Three adult children of a recently deceased woman were sitting with me planning the funeral. As we looked at options for the Gospel reading for the Mass, one daughter suggested the first option, the beatitudes in Chapter 5 of Matthew’s Gospel.
When I asked her what the reading meant to her, she said she just liked it. It had a nice sound to it. And she was pretty sure her mother liked it, too.
That conversation reflects a common response to the beatitudes. People are attracted to these statements of “Blessed are …” even though they can’t always say why. This is both helpful and challenging.
The good aspect of this simple attraction is that people intuitively feel the goodness of these boldly countercultural statements spoken by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. The challenge comes when we look beneath the words and see the call to refocus human values.
In his exhortation on the call to holiness in today’s world, “Gaudete et Exsultate” (“Rejoice and Be Glad”), Pope Francis asks people to go beyond the poetry found in the beatitudes. They can summarize the way to live in holiness, but they also have to be taken boldly to heart.
Perhaps it is the first beatitude that is most controversial, the one that reminds listeners they are blessed when poor in spirit. The pope addresses wealth and asks questions about security. As Jesus calls people to find their security not in wealth and riches, then those people can be poor at heart, thus leaving room for God.
In the same vein, Pope Francis addresses the next beatitude, “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the land.” As the rich get richer and people in power tend to accumulate more power, meekness has become synonymous with foolishness. Why would anyone want to be meek?
With these two beatitudes in mind and conscious that this exhortation is calling all people to holiness, people of good will have to address the challenges of the contemporary world. Holiness is more than pietistic fervor; it is true identity with the suffering and weakest of society.
Holiness comes as people respond to immigrants from Central America seeking political protection in the United States or Syrian refugees hoping to live safely away from violence. Such examples put flesh on these holy words reminding us that they are not mere poetry.
The next few paragraphs of the exhortation focus on those who mourn, those who hunger for justice and those who are merciful. In each case, Pope Francis sees these as calls to empathize with the suffering of the world.
Clearly the pope understands and feels the pain of those who struggle. Both having an openness of heart and then responding to people’s needs create the climate for holiness.
Through these and the final three beatitudes, Pope Francis asks all people of conscience to heed Jesus’ own words. He is challenging people to stand against false claims of happiness given by society and find true happiness in true holiness.
Father Weber is the founding pastor of St. John XXIII Parish in Perrysburg, Ohio.
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