The Italian mystic St. Paul of the Cross boldly said, “Be as eager to break your own will as the thirsty stag is to drink of the refreshing waters.” I emphasized the phrase break your own will as that imaginary stood out as quite audacious. To break the will seems such a violent thing to do to yourself.
After researching a bit on this saint, I learned that Paul was the founder of the Passionists a religious order dedicated to a penitential life in solitude and poverty. Since Paul of the Cross lived in isolation from the world do his words hold any meaning for a regular, ‘normal’ people who hold down jobs, have a family? Should not “super-holiness” be reserved for priests and nuns?
You are Called to Holiness
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church paragraph 2013, “All Christians in any state or walk of life are called to the fullness of Christian life and to the perfection of charity.”65 All are called to holiness: “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
We are coming up on the perfect season to increase our holiness— Lent! The Lenten season is modeled after Jesus’ 40-day time in the wilderness. Because Jesus is God, he was able to stave off the allures of the Devil. His witness showed that both praying and fasting disable the weaponry of the Evil One. The practice of self-denial is absolutely essential in growing in virtue! Saying YES to God through prayer allows us to say NO to those unhealthy pleasures of the world—through the practice of fasting.
Say NO to Sin
struggle mightily with the pressures of the world, and those self-imposed. Anger, resentment, and impatience come as a result of succumbing to the things of this world. Self-reflection and renewing a practice for saying YES to pray helps begin a habit of saying NO to: impatience, pride, greed, envy, power-control, etc.
Saint Francis de Sales affirms the message of Paul of the Cross, the Catechism and Christ by stating, “The more one mortifies his natural inclinations, the more he renders himself capable of receiving divine inspirations and of progressing in virtue.” Be fast to practice fasting. If you struggle at first remember to say YES to God (pray!) in order to say NO to yourself.
Have you ever received gifts or trinkets growing up that you continue to keep for sentimental or nostalgic value? Something a family member or a friend gave you on a birthday or for a special event that remains on prominent display in your home?
I received a prism on my 8th birthday. A simple but an intriguing item. I kept it on my bookshelf for many years. Unfortunately, I lost the prism. I still reflect (no pun intended) on the awesome light tricks: bending rays of light and creating miniature rainbows. The splendid spectrum-forming crystal helped in forming simple and joyful memories with my siblings. Since lacking a physical prism, I still use a metaphorical prism as a perfect analogy for explaining how diversity (of light) can be reconciled into a focus of unity.
The word diversity tends to invoke sudden reactions from people. Perhaps it is due to a hostile political environment or maybe it is because various entertainment sources poke fun at striving for differences of thought (refer to The Office Season 1 Episode 3: “Diversity Day”). Even within my own workplace I hear co-workers scoff or grumble at the idea of recognizing differences in opinion, culture, thought, or belief. Oftentimes, failure to identify the good that people’s differences can bring for the greater good lead to hostile environments, bullying, fractured relationships, and promote self-centered tendencies.
Rainbow of Holiness
Focusing on the ugliness of the differences in the trees leads to us missing out on the beauty of the forest when viewed all together—in unity. As a person who struggles mightily with change and a fervent desire to maintain consistency throughout the day, week, and year, I oftentimes fail to see how differences can promote unity.
Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount, urges his followers, “You are the light of the world” (Matt. 5:14). Prisms separate light into various hues. Analogously, the Holy Spirit bestows individuals various gifts (hues) of charisms. These gifts help spread the light of the Gospel. Only unified through the light of Christ may the saints provide various ways to communicate the Gospel. Saint John Paul the Great said, “Unity not only embraces diversity, but is verified in diversity.”
The Catholic Church teaches various paths to holiness exist. According to the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium,
“All the faithful of Christ of whatever rank or status are called to the fullness of the Christian Life and the perfection of charity; by this holiness as such a more human manner of living is promoted in this earthly society” (no. 40).
God calls everyone to holiness.
I will not spend too much time on saints who received the sacrament of Holy Orders as the more famous saints that come to mind were priests, deacons, or bishops. According the Catechism of the Catholic Church,
“Since the beginning, the ordained ministry has been conferred and exercised in three degrees: that of bishops, that of presbyters, and that of deacons. The ministries conferred by ordination are irreplaceable for the organic structure of the Church: without the bishop, presbyters, and deacons, one cannot speak of the Church” (1593).
Saints that immediately come to mind who received the sacrament of Holy Orders include the following (not even close to an exhaustive list):
Gregory the Great
Pope John Paul II
Francis of Assisi
Francis de Sales
The vast majority of the Catholic faithful consists of married couples and their families. However, when I was researching for this article I could not think of any married saint immediately off the top of my head. Perhaps it is because marriage is more commonplace than Holy Order. I think the diversity between a man and woman in the Mystery of the sacrament of Matrimony has been lost in our culture.
Not everything in marriage needed to be reduced to sameness between the spouses. If that happens a little bit of the Mystery may disappear. Marriage involves learning about your spouse. Love desires sacrifice. It’s not about conformity or coercion. I can’t expect my wife to be exactly the same as me. The sacramental grace received from the Holy Spirit helps us grow in holiness.
Diversity leads to unity.
Here’s a list of some married saints:
Louis and Zelie Martin (more famously known as the parents of St. Therese of Lisieux)
Monica (mother of St. Augustine)
Elizabeth Ann Seton
Joachim and Anne (parents of the Blessed Virgin Mary)
Individuals not called to receive the sacrament of Holy Orders or Matrimony, often go on to live out the vocation of the religious life. The Catechism states the following about this vocation,
“Religious life derives from the mystery of the Church. It is a gift she has received from her Lord, a gift she offers as a stable way of life to the faithful called by God to profess the counsels. Thus, the Church can both show forth Christ and acknowledge herself to be the Savior’s bride. Religious life in its various forms is called to signify the very charity of God in the language of our time” (926).
Saints who lived out this lifestyle provides an impetus to the Church in times of slow growth or decline. Among the saints who lived out their religious vocations include:
Benedict of Nursia
Teresa of Avila
Mother Teresa of Calcutta
Therese of Lisieux
The fourth and final vocational path to holiness is the consecrated life. Such individuals do not receive the Sacrament of Holy Orders, Matrimony, nor life in a religious community. This vocation often gets misinterpreted as miscellaneous catch-all category for individuals either indecisive or uncommitted to the other ways to holiness. But the consecrated life is a valid and essential vocation needed in the Church. The Catechism reads highly of this vocation,
“The state of life which is constituted by the profession of the evangelical counsels, while not entering into the hierarchical structure of the Church, belongs undeniably to her life and holiness” (914).
This vocation in particular affords individuals a certain freedom, not enjoyed by the other vocational paths. People living out the chaste and consecrated life share their unique gifts with the world.
Saints who lived out this fourth path to holiness include:
Catherine of Siena
Joan of Arc
Diversity (and Unity) of Love
According to Lumen Gentium,
“For just as in one body we have many members, yet all the members have not the same function, so we, the many, are one body in Christ, but severally members one of another” (32).
While the ever relatable analogy of the Body and its individual parts testify to the truth of the unity of the Catholic Church in spite of its diverse members, I find that the analogy of the light and the color-spectrum also provides an interesting view on this seeming tension between unity and diversity. Along with my gift of a prism, I enjoyed looking at kaleidoscopes. The beauty would be lost without having light to shed brilliance on the kaleidoscope. In a similar way, the uniqueness, diversity, and individual excellence of the saints would all be in vain unless viewed through the prism of Jesus Christ.
The Catholic Church Needs the Laity Now More than Ever
If you are a parent, teacher or have any authority over anyone in a job, then you may understand the cross you must carry at times when called set down the parameters for success. As we enter the following examination of conscience as members of the church in light of recent events in our Catholic church, let us consider the responsibilities of our leaders, and take on the mindset of child being guided by a loving (and human) parent, or a docile sheep following his trusted shepherd.
As with any confession, this is not the time to confess the sins of others in excuse for our own sins. This is a time to take a serious and deep look into our hearts and where we have failed to abide and participate in the well-being of our beautiful Mother Church.
Have I been praying for our leaders? Especially, priests, bishops and cardinals?
“When people want to destroy religion they begin by attacking the priest; for when there is no priest, there is no sacrifice; and when there is no sacrifice, there is no religion.”
— St. John Vianney.
While many of us sit and read the newspaper and watch our screens in horror at the sins of some of church leaders, we must ask ourselves in earnest, how many times have I honestly prayed for them in the past year? Month? Week? Today?
We should be praying for our church leaders. Every. Single. Day. Not only that, we need to be offering sacrifices and fasting.
If the millions of Catholics all over the world prayed for our leaders’ protection, the Holy Spirit would have listened and prevented many of the Enemy’s attacks on the clergy.
Over the years, my faithful group of Sisters in Christ have done some of the following weekly ideas:
A Holy Hour of Reparation
A rosary for our church leaders
Fasting on Fridays, even just from lunch
Offering your Sunday mass intention for them
A hand-written note reminding him that you appreciate the fact that he gave up his life to serve God and all of us.
It doesn’t have to be complicated. The smallest prayer and sacrifice can make a difference when we remember what God can do with the little we offer Him.
Do I understand that God works His will through my obedience to His authority?
Our priests are not supposed to be entertainers. I have heard people complain about the way he talks, the way he sings or doesn’t; his homilies are too long, too short or too “preachy” (really?) Maybe we didn’t like what he said or the way he said it. Maybe he told us something that challenged us or took away our favorite “toy” (Harry Potter Books, Yoga, Ouija, etc.) because he proclaimed the dangers it posed to our souls, and like a rebellious son or daughter, we reacted with an offended attitude of pride, and a sharp word for him and his failures.
Did we consider he is responsible for our sanctification? Sins of omission are when we hold back from telling the truth because of our own fear of rejection. He is responsible for the entirety of his parish in this way.
If I say to the wicked, You shall surely die—and you do not warn them or speak out to dissuade the wicked from their evil conduct in order to save their lives—then they shall die for their sin, but I will hold you responsible for their blood. 19 If, however, you warn the wicked and they still do not turn from their wickedness and evil conduct, they shall die for their sin, but you shall save your life. –Ezekiel 3:18-19
Obey your leaders and defer to them, for they keep watch over you and will have to give an account, that they may fulfill their task with joy and not with sorrow, for that would be of no advantage to you. –Hebrews 13:17
Do I share in the priestly mission of the church by making my own holiness a priority?
What is the priestly mission of the church?
To understand the “priestly mission of the church”, we refer to CHRISTIFIDELES LAICI (POST-SYNODAL APOSTOLIC EXHORTATION OF HIS HOLINESS JOHN PAUL II ON THE VOCATION AND THE MISSION OF THE LAY FAITHFUL IN THE CHURCH AND IN THE WORLD.)
The lay faithful are sharers in the priestly mission, for which Jesus offered himself on the cross and continues to be offered in the celebration of the Eucharist for the glory of God and the salvation of humanity. Incorporated in Jesus Christ, the baptized are united to him and to his sacrifice in the offering they make of themselves and their daily activities (cf. Rom 12:1, 2).
How can I help the priestly mission of the church?
By offering my prayer, work, struggles, suffering and joys each day.
Speaking of the lay faithful the Council says: “For their work, prayers and apostolic endeavours, their ordinary married and family life, their daily labour, their mental and physical relaxation, if carried out in the Spirit, and even the hardships of life if patiently borne-all of these become spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ (cf. 1 Pt 2:5). During the celebration of the Eucharist these sacrifices are most lovingly offered to the Father along with the Lord’s body. Thus as worshipers whose every deed is holy, the lay faithful consecrate the world itself to God”.
I recently stumbled upon a post on social media by a priest who is the new pastor of my home parish from years ago. He had posted a prayer that I found remarkably inspiring and it is the attitude we should all assume since each and everyone of us IS THE CHURCH. Pick up your yoke, give thanks to God and learn from this holy attitude that he has each mass pray together after communion each week:
Lord Jesus Christ, I thank you for our parish, St Mary’s Delaware. My parish is composed of people like me. I help make it what it is. It will be friendly, if I am. It will be holy, if I am holy. Its pews will be filled. if I help fill them. It will do great work, if I work. It will be prayerful, if I pray. It will make generous gifts to many causes, if I am a generous giver.
It will bring others to worship, if I invite and bring them in. It will be a place of loyalty and love, of fearlessness and faith, of compassion, charity and mercy, if I, who make it what it is, am filled with these same things. Therefore, with the help of God, I now dedicate myself to the task of being all the things that I want my parish to be. Amen. Sylvester Onyeachonam; pastor St Mary Church Delaware Ohio
Let us as laity follow the example of this loving shepherd and remember:
What I am, my church will be.
Megan Naumovski is a writer, teacher of the Catholic Faith, speaker and blogger at The Domestic Church of Bosco boscoworld.blog with a mission to form laity in the Church, support priests, and bridge Christian friendships beyond the borders of denominations. Formerly a youth minister, teacher of religious education and apostolate leader for youth, she now works in leadership with Catholic women and writes in her sleep because she can’t help it.
Christianity in the 21st seems to get more difficult as each day passes. Unfavorable Supreme Court decisions, hostile media reporting, and hypocrisy within the Catholic Church on the sexual abuse scandal makes the desire to follow the teachings of Christ quite tough.
Jesus even promised that the way to Heaven would not be easy. In Matthew 19:24 he declared, “Again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
On average, camels grow to the shoulder height of 6 feet high and the length of about 9-10 feet. Typically, the khaki-colored creatures weigh well over 1,000 pounds. The eye of a needle is quite small, just slightly greater than the width of the thread that goes through it. Certainly, Jesus’ example was only hyperbolic when it comes to entering Heaven! Right?!
The late Catholic nun Mother Angelica quipped, “Holiness of life is not the privilege of a chosen few – it is the obligation, the call, and the will of God for every Christian.” Holy individuals make it appear easy to live the holy life. However, when we try it ourselves it is quite different. Not to downplay that difficult road toward Heaven, because it truly is difficult, I have learned that in some ways holiness need not be as cumbersome as we may make it to be. I wish to share three tried and true steps to grow in holiness.
According to St. Josemaria Escriva, “You don’t know how to pray? Put yourself in the presence of God, and as soon as you have said, ‘Lord, I don’t know how to pray!’ you can be sure you have already begun.” Praying is plainly described as talking with God. Relationship involves dialogue: speaking and listening. Prayer involves a two-way conversation.
If you are unsure what to say to God, maybe begin your prayer simply in silence–waiting for God start. Some people feel more comfortable petitioning God for help. That is also a great way to start prayer. Just be sure to allow time and be open to God’s reply as well.
Learn from Scriptures and Saintly Writings
Another easy step to increase holiness is to open up a Bible or read a spiritual work by a saint. The key to this step is not the length of time, but instead the frequency and consistency by which you acquaint yourself with spiritual writings. Schedules are busy with work and family obligations taking up a large chunk of the day.
Begin with small and reasonable goals with how much time to spend on spiritual reading. Maybe your daily routine allows for an hour, maybe it only allows for a few minutes. Start will just reading for 5 minutes a day. You will be surprised how much your week will improve with insight from those holy men and women!
The third thing to incorporate into a daily routine is sacrifice. True love involves giving yourself for the other. It involves sacrifice and reduction of selfish tendencies. Authentic change and orienting your life towards holiness will not happen overnight. In fact, it will take time and likely a lot of time. Be prepared to grow in holiness for the rest of your life!
Because of the long term commitment, I say let’s start small with manageable tiny sacrifices. It may simply involve refraining from a sarcastic comment when your spouse, friend, or neighbor annoy you. St. Josemaria Escriva, “Don’t say, ‘That person bothers me.’ Think: ‘That person sanctifies me.'” That would be a small, but still sacrificial moment. Once you have the daily routine of sacrifice for your loved ones day pat then you may focus on larger sacrifices.
Starting, or perhaps restarting, your spiritual journey need not be impossible. Developing a daily habit of prayer, frequent spiritual reading, and looking for the good of the other [and the Ultimate Other] through small sacrifices will help your increase your virtue and transform your life.
“Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest.29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves.30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.” –Matthew 11:28-30
“So be holy just as your heavenly Father is be holy.” –Matthew 5:48
Jesus’ charge to his disciples in Matthew 5:48, “So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” His declaration formed the longstanding and consistent Catholic Church teaching that holiness is a universal call for everyone. Sainthood is not meant to be reserved for priests and nuns. St. Francis de Sales’ Introduction to the Devout Life, Lumen Gentium, and the writings of St. Josemaria Maria Escriva acted as watershed writings that helped me understanding the catholicity of holiness. Now, I have another work to add to this tremendous list—Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation Gaudete Et Exsultate.
Maintaining the traditional claim that holiness for both laity and ordained alike, Francis communicates this message in a fresh manner that still adheres to traditional Catholic teaching. Below are key points from the exhortation that stood out to me and believe echo important wisdom and truth for all.
Universal Call to Holiness: The pontiff’s aim in writing Gaudete Et Exsultate is clearly indicated from the beginning, “My modest goal is to re-propose the call to holiness in a practical way for our own time, with all its risks, challenges, and opportunities” (#2). Pope Francis goes on to describe sanctity as a process that is available to all—referring to the need for “saints next door”. Salvation is a communal endeavor and not meant to compartmentalize individuals in isolation. The Argentinian pope declares, “In salvation history, the Lord saved one people. We are never completely ourselves unless we belong to a people. That is why no one is saved along, as an isolated individual” (#6).
I am reminded by J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring as the best fictional analogy for humanity’s journey towards holiness. Although Frodo is the primary ring-bearer he is surrounded by a cadre of helpmates in his journey to destroy the One Ring. In similar fashion, while you may be the primary character in your unique quest towards sanctity, God provides coworkers [your spouse, family, friends, and the saints] to assist.
Progressive Nature of Holiness: Along with sanctity involving a fellowship, the universal call to holiness involves a journey across the timeline of your life. Pope Francis states in Gaudete Et Exsultate #50, “Grace acts in history; ordinarily it takes hold of us and transforms us progressively.” In other words, it takes time to become a saint! Processes contain both blessings and challenges. On one hand, God mercifully affords humanity multiple opportunities to repent and seek his will. However, the journey of life sometimes becomes difficult and we oftentimes yearn for union with God in Heaven before our earthly affairs complete. The drudgery of life is exhausting and temptations of the world constantly allure and assault us. How may be combat these continual attacks? Communicate with the Holy Trinity. “Prayer is most precious, for it nourishes a daily commitment to love,” the Argentinian pontiff writes (#104).
Realness of Holiness: Sainthood is not meant to be an ephemeral experience. Instead, holiness involves raw, concrete living with our neighbors’ best interests at heart. To quote St. John Paul II from his Apostolic Letter Novo Millenio Ineunte, “If we truly start out anew from the contemplation of Christ, we must learn to see him especially in the faces of those with whom he himself wished to be identified.” Jesus Christ advised us in Matthew 25:40 “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.”
Pope Francis unabashedly stated, “If I encounter a person sleeping outdoors on a cold night, I can view him or her as an annoyance, an idler, an obstacle in my path, a troubling sight, a problem for politicians to sort out, or even a piece of refuse cluttering a public square” (Gaudete Et Exsultate, #98). How easily do we pigeonhole holiness within the walls of a church or within the realm of the Scriptures? Most of humanity work within the world and face opportunities to be charitable to others on an hourly basis.
Throughout the work week, I struggled mightily with anger and contempt towards co-workers who differed in their approach and willingness to assist customers in need. When I allowed anger to color my outlook on justice I don a metaphorical judge’s robe–such sentiment is not healthy for my spiritual well-being. After a frustrating day at work, I called my brother for support. His first reply upon hearing my concerns were, “Matt, are those people still children of God?” Humbly, I had to retracted a bit on my anger and cede to his point. “Yes, of course they are!” I emphatically admitted. This moment coupled with Pope Francis’ charge to be holy in everyday situations helped re-frame my mindset.
4. Surprise of Joy: Together with realizing that holiness is meant to be a tangible experience with love of God and neighbor, Pope Francis reminded me that humor and joy are key components to holiness. He states, “Far from being timid, morose, acerbic or melancholy, or putting on a dreary face, the saints are joyful and full of good humor. Though completely realistic, they radiate a positive and hopeful spirit. The Christian life is ‘joy in the Holy Spirit’ (Rom. 14:17), for the ‘necessary result of the love of charity is joy; since every lover rejoices at being united to the beloved…the effect of charity is joy'” (Gaudete Et Exsultate, #122).
In the midst of seemingly harrowing situations saints wear the face of joy. Holy men and women unite themselves to the Holy Spirit through constant prayer and reliance on God. Francis urges, “Hard times may come, when the cross casts its shadow, yet nothing can destroy the supernatural joy that ‘adapts and changes, but always endures, even as a flicker of light born of our personal certainty that, when everything is said and done, we are infinitely loved.’ That joy brings deep security, serene hope and a spiritual fulfillment that the world cannot understand or appreciate” (Gaudete Et Exsultate, #125).
The Lord desires us, his children, to be joyful and fulfilled in this life–and the next. Reading Gaudete Et Exsultate helped remind me that the simple joy of holiness is our ultimate aim in this reality. Sainthood is a calling for all–not the few– and it is possible, but it takes time and the grace of God!