Several years ago I was having a mild altercation with one of my high school students. He ended his presentation with this thought: “The reason I hate Catholic school is that you priests and nuns want us all to be saints!” To his surprise, I agreed that that was most definitely our goal. I think Jeff’s problem was a lack of understanding about what a saint is.
Indeed, the hope and prayer of the Church is that every one of her members would reach the joy of Heaven. How? By heeding the message preached by John the Baptist and the Lord Himself: “Reform your lives. The reign of God is at hand.” “Prepare the way of the Lord.” Why? Because life is short, and eternity is long.
Today the Church raises up and celebrates the lives of all the saints who stand before the throne of the Lamb – that vast number known only to God. How did they get to Heaven? How can we get to Heaven?
Putting a finer point on it, we may ask: How does one go about the process of attaining sanctity, that is, how to know the greatest measure of fulfillment now, as well as beatitude for all eternity? Saint Teresa of Ávila offered a simple but profound insight: “Trifles make for holiness, but holiness is no trifle.” The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews declared: “For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city which is to come” [13:14]. That does not mean that we despise this earth; it does mean, however, that we understand that we were made for more.
So, how does one get to “the more,” that is, Heaven? By being a saint on earth. And how does one become a saint? By living a life of holiness. And in what does holiness consist? Let me suggest seven elements.
1. Holiness consists in being childlike
Our Lord Himself asserted – unequivocally – “unless you turn and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of Heaven” [Mt 18:3]. But, as you have undoubtedly heard many times, being childlike is quite different from being childish. Saint Thérèse, for example, was devoted to the Holy Child Jesus because she found in Him all the qualities to become a saint herself. What is spiritual childhood, you ask? Her “last words” tell us:
It is to recognize one’s own nothingness, to expect everything from the good God as a child expects everything from its father. It is to be concerned about nothing, not even about making one’s living. . . . I remain a child with no other occupation than gathering flowers, the flowers of love and sacrifice, and offering them to the good God for His pleasure. Being a child means not attributing to yourself the virtues you practice or believing yourself capable of anything at all. It means recognizing that the good God places the treasure of virtue in the hands of His children to be used when there is need of it. . . . but it is still God’s treasure. Finally, it means never being discouraged by your faults, because children fall frequently, but are too small to hurt themselves much.
The pseudo-sophisticates of the two last centuries of blood and violence need to acknowledge that their programs have failed abysmally and that the human capacity for God can only be satisfied when one approaches that God as a child accepts the overtures of a loving father.
2. Holiness consists in having a strong love for the Holy Eucharist
You cannot point to a single saint in history who did not have a special devotion to the Eucharistic Christ. Let but two serve as representatives of hundreds of others.
In Loss and Gain, Cardinal Newman’s autobiographical novel, he has his alter ego proclaim:
To me nothing is so consoling, so piercing, so thrilling, so overcoming, as the Mass. . . . I could attend Masses for ever and not be tired. It is not a mere form of words, – it is a great action, the greatest action that can be on earth. It is, not the invocation merely, but, if I dare use the word, the evocation of the Eternal. He becomes present on the altar in flesh and blood, before whom angels bow and devils tremble.
Saint José Maria Escrivá asserts: “A very important characteristic of the apostolic man is his love for the Mass.” We are allowed to eavesdrop on a conversation between him and one of his spiritual directees: “‘The Mass is long,’ you say, and I reply, ‘Because your love is short.’”
In light of these brief but powerful statements, what are we to think of would-be theologians who tell us that Jesus is as present in nature or in ourselves as in the Bread of the Eucharist – even though the Second Vatican Council and all the Popes since then have said otherwise? What shall we say when polls tell us that two-thirds of those who receive the Lord in Holy Communion each Sunday do not believe in His Real Presence? What shall be our reply when so many clergy and laity alike fail to give the reverence and adoration due the Sacrament in which is contained the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity? How should we react to those (God forbid, some of us included) who make sacrilegious Communions by approaching the holy altar while still in the grip of sin and out of concern for human respect?
3. Holiness consists in devotion to the Blessed Mother
The Fathers of Vatican II in their Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, highlighted numerous titles of the Blessed Virgin, all of which find their way into the Catechism of the Catholic Church, where we read:
This motherhood of Mary in the order of grace continues uninterruptedly from the consent which she loyally gave at the Annunciation and which she sustained without wavering beneath the cross, until the eternal fulfillment of all the elect. Taken up to Heaven she did not lay aside this saving office, but by her manifold intercession continues to bring us the gifts of eternal salvation. Therefore, the Blessed Virgin is invoked in the Church under the titles of Advocate, Helper, Benefactress, and Mediatrix. (n. 969)
As should be readily seen, the titles chosen by the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council underscore Mary’s role as an intercessor on our behalf.
When so-called Bible-believing Christians deny a role for Mary in the plan of salvation, or when some misguided souls within the Church claim that love for Our Lady went out with the Second Vatican Council, or when yet others do the Blessed Mother the great disservice of trying to make her into a goddess, the wisdom, the prudence, the love of the Church at her highest levels of teaching authority offer brilliant testimony to the importance for all Christians to make a place in their lives for that woman who is not only the Mother of the Lord, but the Mother of all His brothers and sisters in the family of the Church.
Cardinal Newman shares some wise advice he once received: “I recollect one saying among others of my confessor, a Jesuit Father, one of the holiest, most prudent men I ever knew. He said that we could not love the Blessed Virgin too much, if we loved Our Lord a great deal more.”
4. Holiness consists in doing the ordinary things of life extraordinarily well
The saint of “The Little Way” achieved sanctity, precisely by attending to the humdrum details of daily existence with perfection and devotion. Whether she was sweeping the stairs, or working in the sacristy, or giving formation to the novices, she did everything with verve, deliberateness and conviction. Not for her, the slipshod, the careless, or the half-hearted style of doing things. She believed that “God is in the details,” and that attending to such details led one along the road to perfection.
Simplicity, however, should never be mistaken for simple-mindedness or a simplistic method of evaluating life. As we chase after fame and fortune; as we seek marvels and wonders; as we try to provide a careful nuance for every teaching of Christ and His Church; we complicate what God has actually made very simple. Perpetual malcontents, unsatisfied with their Christian vocation, miss out on the opportunities which the Lord offers each one of us to achieve sanctity in the world of business, in academia, in the family, in public service.
So many of the documents of the Second Vatican Council gave strong affirmation to the unique contribution of the lay faithful; without a doubt, Pope John Paul II, especially in Christifideles Laici, followed the golden thread of sanctity first held out by the likes of Saint Francis de Sales for Christ’s lay faithful to see the secular sphere as the primary place they are deputed to sanctify – and in this very way, shall they sanctify themselves. Far from being a mediocre or banal spirituality, because of its depth and hiddenness, it allows its devotees to soar to great heights of perfection by accepting the dignity which flows from Baptism and Confirmation, and to live up to the challenges presented to the lay vocation. The focus for a lay person is not action in the sanctuary (that’s the workplace of the priest) but in the world – representing Christ, His Gospel and His Church in places where priests cannot go.
Saint José Maria Escrivá, promoter of the lay vocation decades before the Second Vatican Council, asks a question and quickly answers it: “Do you really want to be a saint? Carry out the little duty of each moment: Do what you ought and put yourself into what you are doing.” He encourages someone who longs to do great things for God: “Persevere in the exact fulfillment of the obligations of the moment. That work – humble, monotonous, small – is prayer expressed in action, which prepares you to receive the grace of that other work – great and broad and deep – of which you dream.” Then he makes a charming observation: “Didn’t you see the light in Jesus’ eyes when the poor widow left her little alms in the Temple? Give Him what you can: The merit is not in whether it is big or small, but in the intention with which you give it.”
The Little Flower summarizes it all rather well: “Nothing is an obstacle to holiness. Different temperaments, situations in which we find ourselves, duties in our state in life, can become material for sanctity.”
5. Holiness consists in embracing the sufferings that come our way
A signal characteristic of our age is the avoidance of suffering at all cost; therefore, it is not surprising to find folks today who think that the acceptance of suffering is neurotic at best and psychotic at worst. But that is to misunderstand the Christian “take” on these matters.
The first point that must be perceived is that the believer does not suffer alone – he suffers in union with Christ, which suffering is redemptive for the one suffering and for any for whom he offers his sufferings. Do you recall what Saint Paul taught the Colossians: “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church” (1:24)? Does that sound blasphemous? What could be lacking to the sufferings of the God-Man? Our participation. The Head of the Body has indeed suffered and drunk from the chalice of suffering to the full, but what Saint Augustine calls the Totus Christus (the whole Christ), that is, His Mystical Body which is the Church, is called to drink deeply from that chalice as well. As we do that, we do it in union with the suffering Christ and in union with every other believer who has ever lived and suffered in His Name or is doing so presently.
In this context, I am reminded of an encounter I had some years ago with five old Jesuits in Lithuania; together they had spent more than 125 years in Nazi and/or Communist concentration camps. Upon learning that, I exclaimed, “I am in the presence of living confessors of the Faith!” To which one of the saintly men replied, “Oh Father, to have suffered for Christ and His Church was the greatest joy and privilege of my life!”
Christians, however, are not masochists. We do not go out of our way to seek out crosses to carry. However, whether one is a skeptic, an agnostic, an atheist or a disciple of Christ, no human being can keep suffering at bay forever. Some avoid it; some delay it; yet others reject it, with horror, resentment or rage. Dr. Kevorkian never would have had any clients or political allies if a truly Christian appreciation of the value of suffering were in place. To repeat: A Christian need not – and should not – look for crosses; but when they come, one must pray for the ability to deal with them lovingly and humanly, resulting in an increase in human dignity, an increase in love in the world, and an increase in glory in Heaven.
6. Holiness consists in the desire to please God
Much of what we do seems calculated to earn us a reward or to avoid a penalty, but that is a very stingy, selfish approach to the living of the Christian life. The traditional act of contrition puts words on our lips which call to mind that while, humanly speaking, we are sorry for our sins because we “dread the loss of Heaven and the pains of Hell,” we are urged to advance to a more perfect form of sorrow, that is, “because they offend Thee, my God, Who art all-good and deserving of all my love.”
Our fear of the Lord as disciples of Jesus should not be a servile fear but a filial fear. What’s the difference? Servile fear moves a person to avoid certain acts because one is in terror of the chastisement of a monstrous master. Filial fear, on the other hand, moves one to avoid sin because he knows God as a loving Father, Whom he would never wish to displease.
Without a doubt, an altogether pleasing offering the Little Flower made to her “good God” was the flower of her youth. What a joy to be able to give to God the most precious gift of a young life lived entirely for Him – with the greatest symbol of that fact being her life of consecrated virginity. To youth today so torn by a thousand conflicting desires and temptations, what an inspiration to realize that a young girl of fifteen could want to please God so much as never to deviate from her chosen path and commitment. Blessed John Henry Newman rhapsodized about this: “Blessed are they who give the flower of their days and their strength of soul and body to Thee. Blessed are they who in their youth turn to Thee Who didst give thy life for them, and wouldst fain give it to them and implant it in them, that they may live forever.” And so, no life-long discernment process. Rather, the urgency of the Master’s invitation (“Come, follow me”) demands an immediate response, with no hedging of bets.
Following Christ, however, is not all sweetness and light. Sometimes that following must take place amid darkness, as in the case of Mother Teresa, who experienced the dark night of the soul for decades. It is times like that when we need to remember the wise assessment of Blaise Pascal, “The desire to pray is prayer.” Furthermore, praying only when convenient or emotionally satisfying is not a sign of love or maturity; conversely, giving oneself over to prayer when little joy or response from God is apparent, literally being willing to “waste time with God,” is the greatest sign of love and mature spirituality imaginable.
And if we live to please God, we need to recall that He has done all by His sovereign Will, not to please Himself in some kind of divine narcissism, but because that will ultimately benefit us. We desire to please Him in all things because, in humility, we know that He does know best; that He has our best interests at heart; that He is, in the words of Saint Augustine, “intimior intimo meo” [closer to me than I am to myself].
7. Holiness consists in having a sense of humorSome people have added an eleventh commandment to the Decalogue: “Thou shalt be glum.” In truth, they firmly believe that the more sour one’s puss, the holier one must be. How incongruous that is, however, especially when we note that Christians are commissioned to be messengers of the Gospel, that is, “good news.” Now, this anomaly struck even so vehement an opponent of Christianity as Nietzsche, who quipped: “If Christians wanted me to believe in their God, they would have to look more redeemed!” The greatest saints, however, were not dour, depressing sorts. Saint Philip Neri was a practical jokester. Teresa of Ávila often asked God to deliver her from would-be saints who made a career out of looking miserable.
Good humor makes external various interior dispositions. Peacefulness, calmness, contentment, acceptance of God’s Will in one’s life – all make for genuine joy, which is not a cheap brand of hilarity or superficiality. Joy arises from the sure conviction that God is in charge, and that nothing will happen this day that He and I – together – will be unable to handle. Joy comes about because of the awareness that the greatest battles in life – against the world, the flesh and the Devil – have been fought – and won – by Jesus Christ; it but remains for us to claim the victory. This type of perspective on reality provides a person with a real sense of humor, which is a fitting and necessary pre-condition for entrance into a state of eternal joy.
Pope Benedict opened his apostolic letter promulgating the “Year of Faith” with these stirring and challenging words: “The ‘door of faith’ is always open for us, ushering us into the life of communion with God and offering entry into His Church. It is possible to cross that threshold when the Word of God is proclaimed and the heart allows itself to be shaped by transforming grace. To enter through that door is to set out on a journey that lasts a lifetime.”
Well, we have come to the end of our course in the making of a saint, and the one thing that should strike us is how incredibly easy – and enjoyable – it all should be. Of course, someone like Saint Thérèse set the goal of her life in childhood, as she mentioned so often: “I’ve always wished that I could be a saint.” And then she gives a final piece of advice, advice we would all do well to heed: “Believe me, don’t wait until tomorrow to begin becoming a saint.” As the Holy Father said, it’s “a journey that lasts a lifetime,” but we need to embark on that journey today. The French author of the last century, Léon Bloy, put our whole question into clear relief with stunning simplicity and depth. You have undoubtedly heard it many times before, but its repetition doesn’t detract from its profound insight: “There is only one sadness in life – not being a saint.”
(Editor’s note: This homily was preached for the Solemnity of All Saints at the Church of the Holy Innocents in New York City in 2018, and was originally posted on November 1, 2018.)
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