By Owen Phelps

Director, Yeshua Institute

If you haven’t guessed it by now, we’re stark raving fans of Pope Francis.

We were ecstatic from the moment we learned he was the first pope ever to take the name of St. Francis of Assisi. Since then, the good news has just kept piling up.

We were thrilled to offer a free study guide of his incredible apostolic exhortation The Joy of the Gospel – and we’re happy to let you know you can still download that guide for free by clicking here.

Over the course of his five-plus years as pope, thanks be to God, Francis has referred to effective leaders as servants, stewards and shepherds. He hasn’t used all three of these metaphors at the same time – not yet. But collectively he has certainly affirmed our S3 Jesus-like Leadership model.

Just this past Sunday, April 22, he told the 16 men he ordained as priests that they should be like Jesus the Good Shepherd in the way they serve members of their spiritual flock and minister to those who are lost and searching for God.

The ordinations coincided with “Good Shepherd Sunday” and marked the 55th World Day of Prayer for Vocations.

Rejoice and be glad

Little more than a month ago he published another apostolic exhortation, Rejoice and Be Glad (Gaudete et Exsultate), “a call to holiness in today’s world.”

My advice: Run, don’t walk, to get and read your copy.

And while you’re waiting for it to arrive, see if you can put together a small group to read and discuss it. Perhaps your parish’s DRE can help with that – or has already taken the initiative.

It’s a short book – only 71 pages -- but one worth taking time to let its message soak in.

Some controversy

As has been the case with many of the things Pope Francis has said or written, his new book has generated some controversy. From what I’ve seen, much of it centers on life issues.

In section 101, he writes: “Our defense of the innocent unborn, for example, needs to be clear, firm and passionate, for at stake is the dignity of human life, which is always sacred and demands love for each person, regardless of his or her stage of development.”

I’d say it’s hard for any Catholic to argue with that. But then he continues:

“Equally sacred, however, are the lives of the poor, those already born, the destitute, the abandoned and the underprivileged, the vulnerable infirm and elderly exposed to covert euthanasia, the victims of human trafficking, new forms of slavery, and every form of rejection.”

It’s the “equally sacred” reference has some people in a huff – and there’s no denying that it has reopened an old wound in the U.S. Catholic community, dating back at least to Cardinal Joseph Bernardin’s 1984 reference to the “seamless garment” of life issues. (The term was actually coined by Eileen Egan, a co-founder of the peace organization Pax Christi, in 1973.)

There were basically two Catholic responses to Bernardin’s “seamless garment” teaching.

  • Some argue that it took the focus off the issue of abortion, which claimed as many as 1.5 million innocent unborn lives each year, and therefore blunted and dissipated opposition to a singular evil in the world.
  • Others argue that if the church’s defense of life was not both comprehensive and consistent across the board, its opposition to abortion would not be regarded as credibly “pro-life.”

It didn’t help that neither political party in the U.S. adopted a consistent ethic of life – and, indeed, many charged that the Democratic Party made support of legalized abortion a litmus test for political candidates who want to be on its ticket.

Holiness and justice

Pope Francis continues in paragraph 101: “We cannot uphold an ideal of holiness that would ignore injustice in a world where some revel, spend with abandon and live only for the latest consumer goods, even as others look on from afar, living their entire lives in abject poverty.”

Catholics who equate holiness with piety won’t find much comfort in that admonition.

In paragraph 102 Pope Francis adds fuel to whatever fire there is raging among Catholics when he adds:

We often hear it said that, with respect to relativism and the flaws of our present world, the situation of migrants, for example, is a lesser issue. Some Catholics consider it a secondary issue compared to the “grave” bioethical questions. That a politician looking for votes might say such a thing is understandable, but not a Christian for whom the only proper attitude is to stand in the shoes of these brothers and sisters of ours who risk their lives to offer a future to their children. Can we not realize that this is exactly what Jesus demands of us, when he tells us that in welcoming the stranger we welcome him (cf. Mt 25:35)?

Beyond the controversy

While surveys make it clear that Catholics in the U.S. are divided on issues like abortion, income disparity and refugees, my hope is that all of us on every side of every issue will eagerly mine Pope Francis’ new teaching for insights about how to better integrate our lives and faith.

The exhortation’s chapter headings more than hint at the rich treasures to be found in it:

  • Chapter 1: The Call to Holiness
  • Chapter  2: Two Subtle Enemies of Holiness
  • Chapter 3: In the Light of the Master
  • Chapter 4: Signs of Holiness in Today’s World
  • Chapter 5: Spiritual Combat, Vigilance and Discernment

Chapter 3, where Pope Francis discusses each of the eight beatitudes, is a special treat.

I can’t say I agree with each and every phrase I read, but I did find many good reasons to “rejoice and be glad” for why I’m alive and why I’m Catholic, as well as many great ideas about how I can shape my values and my life to better reflect and requite the love of my Creator and Father.

Whatever else you discover this brief apostolic exhortation to be, for under $10 it’s an incalculable value.