Commentary

The call to holiness is universal

Originally Appeared in : 9809-4/26/18

“Rejoice and be glad!
Blessed are you, holy are you!
Rejoice and be glad!
Yours is the Kingdom of God!”

 

The refrain of David Haas’ “Blest Are They,” cited above, is hauntingly beautiful, especially when sung with its descant. The refrain is taken from the Gospel according to Matthew, chapter 5, verse 12, in which Jesus Christ concludes his Beatitudes with these words, adding “Thus they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

 

In 2015, Pope Francis gave the pilgrims attending his audience in St. Peter’s Square this homework assignment: “Today, your task is to read the fifth chapter of Matthew where the Beatitudes are, and also to read the 25th chapter where the questions are that we will be asked on judgment day.” In this column, we will ponder the Beatitudes which begin the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), as a key to understanding the Lord’s most famous sermon and to gain an insight as to why Pope Francis has released an Apostolic Exhortation entitled, Gaudete et Exsultate, “Rejoice and Be Glad,” taken from Matthew 5:12.

 

Pope Francis notes that, “In these Beatitudes, Jesus explained with great simplicity what it means to be holy: living simply, putting God first, trusting him and not earthly wealth or power, being humble, mourning with and consoling others, being merciful and forgiving, working for justice in seeking peace with all.”

 

What is so striking about the Beatitudes of Jesus is that they are so contrary to what his audience of first-century Galileans would have expected. Instead of “happy are the rich, the gifted,” they heard, “happy are the poor (in spirit),” instead of “happy are those who rejoice,” we hear “happy are those who mourn”—happy the sad?!? Instead of “happy the mighty,” we hear “happy the meek”; instead of “happy are those who are filled with righteousness,” we hear “happy are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness”—because they do not have or experience righteousness in this life.

 

Indeed, the first four Beatitudes in Matthew 5 are profound and may disturb us, because they define who is eligible for the kingdom of heaven, not on the basis of their strengths, but rather on the basis of their human deficiencies and weaknesses—the void within us that God alone can fill. These beatitudes challenge us to look at ourselves very differently from the ways in which we usually do or prefer to do in our culture today—to ask ourselves, “ How or in what way am I impoverished” instead of “How much do I have ?”; to ask, “Do I know how to mourn my losses—or have I become adept at denying them?”; to recognize our lowliness especially before God, rather than to bolster our “self-esteem”; to confess our lack of moral uprightness, rather than to deny it—in short, to acknowledge and embrace our need for God’s grace, our inability to save ourselves.

 

The second set of four Beatitudes in Matthew 5 challenge us to let his grace transform us into those who show mercy, into people of integrity (“the pure of heart”), into peace makers and into those who accept the persecution that inevitably comes with discipleship. The reward for living the life of a disciple is nothing less than being happy (blessed) in the kingdom of heaven for all eternity as the holy children of God.

 

To put a face on the holy blessedness, Pope Saint John Paul II declared “blessed” a remarkable young man, Pier Giorgio Frassati (1901-25), the son of the founder of the great Italian newspaper, La Stampa. Pier Giorgio was a joyful young man, wealthy, athletic and handsome, who was known for his gift for friendship and fun. He liked to smoke cheroots and to climb mountains with his friends, always urging them “Verso l’alto” (“to the top”). Unlike his family, Pier Giorgio was a devout Catholic, who attended daily Mass and adoration and had been deeply moved by Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical, Rerum Novarum, which opened his eyes to the needs of the poor. Because he had a handsome allowance, Pier Giorgio gave as much of it to the poor as he could, unbeknownst to his family. His words and example had a profound effect in his native Turin. When he died at the age of 24 of polio, 20,000 people showed up for his funeral, to his family’s amazement. Sixty-five years later, on May 20, 1990, Pope John Paul beatified Pier Giorgio Frassati, calling him the “Man of the Eight Beatitudes.”

 

Blessed Pier Giorgio once wrote, “A Catholic cannot help but be happy; sadness should be banished from their souls. Suffering is not sadness, which is the worst disease. This disease is almost always caused by atheism, but the end for which we are created guides us along life’s pathway, which may be strewn with thorns, but is not sad. It is happy even through suffering.”

 

This young Italian man, whose life seems to us to have been cut short in a tragic way, exemplified the holiness preached by Jesus Christ, who is holiness incarnate. A layman and third-order Dominican, Pier Giogio lived in the world and not apart from it, and in his own way walked in the footsteps of the Master, verso l’alto. The Church reminds us, not least in Gaudete et Exsultate, that we are all called to do likewise, for God’s call to holiness and blessedness is universal.

 

Father Douglas K. Clark is pastor of St. Matthew Church in Statesboro.

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