When I was a kid I was a huge momma’s boy (note: nothing is wrong with loving your mother). In general, I got along better with adults and, in a very valid attempt to encourage me to have a normal social life, my mother used to regularly tell me to “get a friend.” These days I’m making a podcast about friendship with my some of my best friends and, reflecting on so many stories, I have to say, my mom was right, friends are super important. In fact, Pope Francis agrees! In his new document on the call to holiness in today’s world, he emphasizes, “no one is saved alone.”
Not too long ago, I wrote an article reflecting on the most recent installment in the Star Wars series and what it can teach us about how to find unity in an often divided Church. At the end of the movie our protagonist is skeptical their cause will ultimately prevail given their meager remaining resources. Leia gestures around the ship to their motley crew and responds with certainty, “We have everything we need.”
Reading Pope Francis’ words, I couldn’t help but get that same sense of excitement and hope, “In the Church, holy yet made up of sinners, you will find everything you need to grow towards holiness. The Lord has bestowed on the Church the gifts of scripture, the sacraments, holy places, living communities, the witnesses of the saints and a multifaceted beauty that proceeds from God’s love” (15). In particular, it was that gift of community that resonated with me.
Collecting stories for my new podcast, “Better With You” about how friendship can shape and guide us, I’ve heard stories of loyalty, encouragement, support in adversity, loss and hope. All of these affirmed that I would not be where I am today in my journey of holiness if it were not for the community of friends who surround me. Certainly I still have a long way to go, but my friends inspire me everyday.
Scripture affirms the importance of witness, or examples of Christian living, in order to “run with perseverance the race that is set before us” (Hebrews 12:1). Pope Francis asserts that beyond the saints, “these witnesses may include our own mothers, grandmothers, or loved ones. Their lives may not always have been perfect yet even amid their faults and failings they kept moving forward and proved pleasing to the Lord.” (3) Making a podcast with my friends scattered across the country has been a unique experience not without its challenges. This time in our lives finds us in the midst of having children, transitioning jobs and homes and dealing with illness. Despite these struggles I have seen my friends reach out for encouragement, grow in closeness to their spouse, and build families of holiness and hope.
Having this closeness to people, imperfect but striving, keeps me grounded. Pope Francis warns us, “When we live apart from others, it is very difficult to fight against...the selfishness of the world… we can grow too isolated, lose our sense of reality and inner clarity” (140). One interviewee talked to me about being a caseworker for young men in difficult situations, dealing with physical illness, mental illness, and broken homes. Some, having no consistent caretaker or friends, lost trust in all people and felt helpless to determine their own path. He did his best to be a friend by taking them trick-or-treating when foster parents wouldn’t or accepting their bad behavior as a reaction to a situation outside their control and not reacting to it. This is the same way Jesus modeled friendship. He provided wine, food, and consolation, sensitive to the needs of his friends and followers. Our Holy Father teaches us that when we love others enough to pay attention to those, “little details of love” and create relationships of empathy and support, God becomes present (145).
More than being grounded, having friends that make me laugh and lift my spirits reminds me of life’s joys and makes me grateful for God’s gifts. This gratitude which often bursts forth from us through our sense of humor is a sign of holiness (126). Another guest on my show was a close friend of mine from childhood. When we met to talk about friendship we reminisced and fell into fits of giggling over old yearbooks and adolescent dramatics. But we also looked toward the future, her upcoming marriage, my daughter growing up, and found ourselves grateful for a relationship where we could be ourselves. One reason for this trust is that we both knew the other would always have our best interest in mind, would speak with love and sensitivity.
This hope, empathy, joy, and trust are signs of holiness in our lives and relationships but they do not happen passively. We are all sinners and often, betray or disappoint our friends. We choose our own interests over others. We give them our thoughts and opinions without concern for how they’ll be received. This way of being a friend is not holy. Holiness, says Pope Francis, is “living charity to the full” (21). What kind of friend we choose to be matters. We are called to reproduce Jesus’ life in our own life, including, “his life in community… in which he showed his self-sacrificing love” (20).
It was really fun to interview a pair of women who told me about their changing friendship and how they have maintained their close connection amidst significant shifts in their lives. They both attended a conservative Catholic university and, after some time, one of them came out as bisexual. They talked about how, as some of their values diverged, others stayed the same. Specifically, they maintained attitudes of compassion, respect, and unconditional love. What I observed as well, was that neither looked down on the other. There was no shaming because of one’s sexuality and the others’ religion. I was reminded of this conversation when I read the Holy Father’s words, “Saints hesitate to treat others harshly; they consider others better than themselves” (116). This humility is as essential to friendships as it is in holiness and why good friendships make us holy. When we set aside labels and preconceived notions we can look for Christ in others and, upon finding Him, become closer to each other and to God.
Pope Francis says, “We are never completely ourselves unless we belong to a people”. We don’t fully find ourselves through navel gazing and introspection but in friendship with others. In relationship we put grace and virtue to work, we discover our weaknesses and blind spots, and it is in relationship that, “God draws us into himself.” It is within this, “complex fabric of interpersonal relationships” that our Lord reminds us what we were made for, eternal friendship with each other, within Him. (6)
“We cannot celebrate this free gift of the Lord’s friendship unless we ‘...acknowledge jubilantly that our life is essentially a gift, and recognize that our freedom is a grace.’” (55)
God has given us this gift of freedom. If we want to grow in holiness, to be saints, we’ll use that freedom, and His gift of grace, to persevere, to be empathetic, to be joyful, to be humble, to be the best friend we can be. So, in the words of my mother, “go get a friend,” because “no one is saved alone.”
Anthony Esser is a co-host of "Better With You" a podcast about how friendship can shape and guide us for the better. He lives in Southern Maryland with his wife, Casey, and daughter, Noelle. After serving in various ministry roles from Ohio to New Orleans and three years at the National Shrine, Anthony now works in evangelization in the Archdiocese of Washington. Besides podcasting and writing for THR, he paints portraits, cooks Italian food, does stand-up comedy, and walks his dog on the boardwalk near his home. When he’s not causing a ruckus he loves sitting with the Lord in adoration.