Last week’s column spoke about the broad sweep of history within the Catholic Church. In every age, there has been a pattern of the faithful pointing to others as the “Holy Ones of God.” The focus changed from Apostles, to martyrs, to the desert hermits, to the monastic men and women, to the age of wandering missionaries, to nascent movement of mendicant women and men seeking a lay holiness (only to be regularized into religious orders) – the focus never on the everyday holiness of believers. The focus remained on those men and women to whom miracles were attributed, whose life of heroic faith, while indeed praiseworthy, left the rest of us saying, “Surely, they are the holy ones!”
In November 1964, the Second Vatican Council issued Lumen gentium, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church. It is one of the principal documents of the Council. Consider the title: “dogmatic” and “constitution.” This is the Pope and the Bishops, in Council, speaking authoritatively, demanding full, unconditional assent of both intellect and will by all the faithful, without exception. Lumen gentium has many insights, but one of major importance is the universal call to holiness. It is the lumen gentium, light for the nations. Discussed in Chapter 5, it says of the universal call: “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; by this holiness as such a more human manner of living… The classes and duties of life are many, but holiness is
one — that sanctity which is cultivated by all who are moved by the Spirit of God. …Every person must walk unhesitatingly according to his own personal gifts and duties in the path of living faith, which arouses hope and works through charity.”
But the Church, the vessel of the living faith, does not easily change headings. Pope John Paul II canonized 487 saints during his pontificate. The welcomed and much needed change was the preponderance of saints from non-Western European countries. People such as the Martyr Saints of China. Celebrated on July 9 is St. Augustine Zhao Rong and his 119 companions, 87 Chinese Catholics and 33 Western missionaries martyred from the mid-17th century to 1930. Pope Benedict canonized 45 saints and Pope Francis has canonized 893 saints! What remains constant is canonization focuses on “heroic sanctity” and so our list of saints continues to be martyrs, missionaries, bishops, priests, and members of religious orders. They are indeed heroic and saintly. But I wonder if it leaves us saying, “Surely, they are the holy ones.” While there are plenty of holy Fathers and Mothers on that list, where are the holy mothers and fathers? Fifty-five years after the council, in the midst of the church’s continued invitations for laypeople to lead holy lives, why are there still relatively few role models for the laity? Surely there are many who fit the definition of holiness: Men and women who, aware of God’s love for them, return that love through service to their neighbor, specifically in their humility, charity and self-sacrifice.
Several weeks ago, in my Sunday homily, I posed a question about the meaning of humility. If I had asked for a definition of humility, we could have explored the Merriam Webster definition of the word: “Freedom from pride or arrogance.” That tells us what it is not, but not a meaningful way to be in the world. Instead, the question was (a) to think of someone in your life that you think is humble. And then (b) what are that person’s traits, characteristics, and more that lead you to think them humble.
Perhaps holiness needs the same practical exploration. Consider this question: who is holier — Mother Teresa or the church-going mother who for decades takes care of an autistic child? Pope John Paul II or the pious man who holds down two jobs to support his family and still volunteers at church to help others? Faith inspires some to start a religious order. Faith enables others to raise their own families and then, without pause, turn to care for an aging parent. Heroic sanctity comes in many forms.
While the church, as is proper, holds up those whose lives are lived in the public forum, whose holiness is on display, it does not mean therein lays a higher level of holiness. As Mother Teresa said, “Holiness is not the luxury of a few. It is a simple duty for you and for me.”
As written in Lumen gentium, “Every person must walk unhesitatingly according to his own personal gifts and duties in the path of living faith, which arouses hope and works through charity.” It is a simple duty of every believer. Each of us called to be grateful for the gifts and duties we are given. Each of us called to nurture those gifts. Each of us called to justly and wisely carry out those duties. And in so doing, return it all to God as an offering of our lives.
Then we can be a church of silent saints: Men and women who, aware of God’s love for them, return that love through service to their neighbor, specifically in their humility, charity and self-sacrifice. We can be good stewards of our grace and gifts. Stewardship can become our way of life. Our everyday holiness becomes the light to the parish, the light to the neighbors, a light to our families. Then others will look to our lives and think, “Surely they must be saints.”
Even as we look to theirs and begin to see a community of holiness