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Tuesday, March 28, 2017
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Holy Spirit Interactive: Michael J. Sheridan: Called to Be Holy

Called to Be Holy

by Bishop Michael J. Sheridan

Among the many achievements of Vatican II was the council’s teaching on the universal call to holiness. The teaching is found primarily in chapter five of Lumen Gentium, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church. We could summarize the chapter in this way: Because the Church is holy by reason of her establishment by Christ and the gift of the Holy Spirit, so every member of the Church is endowed with that same holiness which belongs to the Church. Holiness is first and foremost an attribute of God Himself, who alone is holy. In Baptism, God shares His life and holiness with each member of His Mystical Body. That holiness, which is a gift, is at the same time a vocation: a call to live out in the concrete circumstances of our lives that love and obedience which characterizes the life of Christ Himself.

Time after time our Holy Father has echoed the Council’s call to holiness. In his 2001 apostolic letter Novo Millennio Ineunte, At the Beginning of the New Millennium, the Pope wrote: “Holiness, whether ascribed to popes well-known to history or to humble lay and religious figures . . . has emerged more clearly as the dimension which expresses best the mystery of the Church” (no. 7). Repeating the words of Lumen Gentium, the Holy Father calls holiness “a duty which concerns not only certain Christians: ‘All the Christian faithful, of whatever state or rank, are called to the fullness of the Christian life and to the perfection of charity’” (no. 30).

That every baptized Christian is called to be nothing less than a saint is not a new teaching. Jesus Himself calls us to sanctity: “[B]e perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt. 5:48). In most of his letters, St. Paul addresses himself to those who are called to holiness or who are holy. In other words, the Apostle speaks to the baptized as saints or saints in the making. This is the message throughout Christian history, and yet it is surprising how many Catholics hesitate when confronted with the prospect of becoming saints.

Strive for Sainthood

At Confirmation Masses, I often ask the young people whom I confirm which of them aspires to sainthood. More often than not they look furtively at each other to see who might dare to raise a hand. After several seconds of waiting, a few hands are hesitatingly lifted, but there is usually a look of uncertainty on the faces of those young men and women bold enough to claim to seek sainthood. For many Catholics, becoming a saint is simply not on their radar screens. For some it seems pretentious—even presumptuous—to confess that they seek after holiness. It is at that point that I ask the confirmandi to realize that there is only one alternative to sainthood. They get the point quickly and are ready to stand among those who would be saints.

Our Holy Father has brought the universal call to holiness to the forefront of his pontificate. The extraordinary number of holy men and women whom the Pope has beatified or canonized testifies to his belief that not only is the call to holiness universal, but also, in fact, many, many people have responded to that call by living saintly lives. To put this into perspective, it is interesting to note that from the year 1600 until the pontificate of Pope John Paul II barely 300 people were added to the canon of saints. The present pope has himself canonized almost 500. His beatifications are approaching 1,400. More than 2,000 other cases for beatification or canonization are now pending.

Some Catholics have commented negatively on the comparatively large number of canonizations and beatifications that mark this present pontificate. They ask: Doesn’t it in some way lessen the significance of being raised to the altar when so many are given this honor? Not at all! Those who are considered for beatification and canonization are still subjected to the rigorous scrutinies of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. Verifiable miracles are still demanded as signs of favor from God. With his frequent beatifications and canonizations, Pope John Paul II is sending an important message to all Christians: You, too, can be a saint! You, too, must be a saint if you are to achieve the end for which God created you!

Lay Witnesses

Until the pontificate of Pope John Paul II, the ranks of the blesseds and the saints were filled mostly with clergy and religious: popes, bishops, priests, and founders of religious communities. Lay men and women were not to be found in great numbers among the beatified and canonized of the Church. There are, of course, notable exceptions. There is St. Elizabeth of Hungary; wife, widow, and servant of the poor. Also, St. Louis of France; king, husband, and father. And there are others. By and large, however, canonized lay men and women did not abound.

The picture is very different now. Pope John Paul II has beatified 215 lay people and canonized 245 lay people. This Pontiff has sought out from among the laity men and women who have lived particularly holy lives so that they might be held up as models and encouragement for today’s laity. He is pointing out to all that holiness is not the prerogative solely of the ordained and consecrated religious. Nor is holiness manifested only in extraordinary ways. Many lay people achieved holiness in the most ordinary circumstances of life. The Holy Father recognizes so well that, if our secularized society is to be brought back to Christ, it will require the efforts of saintly lay people willing to live the Gospel of Christ fully and faithfully in the world. Recall the words of Lumen Gentium, that the laity have the “special task to order and to throw light upon these affairs in such a way that they may come into being and then continuously increase according to Christ to the praise of the Creator and the Redeemer” (no. 31).

A Plan of Action

While saintliness is to be achieved by all, this does not mean that becoming a saint is easy. Just the opposite. The road to heaven is still the narrow one and demands that we be well-trained in the ways of holiness. The lives of so many saints teach us how to become saints ourselves. In addition to the example of the saints themselves, the Pope summarized the program for “training in holiness” in his apostolic letter, Novo Millennio Ineunte.

First, the Christian life must be one distinguished by prayer. Prayer is first of all an expression of our total dependence on God and His grace. There can be no growth in holiness apart from that union with God, which is the fruit of constant prayer.

Second, growth in holiness means regular participation in the Eucharist, especially the Sunday Eucharist. The Holy Father’s insistence on this cannot be mistaken: “[Sunday Eucharist] is a fundamental duty, to be fulfilled not just in order to observe a precept but as something felt as essential to a truly informed and consistent Christian life” (no. 36).

Third, the practice of regular Confession is essential. There can be no growth in holiness if we are weighed down by our sins. So many people— Catholics included—have all but lost the sense of sin. The call to repentance and conversion by means of the Sacrament of Reconciliation is a constant reminder that our sins put us always in need of God’s forgiveness.

The great company of saints in heaven are our heroes in the faith. They inspire us to imitate them and thus become saints ourselves. And let us not forget that first among the saints of God is His Immaculate Mother. Her role in the formation of saints is described by St. Louis-Marie Grignon de Monfort in his True Devotion to Mary: “Together with the Holy Spirit Mary produced the greatest thing that ever was or ever will be: a God-man. She will consequently produce the marvels which will be seen in the latter times. The formation and the education of the great saints who will come at the end of the world are reserved to her, for only this singular and wondrous virgin can produce in union with the Holy Spirit singular and wondrous things.”

Queen of all saints, pray for us!


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