Happiness or Holiness?

(This is the third treatment of Pope Francis’ Gaudete et Exultate)

Happiness or Holiness?

This week's reflection is written by
Mr. Joseph McDaniel, OSFS, seminarian.

In the third chapter of his Apostolic Exhortation, Gaudete et Exsultate, Pope Francis seeks to address the perennial question of what constitutes human happiness “in the light of the master.” He begins by addressing the false dichotomy people often draw between happiness and holiness, one with which Francis de Sales dealt in his own time.


Especially with the subtle influence of Calvinist spirituality in the air, many Catholics in Francis de Sales’ day envisioned holiness as a kind of defensive retreat, with an attitude of forlorn disdain of anything to do with “the world.” Just as Francis de Sales once reminded, “a sad saint is a sorry saint,” Pope Francis similarly warned in his previous Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, against becoming “querulous and disillusioned pessimists, ‘sourpusses’” (EG 85).

For Francis de Sales, holiness or devotion was not some implacable burden to be carried, but a “spiritual agility and vivacity by which charity works in us.” (IDL I.1). In like terms, Pope Francis reminds us that “the word ‘happy’ or ‘blessed’ thus becomes a synonym for ‘holy.’ It expresses the fact that those faithful to God and his word, by their self-giving, gain true happiness” (GE 64).


“Rejoice and be glad,” the first words of the Pope’s exhortation, summarize the whole of what Christian holiness is meant to be about. He takes this proclamation from the Beatitudes, which Francis calls “a Christian’s identity card” and uses as a starting point for his reflections in this chapter.

Lest holiness, and therefore happiness, be misconstrued in the opposite direction as leading to a univocally pleasurable and carefree lifestyle, Pope Francis also reminds us that “although Jesus’ words may strike us as poetic, they clearly run counter to the way things are usually done in our world. Even if we find Jesus’ message attractive, the world pushes us towards another way of living. The Beatitudes are in no way trite or undemanding, quite the opposite. We can only practice them if the Holy Spirit fills us with this power and frees us from our weakness, our selfishness, our complacency and our pride” (65). In other words, holiness also sometimes demands “going against the flow” (65).

In particular, Pope Francis warns against the idea that “entertainment, pleasure, diversion and escape make for the good life” (75). Happiness is not meant to be a self-enclosed freedom from any cares about the world around us, but rather it is meant to be the use of our freedom for sharing our own joy as Christians with the entire human family.

This is why Francis so strongly echoes Jesus’ call to pay attention to those who are poor among us, to “share in the life of those most in need” (70). This call of solidarity is meant to shake us from a complacent sense of security, and to challenge us to “ultimately to configure ourselves to Jesus who, though rich, ‘made himself poor’” (70). Holiness is not a passive state meant to make us feel comfortable; it is a call to action.

For Francis, this is epitomized by Jesus’ clear statement of his expectations for his disciples in Matthew 25, where Jesus unequivocally lays down the feeding of the hungry and the thirsty, the welcoming of the stranger, the clothing of the naked, the caring of the sick, and the visiting of the prisoner as non-negotiables of the Christian life. Therefore, “holiness, then, is not about swooning in mystic rapture” (96). Quoting St. John Paul II, Pope Francis states that true contemplation means seeing Christ “especially in the faces of those with whom [Christ] himself wished to be identified” (96) and that “the best way to discern if our prayer is authentic is to judge to what extent our life is being transformed in the light of mercy” (105).

In identifying the heart of contemplation as being by its very nature oriented towards action that builds up the Kingdom of God, Pope Francis parallels the simultaneously erudite and practical reflections on the nature of contemplation undertaken by Francis de Sales in his Treatise on the Love of God. Living in a period where ecstatic supernatural experiences of consciousness were taken as a sign of holiness, Francis de Sales was careful to remind his contemporaries, and us, that true prayer is Incarnational in nature. In other words, it ultimately must “take flesh” in the everydayness of life.

For Francis de Sales, true ecstasy, going beyond oneself, does not consist in entering some other-worldly state of mind; in fact, he warned that such experiences can often be “doubtful and dangerous” (TLG VII.2). Instead, it consists of putting aside one’s egoistic tendencies and self-centeredness, and living one’s life in a way that one can honestly say, with St. Paul, that “Christ lives in me.”

Pope Francis concludes his reflections in Chapter 3 by identifying this prayer-in-action as constituting a true act of worship pleasing to God. While we often divide worship and action into two separate realms, Pope Francis reminds us that they can never be separated. Without being grounded in prayerful relationship with God, “Christianity thus becomes a sort of NGO stripped of the luminous mysticism so evident in the lives of St. Francis of Assisi, St. Vincent de Paul, St. Teresa of Calcutta, and many others” (100). On the other hand, Francis censures as a “harmful ideological error” the notion that social engagement is “superficial, worldly, secular, materialist, communist, or populist” (101).

This unity between worship and action forms the heart of the reading of Salesian Spirituality so dear to Oblate founder Blessed Louis Brisson. In bequeathing the Spiritual Directory of St. Francis de Sales to the Oblates, Brisson in particular emphasized the centrality of the Direction of Intention. In this, the key to Oblate identity is found. The word Oblate means “offering,” which constitutes an act of worship. We offer each of our actions to God, but more significantly, it is our very selves who are offered in each action, so that we ourselves become the offering.

When we offer something to God, we recognize that anything we offer to God was first offered by God to us as gift: all we have is gift, and we ourselves are gift. We recognize this by opening ourselves to God and others in the gentle and humble spirit pervading the spirituality of Francis de Sales and Pope Francis’ recent exhortation, and by recognizing the signs of God’s presence in the world. It is to these signs that Pope Francis turns our attention in his fourth chapter of Gaudete et Exsultate.