Just the other day, one of my parishioners asked me to write about the topic of holiness. With tomorrow being All Saints Day, I figured it was a great time to address this topic.
In the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., there is a large image called the “Universal Call to Holiness.” This image depicts the Holy Spirit in the top center in the form of a dove. Below are the members of the Church of every walk of life, of every national heritage. There are children as well as older people, religious sisters and priests, married people, families, and single people. This image illustrates the teaching of the Church known as the “universal call to holiness.”
In the Gospel, our Lord tells us that we are to “be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). Throughout the centuries, the Church has understood this “perfection” to be the perfection of charity, which is more commonly referred to as holiness. The Second Vatican Council made clear that ALL the baptized are called to be holy, called to the perfection of charity (Lumen Gentium, 40). Basically, this means that we are all called to be saints!
But what does it mean “to be HOLY?” What does it mean to be “PERFECT?” What does it mean to be a “SAINT”? Does it mean that we follow the commandments? Does it mean that we live out the Beatitudes? Does it mean that we pray a lot and have great trust in the Lord, even in the midst of struggle?
There has often been the awful misconception that only priests and nuns were called to be holy and that the rest of the members of the Church should just try to be “good” or “nice” people. But if we look through the Bible and throughout the history of the Church, no where do we find the imperative to be “good” or “nice” people. Jesus was very clear: we are called to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect. The Church clearly articulated this important teaching at the Second Vatican Council:
All Christians in any state or walk of life are called to the fullness of Christian life and to the perfection of charity: In order to reach this perfection the faithful should use the strength dealt out to them by Christ’s gift, so that, doing the will of the Father in everything, they may wholeheartedly devote themselves to the glory of God and to the service of their neighbor. Thus the holiness of the People of God will grow in fruitful abundance, as is clearly shown in the history of the Church through the lives of so many saints (LG, 40).
The question that naturally comes to mind is, “WHY?” “Why are we called to be saints?” What if I don’t want to live a holy life? Doesn’t holiness also mean being boring or not being able to do whatever I want because of all those rules of the Church?” These are normal questions that most of us will have at one time or another, especially when we are younger. But perhaps a more positive question to ask is, “why was I created,” or “why do I exist?”
Each of us was created in the “image and likeness of God” (Gen 1:27), and as such, we are the only visible creatures (angels are not visible, but can also know and love God) that are able to know and love our Creator (Gaudium et Spes, 12). In fact, the desire for God is written on each of our hearts. Throughout our lives, we are continually in search of something that will give us fulfillment and meaning – ONLY God can completely fill this natural desire because we were created by him and also to be in communion with him. Money, cars, popularity, and other things that seem to make us happy, won’t make us as happy compared to friendship with Jesus Christ.
When most of us think of those who commit themselves to living “holy lives,” we may think of people sitting around in silence, on their knees praying night and day. When others think of “holiness” they may think of people who do not have much fun in life because they are following all of those “rules of the Church.”
Upon his election as Pope, Benedict XVI gave a homily in which he addressed this very point. The pope said,
“Are we not perhaps all afraid in some way? If we let Christ enter fully into our lives, if we open ourselves totally to him, are we not afraid that He might take something away from us? Are we not perhaps afraid to give up something significant, something unique, something that makes life so beautiful? Do we not then risk ending up diminished and deprived of our freedom? No! If we let Christ into our lives, we lose nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing of what makes life free, beautiful and great. No! Only in this friendship are the doors of life opened wide. Only in this friendship is the great potential of human existence truly revealed. Only in this friendship do we experience beauty and liberation.”
Pope Benedict XVI was well aware that most of us are afraid that we might miss out on something that the world offers us if we live as true disciples of Christ. The pope encourages us and reminds us as Christ reminded his first followers – DO NOT BE AFRAID – there is so much more that God wants us to experience and enjoy.
The pope continued:
“And so, today, with great strength and great conviction, on the basis of long personal experience of life, I say to you, dear young people: Do not be afraid of Christ! He takes nothing away, and he gives you everything. When we give ourselves to him, we receive a hundredfold in return. Yes, open, open wide the doors to Christ – and you will find true life. Amen.”