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"Authentic Lay Spirituality" Part 3: "The Call to Holiness"

Byline: Msgr. Peter J. Vaghi
Posted: December 2, 2010

“Does the Catholic Church have a future?” This question was the title of an article in the Washington Post on July 24, 2010.

The answer given was: “The future of the Church is not in the hands of its leaders, whose exhortations seem increasingly to fall on deaf ears. It is in the hands of ordinary men and women who are willing to live lives that make no sense unless Jesus Christ is who we believe Him to be. In the end, it is only the saints who can save us (J. Peter Nixon, This essay is part of a series on the Future of Catholicism at Patheos.com).”

There is some truth in that statement. I am certainly not ready, however, to debunk our leaders—religious or lay-- or write them all off as persons with no future in the church. How could I? I just returned from Rome for the consistory elevating our own Archbishop Donald Wuerl to the College of Cardinals along with 23 other new cardinals—all men of great and credible leadership in the church. I also had the wonderful opportunity once again to be in the presence of our Holy Father Benedict XVI and hear him speak in a most beautiful and inspiring way. In addition to our Holy Father and the new Cardinals, there are many leaders in our Church today who continually move us to holiness and a deepened life in Christ not only by their magnificent words but their witness of life.

At the same time, Mr. Nixon of the Post got it right in part when he spoke of ordinary men and women committed to Jesus Christ, men and women called to be saints. The witness of the lay faithful, your witness, is an essential part in the present and future of the church.

In this third meditation, I wish, therefore, to reflect on “Authentic Lay Spirituality: the Call to Holiness.” It is a call rooted in our Baptism. Each of us is called, whether lay or ordained, to be holy. It is our very vocation. Each of us is called to be a saint. It is an integral part of our vocation as followers of Jesus rooted in Baptism, that gateway sacrament to the Christian life.

First a word about Baptism! It is so important to understand that Baptism is the basis of our spiritual lives, the basis of my spirituality as an ordained priest and yours as members of the lay faithful. It is the basis of this series on lay spirituality. In fact the Church teaches  that  “the entire existence of the lay faithful has as its purpose to lead a person to a knowledge of the radical newness of the Christian life that comes from Baptism.” CL 10

Baptism is not just an event—as important as that was-- when we were children (for most of us), an occasion for a family celebration, a way to escape limbo, an opportunity to be cleansed of original sin.  It is all of that but so much more.

Baptism is a life-time challenge--to live out the promises of our baptism--to renounce Satan and all his empty promises and to confess our common faith, the creed of the apostles, as the baptismal rite sets forth in the questions we are asked at Baptism.

Your unique dignity, as lay Christians, and mine as a priest draws its distinctiveness from the day of our Baptism and develops throughout our lives.  It marks us with an indelible mark, empowers us, as followers of Jesus, as part of His living body, the Church.  It puts us on the path to holiness, our vocation to holiness. It is the  basis of our spirituality, our relationship with God and each other.

St.  Leo the Great once wrote: “Acknowledge, O Christian, your dignity!” But what is that dignity?  It is linked to God Himself, a dignity born at Baptism.

To “baptize” means “to plung”--to plung into the very life of God, specifically, to plung into the water which symbolizes burial into Christ’s death from which we arise as “new creatures”--radically new. It is a lifetime venture, an extraordinary gift from God (and not all have it), to be a part of His life, death and resurrection, a part of the fellowship of God who is Father, Son and Spirit, to be a part of His very life--even here on earth--precisely in the midst of our very hectic secular lives, and to be a  privileged member, moreover, of His living body, the Church.  Our daily challenge is to remain in Him each and every hour of the day, to  remain in His presence.  That is your challenge and mine as we struggle  each and every day to remain faithful to the promises of our Baptism.

The radical newness of the Christian life comes from Baptism, this “most beautiful and magnificent gift [from God]” (CCC 1216).  In the words of St.  Gregory of Nazianzus, referring to Baptism, he writes: “We call it gift, grace, anointing, enlightenment, garment of immortality, bath of rebirth, seal and most precious gift” (CCC 1216).  Sin is buried in the water and we share in the new life as we rise from the water.  Baptism is after all the very source of our new life in Christ from which the entire Christian life and our spirituality springs.

In the words of St.  Paul: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?  We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” Rom 6: 3-4 This is the radically new life which is ours forever.  It is the basis of our spiritual lives.

Today I wish to reflect with you on the implications of Baptism, how by virtue of our baptisms we appropriate a new call, a new universal vocation, the vocation to holiness--each and every one of us.  No one is exempted.  In fact, each of us is called to be a saint, to be holy.  This call to holiness is rooted in baptism.  Holiness is the perfection of charity.

The Second Vatican Council, that great reform council of the Catholic Church, spoke consistently about the universal call to holiness--a basic charge entrusted to all the sons and daughters of the Church, all those who are baptized into Christ Jesus.  It is our vocation and  our call.  It is, if you will, a leitmotiv of the entire Council and so much of the teachings of the pope and church ever since.  It is at the heart of authentic lay spirituality.  You can become saints by God’s grace.  You are called to become saints by God’s help. And so am I.

On his recent visit in September to the United Kingdom, our Holy Father spoke to group of young pupils at St Mary's College in Twickenham.

He spoke to them about the call to holiness, about the call to be saints.

Listen to how he challenged them:

“God wants your friendship. And once you enter into friendship with God, everything in your life begins to change. As you come to know him better, you find you want to reflect something of his infinite goodness in your own life. You are attracted to the practice of virtue. You begin to see greed and selfishness and all the other sins for what they really are, destructive and dangerous tendencies that cause deep suffering and do great damage, and you want to avoid falling into that trap yourselves. You begin to feel compassion for people in difficulties and you are eager to do something to help them. You want to come to the aid of the poor and the hungry, you want to comfort the sorrowful, you want to be kind and generous. And once these things begin to matter to you, you are well on the way to becoming saints.”

Those reflections help us understand what it means to be holy.  It is not a term reserved solely for those "holy" men and women who have been officially canonized by the Church. It does not mean disqualifying them, or failing to look to them, and pray to them.  But each of us should focus anew not only on our favorite canonized saints, but the many holy men and women--deceased or alive--which make up our world.  Each of us knows individuals who personify holiness.  With them, we can almost taste holiness when we are in their presence.  Faith takes on flesh.  Charity is real.  Love knows no bounds.  It might be a parent, grandparent, spouse, even a child, a co-worker.  In those certain individuals, we can experience a deepened love of the Lord.  That person, those persons are truly holy.

Holiness is a call, a vocation from God--in fact "the prime and fundamental" vocation of  each  baptized person. It is God's will that [we] grow in holiness," St. Paul tells us. And God is the source of all holiness.  From the Mass, we hear the prayer: "Father, you are holy indeed, and all creation rightly gives you praise.  All life, all holiness comes from you through your Son, Jesus Christ, by the working of the Holy Spirit."

The word holiness comes from the greek word "hagios" which means to be set apart, to be different--in effect, to belong to God, to be set apart for God. Holiness is the fruit of contact with God, for He is the source of all holiness. It is the result of God within us for He "alone [is] the holy One."

St. Paul is quite explicit in his letter to the Thessalonians: "It is God's will that you grow in holiness: that you abstain from immorality.....God has not called us to immorality but to holiness" (lThess 3:13; 4: 2-8).  St.  Peter invites us “to be holy in all conduct.” l Pt l:15

But how do we concretely  become holy? It is a holiness born to each of us at Baptism, strengthened in the life of the Holy Spirit at Confirmation  and nourished each time we receive His most precious body and blood.  The sacramental life is the wellspring of holiness--a wonderful and privileged way to enter into contact with the Holy of Holies.

In contacting the Holy of Holies, in encountering our Lord in the sacraments, you and I are empowered to live that life of holiness, our new vocation,  to live differently, in a word, to follow and imitate Jesus Christ.  There is within each of us a hunger for holiness.

But I ask again, how do we do grow in holiness?  In addition to conscious and active participation in the  sacraments, especially the Eucharist and the sacrament of Penance, each of us is called to embrace the Beatitudes, to listen  and meditate daily on the Word of God, to make time for personal, family and community prayer, to cultivate a hunger and thirst for justice, to practice the commandment of love in all circumstances of life and service above all to the poor and suffering.

Pope Benedict released a new apostolic letter a few weeks ago entitled Verbum Domini (On the Word of God). It was a result on the Synod at Rome a few years ago on the Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church. I recommend it to you for your Advent meditations. It is a document we will return to in the remaining months.

I wish to cite today a passage precisely on the link between meditating on the Word of God and holiness and the witness of holiness in the lives of the saints. In this case, he is specifically referring to canonized and beatified saints. But it surely can apply and does apply to ordinary men and women seeking to live lives of holiness by regularly meditating on the Word of God and witnessing to it.

The Pope writes: “Every saint is like a ray of light streaming forth from the word of God: we can think of Saint Ignatius of Loyola in his search for truth and in his discernment of spirits; Saint John Bosco in his passion for the education of the young; Saint John Mary Vianney in his awareness of the grandeur of the priesthood as gift and task; Saint Pius of Pietrelcina in his serving as an instrument of divine mercy; Saint Josemaria Escrivá in his preaching of the universal call to holiness; Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, the missionary of God’s charity towards the poorest of the poor, and then the martyrs of Nazism and Communism, represented by Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein), a Carmelite nun, and by Blessed Aloysius Stepinac, the Cardinal Archbishop of Zagreb.

Holiness inspired by the word of God thus belongs in a way to the prophetic tradition, wherein the word of God sets the prophet’s very life at its service. In this sense, holiness in the Church constitutes an interpretation of Scripture which cannot be overlooked. The Holy Spirit who inspired the sacred authors is the same Spirit who impels the saints to offer their lives for the Gospel. In striving to learn from their example, we set out on the sure way towards a living and effective hermeneutic of the word of God.” (VD 48-49)  Just think of it this way-- holiness thus constitutes a living and discernable interpretation of scripture itself. It is scripture come alive! As we contemplate holy scripture, in the power of the Holy Spirit, it transforms us into men and women of holiness, men and women who concretely in so many different ways live and interpret the Gospel in our lives and each of us does it uniquely. Thus, meditation on the Word of God helps us to enter into friendship with God, helps us become holy men and women and helps us importantly to grow in holiness and become credible witnesses of God’s presence within us and His friendship with us.

In short, holiness is at once a “gift” of God that in turn becomes a “task” for us to embrace each day.  It is a  “call” and at the same time a “vocation” from God, a universal call born at Baptism. As I have mentioned, the call to sanctity importantly must “not be misunderstood as if it involved some kind of extraordinary existence, possible only for a few ‘uncommon heroes’ of holiness.  The ways of holiness are many, according to the vocation of each individual.” NMI 31 Not one of us is excepted.

In his book “The Truth of Catholicism,” George Weigel reminds us moreover that “the Catholic Church doesn’t “make” saints, and neither does the Pope.  Through the teaching authority of the Bishop of Rome, acting on the counsel of his advisers, the Church recognizes the saints God has made.” (Weigel 174) In addition, writing about the many canonizations of the Servant of God John Paul II during his papacy, Weigel  emphasizes that  his  many “canonizations and beatifications are a powerful reminder that saints are all around us, in virtually every imaginable venue of life.  Sanctity is not just for the sanctuary on Sunday.  Sanctity is a real possibility for everyone, all the time and everywhere.” (Weigel 175) It is moreover God’s will for us.  St.  Paul, writing about “holiness,” ups the ante in teaching those early Christians at Thessalonika: “This is the will of God, your holiness.” l Thess 4:3

Each of us is called, moreover, to be a martyr for the Lord Jesus, after His own example of selfless love.  Martyrdom, after all,  means witness. In his encyclical Veritatis Splendor,(The Splendor of Truth) issued on August 6, 1993, Servant of God John Paul II writes  that "martyrdom is an outstanding sign of holiness of the Church" (VS 93).

Understood as bearing witness, testifying to the Splendor of Truth about Jesus, about the Love that sets us free and continues to free us, martyrdom does not always end in the shedding of blood.

You and I are called each day in our own walk with the Lord Jesus, to be martyrs for the faith, a faith "which is a lived knowledge of Christ, a living remembrance of His commandments, and a truth to be lived out" (VS 88).   This takes on a greater urgency in our own day.

For each of us is called to live a holy life. As I have mentioned, it is our "prime and fundamental vocation." It is the most concrete and appealing apologetic for faith in the living Jesus within us--the witness of holiness manifested concretely in our lives, in our individual and concrete choices at work and home.

For those of you who are  married, for example, you uniquely witness to holiness in your special love for your spouses, a mirror of Christ's love for His church, a visible witness to the invisible love that Jesus has for His body the Church. You witness this call to holiness by your openness to children and the care you give them throughout their lives. This is an integral part of authentic lay spirituality at work. Priests and religious are also called to witness to a holiness of life, to witness to a chaste and celibate love.  There is a quality of unique Christian witness--a martyrdom of sorts-- in the call and life of the mystery of celibate love, a call to live an undivided love "for the sake of the Kingdom."   The priestly vocation is essentially a call to holiness—an imitation of Christ, who was poor, chaste and humble. But note well: this call, this  vocation to holiness, the witness to the life of God within us, is meant for all followers of Jesus--clergy, lay, religious, single and  married persons.

As members of the laity, whether married or single, you are uniquely called to bring your Christian witness to bear on everything you do--in your privileged "secular" arena of life. The fountain of holiness within each Baptized person  "must be called a fundamental presupposition and irreplaceable condition" for each Baptized person in fulfilling and advancing the work of God in the marketplace, in the world of politics and business and in your homes.  It is holiness with a face after the face of Christ.

In that wonderful document on the vocation and mission of the lay faithful, Christifideles Laici, issued on December 30, 1988,  we read-- speaking of the lay faithful-- "indeed they must be sanctified in everyday professional and social life.  Therefore, to respond to their vocation, the lay faithful must see their daily activities as an occasion to join themselves to God, fulfill his will, serve other people and lead them to communion with God in Christ." What a great and privileged challenge and opportunity!

The world--our world--your world and my world calls out--perhaps today more than ever for the witness of holiness.  It is a witness made real and concrete in our everyday lives, ordinary men and women living our daily lives in a supernatural way. Saints exist today.  You know them and so do I.  Holiness is within reach.  Our Christian life is all about holiness.

Before I finish, I thought I would conclude with a passage from St. Paul.

I have always been moved by his letter to the Galatians, Chapter 2:20, where he writes: “It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me.” These are revolutionary words. Do we ever stop to think about their impact? Christ lives within us. He, Who is the holy One, so desires to express Himself through our facial expressions, our business decisions, the tone of our voices, even our body language. You and I are credible witnesses to the faith to the extent that we mirror the living presence of Christ within us. That is the heart of holiness. This is classic Pauline theology.

This is my daily challenge as a priest and the challenge of each of you precisely in your very hectic and busy lives as lay men and women at home and in the workplace. Each of us should daily turn anew to the Lord Jesus to sustain us and, in the process, to help us grow in holiness and its witness.

Amen