems. Others have used the words of the exhortation to support their pet political agendas.
Witness the headlines of major news organizations, which quickly latched on to the seeming moral equivalency posited by His Holiness between opposition for abortion and support for immigration. Considerable ink will be spilled and or electronic bytes consumed in the coming weeks and months trying to parse the Holy Father’s words as to whether a) the Holy Father meant to posit such an equivalency and b) whether such an equivalency does in fact exist.
St. Theresa of Avila once advised, “Let nothing disturb you.” The blessed Doctor would undoubtedly be frantically reasserting this counsel during this stormy pontificate.
There is one thing, though, about Gaudete et Exsultate which has left this simple layman scratching his head – the fact that in a 22,000-word document that reissues the Church’s millennia-long call to holiness in the faithful, relatively little attention is paid to the primary means to obtain holiness: the sacraments.
The Eucharist is mentioned only five times and doesn’t make its first appearance until paragraph 110, roughly two-thirds of the way through. Similarly, Reconciliation (Confession) is mentioned only six times, also making its first appearance alongside the Eucharist in paragraph 110. In a document written as an exhortation to a holiness that expresses itself in mission, it seems strange to give such short shrift to the means to attain the holiness – the grace – to carry out that mission.
His Holiness forthrightly recognizes the importance of the sacraments when he declares, “The Lord has bestowed on the Church the gifts of scripture, the sacraments, holy places, living communities. . .a multifaceted beauty that proceeds from God’s love.” Yet he argues, “I will not pause to explain the means of sanctification already known to us: the various methods of prayer, the inestimable sacraments of the Eucharist and Reconciliation, the offering of personal sacrifices, different forms of devotion.”
But is this true? Are the inestimable means of sanctification – Eucharist and Confession – truly “already known,” even to those who profess to be Catholic?
The statistics are well known, dreary, yet bear repeating, here. According to Georgetown University’s, Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), weekly mass attendance in 2017 in the United States stood at only 23 percent. Even worse, again as reported by CARA, only 2 percent of all American Catholics reported going to Confession at least once a month, while fully 75 percent say they go to Confession less than once a year. Or never.
So, no, I’m not at all certain we can assume, as the Holy Father does, that the normative, most efficacious means for sanctification are “well-known.” I’m not sure an exhortation that exuberantly and eloquently calls, as this one does, for a renewed zeal for mission and community will bear the hoped-for fruit absent the infusion of grace to be found only in the sacraments.
St. Augustine taught us that, “The confession of evil works is the first beginning of good works.” Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, beautifully reiterating the theology of St. Paul observed that, “In the Eucharist a communion takes place that corresponds to the union of man and woman in marriage. Just as they become ‘one flesh,’ so in Communion we all become ‘one spirit,’ one person, with Christ.” Put simply, Confession and Eucharist are the necessary predicates for the Mission and Community to which Gaudete et Exsultate so forcefully calls us.
The Holy Father mentions the centrality of “grace” almost forty times in his exhortation, yet only links “grace” to sacrament – the normative source of grace – once. And then only to the grace received in Baptism. Even his most complete treatment of the Holy Eucharist [n.157] only hints at the centrality of the Most Blessed Sacrament to Mission and Community: “When we receive him in Holy Communion, we renew our covenant with him and allow him to carry out ever more fully his work of transforming our lives.”
Not that long ago the Church held an ecumenical council, the primary results of which were: a) to reassert the “universal call to holiness” (as does the Holy Father in this latest exhortation) and b) to exalt, once again, the Holy Eucharist as “the source and summit of the Faith.” Vatican II clearly saw the two are linked.
All of the things to which His Holiness exhorts us – “small gestures” of holiness, lives lived in beatitude, the battle against the devil, discernment, etc. – can only efficaciously be accomplished and bear fruit with the graces obtained in the Blessed Sacrament and, by extension, the other sacraments.
There are other charitable institutions and other philosophies based upon and possessing natural virtues. What raises the Church up, what differentiates Her from, all other human endeavors is this Gift, this gift of the Body, Blood, Soul and, Divinity of Our Lord Jesus Christ and the share in God’s life, the grace, which comes with it. It’s the most precious gift She offers to the world.
Thus, I find it curious so little attention is paid in His Holiness’s exhortation to the pivotal role played by the sacraments in attaining holiness. Indeed, to attempt holiness without them would be, well, to flirt with neo-Pelagianism, wouldn’t it?
*Image: The Savior with the Eucharist (El Salvador con la Eucaristía) by Juan de Juanes, c. 1550 [Museo del Prado, Madrid]