“Holiness is the most attractive face of the Church.. do not be afraid of holiness.”
– Pope Francis
The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council sent out a very clear call to every one of the faithful, reminding us explicitly that all of us are called to holiness.
The Dogmatic Constitution On The Church, called ‘Lumen Gentium’, spoke about the nature of the Church as ‘the Kingdom of Christ now mysteriously present’ (LG 3), continually sanctified by the Holy Spirit so that ‘all those who believe would have access through Christ in one Spirit to the Father.. the Spirit dwells in the Church and in the hearts of the faithful as in a temple’ (LG 4). As part of this Mystical Body, ‘Christ is poured into the believers who, through the Sacraments, are united in a hidden and real way to Christ’ (LG 7). And because of this, ‘all the members ought to be moulded in the likeness of Him, until Christ is formed in them’ (LG 7). We are told that ‘all the disciples of Christ, persevering in prayer and praising God, should present themselves as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God’ (LG10).
And so, the life of the Church is a conduit of divine grace which we are offered so that we might be ever more conformed to Christ, becoming more like Him through the presence and action of the Spirit He sent to the Church, and in this way, we become holy.
The Scriptures speak on our call to holiness – “You shall make and keep yourselves holy, because I am holy” (Lev.11:44). Later, in the New Testament, Saint Peter refers to this text – “As He who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in every aspect of your conduct, for it is written – ‘be holy, because I am holy’” (1 Pt.1:15-16). Christ Himself has already spoken to us in the Gospel regarding this – “Be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt.5:48).
In case there is any doubt on all this, the Fathers of the Council spelled it out for us –
“Fortified by so many and such powerful means of salvation, all the faithful, whatever their condition or state, are called by the Lord, each in his own way, to that perfect holiness whereby the Father Himself is perfect.” (LG 11)
On the feast of Saint Joseph in March 2018, our Holy Father Pope Francis wrote an astonishingly beautiful document ‘On The Call To Holiness In Today’s World’, called ‘Gaudete et Exsultate’ (Rejoice and Be Glad). He begins by telling us that this document “is not meant to be a treatise on holiness, containing definitions and distinctions helpful for understanding this important subject, or a discussion of the various means of sanctification. My modest goal is to re-propose the call to holiness in a practical way for our own time” (GE 2).
The call to holiness has always been present. It was present throughout the Old Testament and throughout the New Testament, and at every moment of the life of the Church since then. Pope Francis reminded us that “the call to holiness is present in various ways from the very first pages of the Bible”.
This universal call to holiness, issued at the Second Vatican Council, applies as much now as it did then – perhaps even more so.
It is a call which the Saints across the centuries have responded to in an heroic manner, each in their own way at a particular moment of history.
However, Pope Francis points out that while the Church places the Saints before us as examples of the life of Faith, it is not so that we simply ‘copy’ them – rather, we are to find the individual and specific path the Lord has planned for us –
“‘Each in his or her own way’ the Council says. We should not grow discouraged before examples of holiness that appear unattainable. There are some testimonies that may prove helpful and inspiring, but that we are not meant to copy, for that could even lead us astray from the one specific path that the Lord has in mind for us. The important thing is that each believer discern his or her own path, that they bring out the very best of themselves, the most personal gifts that God has placed in their hearts (cf. 1 Cor 12:7), rather than hopelessly trying to imitate something not meant for them.” (GE 11)
And the Holy Father gives us some very practical advice to prevent any discouragement –
“Let the grace of your baptism bear fruit in a path of holiness. Let everything be open to God; turn to him in every situation. Do not be dismayed, for the power of the Holy Spirit enables you to do this, and holiness, in the end, is the fruit of the Holy Spirit in your life (cf. Gal 5:22-23). When you feel the temptation to dwell on your own weakness, raise your eyes to Christ crucified and say: “Lord, I am a poor sinner, but you can work the miracle of making me a little bit better”. In the Church, holy yet made up of sinners, you will find everything you need to grow towards holiness.”
And he offers us a little gem of wisdom, one we may have forgotten – “This holiness to which the Lord calls you will grow through small gestures.. In this way, led by God’s grace, we shape by many small gestures the holiness God has willed for us” (GE 16, 18).
The Holy Father tells us what living this life of holiness can achieve –
“To the extent that each Christian grows in holiness, he or she will bear greater fruit for our world.. Do not be afraid to set your sights higher, to allow yourself to be loved and liberated by God. Do not be afraid to let yourself be guided by the Holy Spirit. Holiness does not make you less human, since it is an encounter between your weakness and the power of God’s grace” (GE 34-34)
Although we can define holiness in various different ways and see it from numerous perspectives, the Pope reminded us “Jesus explained with great simplicity what it means to be holy when he gave us the Beatitudes.. 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 63-64).
He goes on to highlight that one particular Beatitude is key here – ‘blessed are the merciful’. And he goes on to explain –
“If we seek the holiness pleasing to God’s eyes, this text offers us one clear criterion on which we will be judged. ‘I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me’.” (GE 95)
Holiness, we are reminded, is not about the external – it is not about the raptures and the visions and the mysticism of so many of the Saints; while these played a part, they manifested something else, something deeper – the love of God reflected in the love of neighbour, that single call of the Law, it’s summary and it’s application. And it is for this reason that ‘blessed are the merciful’ is the key beatitude in regards to holiness and what it actually means for us. We can pray all day long and experience every conceivable vision and ecstasy – but if we do not love our neighbour, we are not holy. “That is what it is to be a Christian! Can holiness somehow be understood apart from this lively recognition of the dignity of each human being?” the Holy Father asks us. And he tells us that “those who really wish to give glory to God by their lives, who truly long to grow in holiness, are called to be single-minded and tenacious in their practice of the works of mercy” (GE 107). He offers us Saint Teresa of Kolkata as an example of this.
Pope Francis’ document goes on to elaborate the ‘signs of holiness’ we will see in the world today – perseverance, patience, meekness, joy, boldness, community, content prayer and so forth. He gives us some warnings, too – on our need to be always vigilant, to be discerning, and to guard against spiritual corruption, which is always a very real and present danger.
For all of us, the call of the Church, expressed in the Sacramental life, in the living of the Gospel message and especially that of the Beatitudes, in the words of the Council Fathers and most recently in those of our Holy Father, is a plea not to forget that every one of us is called to a life of holiness. We each have our own path to holiness, set by the Lord, and that path is different for every person – but it is there and we are asked to walk it, each in our own way. The Church provides for all we need to do so and her spiritual treasury contains all we need for the journey.
We have the Saints to assist us and the Blessed Virgin Mary, who “lived the Beatitudes of Jesus as none other. She is that woman who rejoiced in the presence of God, who treasured everything in Her Heart, and who let Herself be pierced by the sword. Mary is the saint among the saints, blessed above all others. She teaches us the way of holiness and She walks ever at our side. She does not let us remain fallen and at times she takes us into her arms without judging us. Our converse with her consoles, frees and sanctifies us.” (GE 176)
Bearing all this in mind, let us respond whole-heartedly to that call to become holy as our Father in Heaven is holy.
If we are called to be holy, it is because it is possible – and if it is possible, all we need do is accept the invitation and walk our path.