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Opinion: Creating the conditions for holiness

The experiences of the Church in America these last two decades painfully recall that mortal sin always spreads beyond the sinner to poison the waters all around him.

(Image: Darrin Moore/Unsplash.com)

Imagine two baseball diamonds. One is pristine: grass closely cropped, perfectly even terrain, brightly chalked foul lines, a smooth warning track, and padded walls decorating the whole perimeter. The other is unkept: grass patches interspersed with weeds, dirt clumps, and scattered holes, barely visible foul lines, an outfield encroaching into an uneven infield, and a serrated fence around the perimeter that could infect an incautious outfielder with tetanus.

These field conditions will have a profound effect on the quality of the game played on it. If MLB All-Stars contested their annual mid-summer classic on the unkept field, the players and fans would be aghast: the players’ skills would not be the determining factor of the outcome; “bad hops” and “unlucky breaks” caused when the ball hit holes, grass patches, or an uncertain foul line would instead become the storyline. It wouldn’t take long before players and coaches would be screaming and moping in frustration.

Likewise, if the Bad News Bears were to play on the pristine field, these hapless Little Leaguers would not suddenly become as good as professionals. But they would be able to focus on improving their baseball skills without the distractions – and excuses – that a jagged field provides with every batted ball.

This field analogy applies to Catholic life – to the Church universal, to our parishes, to our schools. As a field exists so we can play baseball, the Church exists so we can meet Christ, and then be transformed by Him. We call this transformation growth in holiness, a process that begins at baptism and, for most of us, is not completed until our souls are cleansed in Purgatory.

As with our baseball fields, the conditions of the Church have a profound effect on how well, or not, we grow in holiness. Holiness cannot be compelled, of course. But, as with the Bad News Bears, if the Church sets the proper foundations, the faithful are better able to concentrate on their spiritual development than they would be if engulfed by elements that distract – in the literal sense of “drag away” – from God.

Of these distractions, the presence of mortal sin within the Church destroys the desire for holiness more quickly than holes and dirt clumps can ruin a ball game. The experiences of the Church in America these last two decades painfully recall that mortal sin always spreads beyond the sinner to poison the waters all around him.

In addition to sin’s debilitating effects, the Church in America has been facing an identity problem since Vatican II. There is universal consensus on the necessary elements for creating a pristine baseball field. But no such consensus exists for how to create a “pristine” Catholic parish or school. Of course, there have always been different ways of “being Catholic” – monks, nuns, laity, Franciscans, Dominicans, Jesuits, Marianists, Carmelites, Benedictines, and Camillians remind us of that. These groups exhibit their devotion to the one Catholic faith by emphasizing a particular dimension of it.

By contrast, the Church in America, while attempting to engage the modern world as Vatican II desired, has often been uncertain about what the Catholic faith is, and therefore emphasizes none of it. Too often our pastoral approach, our parishes built and Masses celebrated since the council, and our school curricula and ethos have been dictated by what we assume the world wants, rather than by what our faith requires.

Tragically, it seems as if those so determined to implement Vatican II according to the desires of the world forgot a major exhortation of the council: the universal call to holiness articulated in Chapter Five of Lumen Gentium. The council very clearly delineates what the faithful must do to become holy:

[E]ach one of the faithful must willingly hear the Word of God and accept His Will, and must complete what God has begun by their own actions with the help of God’s grace. These actions consist in the use of the sacraments and in a special way the Eucharist, frequent participation in the sacred action of the Liturgy, application of oneself to prayer, self-abnegation, lively fraternal service and the constant exercise of all the virtues. (42)

Not included here are the worldly desires of “being welcoming and inclusive,” or “making the liturgy relevant,” or “empowering the laity to change the world.” Holiness, Lumen Gentium makes abundantly clear, requires humbling ourselves before God, whose will – not the world’s – should drive all we do as Catholics, especially in our churches and schools.

How, then, can we create the conditions for holiness within the Church? We implement what Lumen Gentium describes.

First, we willingly hear the Word of God and accept his Will. That is, we read the Bible in churches and schools, and interpret it as taught by the Church’s unbroken tradition. That includes accepting as true the Bible’s moral teachings on human sexuality that the world wants changed. Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich of Luxemburg and Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Germany do not seem to have holiness as their main goal in their recent insistence that the Bible and the Church have incorrectly prohibited same-sex relationships.

Second, we frequent the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, and do so by treating the Mass as a sacred action. To include elements of the secular world – from guitars to catchy music to pop culture gimmicks to bringing people into the sanctuary – in the hopes of drawing attendance means we have already failed to direct people toward holiness, for these are all secular goals. Only the honor and glory of God are fitting for a church, and honoring God generates holiness. Within the parish church, beauty and reverence are the gifts we offer to glorify God.

Third, we provide opportunities for prayer, self-abnegation, acts of charity, and exercises in virtues. None of these, especially self-abnegation, are values of the world. But they all are characteristics of every saint highlighted on the Church calendar, from the greatest to the least. If we want to learn holiness, we should first seek out the holy ones of the Church as our teachers, and then follow their examples.

Holiness, since is leads to God, attracts. Sin, worldly desires, and secular values turn us away from God. If we are serious about fulfilling Vatican II’s universal call to holiness, what we have to do is clear. And the results will speak for themselves: “If you build it, they will come.”


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About David G. Bonagura, Jr. 18 Articles
David G. Bonagura, Jr. teaches at St. Joseph’s Seminary, New York. He is the author of Steadfast in Faith: Catholicism and the Challenges of Secularism. and Staying with the Catholic Church: Trusting God's Plan of Salvation.

3 Comments

  1. “The experiences of the Church in America these last two decades painfully recall that mortal sin always spreads beyond the sinner to poison the waters all around him.”

    Not only in America nor only in recent decades. Consider the French novelist and cultural critic Georges Bernanos: “We couldn’t go on living if we thought of such things. No madame, I don’t think we could. I don’t suppose if God had given us the clear knowledge of how closely we are bound to one another, both in good and evil, that we could go on living, as you say” (Diary of a Country Priest, 1937).

    And, so, with Marx and Hollerich, why not simply relabel everything, and then humbly accept whatever promotion is offered. Just move things along. That’s how we “go on living.”

  2. A key would be to censor evil speech. This would need to be done through the cooperation of the state with the Catholic Church.

    Also, there would need to be another cooperative effort to strictly enforce modest dress for males and females.

    Finally, the state would need to get out of its usurping “business” of attempting to solve “family problems” (e.g. “divorce,” domestic violence, child abuse, etc.) There may be some extreme cases where intervention is required, but it would seem that the Church ought to play a role in making a judgment concerning this.

  3. It’s probably just me, but I have a hard time seeing V2 as being authoritative, and therefore don’t respond well to arguments from its text.

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