“We are all called to be holy by living our lives with love
and by bearing witness in everything we do, wherever we find ourselves”
(Pope Francis, Gaudete Et Exsultate, para14)
For more than fifty years, the Church has been reminding us constantly that we are called to lives of holiness and that this call is by it’s very nature universal.
The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council spoke plainly on the matter –
“all the faithful of Christ of whatever rank or status, are called to the fullness of the Christian life and to the perfection of charity.. They must devote themselves with all their being to the glory of God and the service of their neighbour.” (Lumen Gentium para 40)
Writing in his Apostolic Letter ‘Novo Millenio Ineunte’ in January 2001, Pope John Paul II reminded us of this universal call to holiness, assuring us that we already have the means necessary to answer the call –
“The programme already exists: it is the plan found in the Gospel and in the living Tradition, it is the same as ever. Ultimately, it has its centre in Christ himself, who is to be known, loved and imitated, so that in him we may live the life of the Trinity.. This is a programme which does not change with shifts of times and cultures, even though it takes account of time and culture for the sake of true dialogue and effective communication.” (para.29)
Ten years after this, speaking at his General Audience on 13 April 2011, Pope Benedict explicitly brought our attention back to the same subject once more –
“The Second Vatican Council, in the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, speaks with clarity of the universal call to holiness, saying that no one is excluded”
Most recently, our present Holy Father, Pope Francis, wrote an entire Apostolic Exhortation on the Universal Call to Holiness. Published on 19 March 2018, it was entitled ‘Gaudete Et Exsultate’ (Rejoice And Be Glad) and subtitled ‘on the call to holiness in today’s world’.
In this, he emphasised – as the Council and his immediate predecessors had done before him – that we are tasked with answering this call. He wrote –
“I would like to insist primarily on the call to holiness that the Lord addresses to each of us, the call that He also addresses, personally, to you – ‘be holy, for I am holy’. The Second Vatican Council stated this clearly.. ‘all the faithful, whatever their condition or state, are called by the Lord – each in his or her own way – to that perfect holiness by which the Father Himself is perfect’.” (para.10)
All of this leaves us in no doubt, then, that the clear and consistent teaching of the Catholic Church over the last 56 years is that every single one of us, without exception, is called to holiness, no matter who or what or where we might be.
As Pope Francis notes, each of us is called ‘in his or her own way’.
Looking back across the history of the Church, we see so very many Saints, each of whom responded heroically well to this call to holiness – but each one in his or her own way’. Every Saint is different, because the particular path of each person is different. We are called to imitate the Saints at the broad level, certainly – but to walk our own paths as we do so.
I have recently been reading a biography of a particular Saint I am very fond of – St Margaret Mary Alacoque, through whom we have the devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. This biography was written by her confessor around the time of her death in 1690. Now, I have a very deep devotion to the Sacred Heart, but I know full well that I have no hope whatsoever of living the kind of life of faith which she lived. Her particular charisms and spirituality are, at least in their expression, far outwith my reach and I will never attain them, no matter how I try. Consequently, while I have no doubt about her personal holiness, I don’t find her to be a model that I can follow, simply because I cannot relate in any way to her personal experience.
This perhaps illustrates a point I have made previously, that the Lord gives particular Saints to the Church at particular moments of history – and those Saints are intended to illustrate a need in the Church and the world, and a viable way of responding. Their way is a viable way for us because we are able to follow them better and to emulate some of what they live out.
A good example of this might be Venerable Matt Talbot. I have written a biography of Matt Talbot here previously and will not repeat it other than to note that on realising he was living a deeply unholy life, Matt determined to change his ways and to overcome those issues in his life which were leading him astray; with intense and persistent effort, he succeeded in this and he became a model of true sanctity, living out the rest of his life in genuine striving for holiness. Matt died in Dublin, Ireland, in 1925, so he is will within the broad timeframe of holy people who are not too distant from us.
The models we choose – in the quest for sanctity as much as in every other area of life – are very personal but also incredibly important; our choices say something about us and about what we perceive to be of value, about what we desire to achieve in this short life. We are reminded of this importance at the time of our Confirmation, when we are asked to choose a ‘patron Saint’ whose example we will henceforth strive to follow.
Perhaps this is a good moment to stop and look at ourselves, to carefully examine what ‘models’ we follow in the general course of our lives. Is our focus on television celebrities, for example, as models of a particular way of life? What message about values are they offering us? And what about our political views? What do they say about what we consider to be of importance? And what of those with whom we spend our time? What values do they offer us, and which we are perhaps most likely to copy because of our contact with and proximity to those people?
With regard to the spiritual life, it is good to ask ourselves the very same questions. Which Saints have a particular appeal for us? What might that appeal consist of? What is it about these specific Saints that we wish to emulate in some way in our own lives?
Please God, we will choose our models well in life generally and especially in the spiritual life; that we will be docile to the inspirations of the Holy Spirit, Who leads us if only we will listen.
It is He, after all, Who gently whispers within our hearts that call to holiness to which every single one of us is invited to respond ‘in his or her own way’.