THE Catholic news agency Zenit’s latest daily dispatch I have seen, that of December 11, headlines the Second Sunday of Advent of sermon of Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, preacher of the Pontifical Household. (This means even Holy Father Francis listens to his homilies and meditation talks during retreats and recollections.)
I was attracted to the 2,900-plus word sermon by its title, “The Universal Call to Holiness” because as a follower of the teachings of St. Josemaria Escriva, the Founder of Opus Dei, I am aware that “The Universal Call to Holiness” is the primary one among the essential characteristics of St. Josemaria’s teachings, writings and messages.
The following brief quotation, from St. Josemaria’s “In Love with the Church,” illustrates the importance he gives to the notion that holiness– being Christlike, therefore godlike — is every human being’s business because that is what God Almighty created us for.
“As Christian faithful, priests and lay people share one and the same condition, for God our Lord has called us to the fullness of charity which is holiness… There is no such thing as second-class holiness. Either we put up a constant fight to stay in the grace of God and imitate Christ, our Model, or we desert in that divine battle. God invites everyone; each person can become holy in his own state in life… Holiness does not depend on your state in life (married or single, widowed or ordained) but on the way you personally respond to the grace you receive. This grace teaches us to put away the works of darkness and put on the armor of light: which is serenity, peace and joyful service, full of sacrifice to all mankind.” –St. Josemaria Escriva, “In Love with the Church,” 37.
Fr. Raniero begins his homily on the universal call to holiness with a discussion of Lumen gentium, the Dogmatic Constitution of the Church, which is one of the principal documents to come out of Vatican II. St. Josemaria’s teaching were very much brought into the discussions at the Second Vatican Council by Blessed Bishop Alvaro del Portillo who was secretary of one of the ten commissions of the Council Fathers. This commission was entrusted with one of the most difficult topics from the theological and disciplinary points of view: the life and ministry of priests in the Church and in the world.
St. Josemaria’s teachings on the role of the lay faithful in the Church are also very much reiterated in Vatican II documents.
Here are some of the words from the homily of Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa last Sunday.
* * *
1. “You shall be holy; for I the LORD your God am holy”
The theme of this second meditation is Chapter 5 in Lumen gentium titled “The Universal Call to Holiness.” We could say that in the history of the [Vatican] Council this chapter is remembered only for an editing issue. Numerous Council Fathers who were members of religious orders insisted that separate treatment should be given to the presence of the religious in the Church as had been done for the laypeople. Until then what would have been a single chapter concerning the holiness of all the Church’s members was divided into two chapters, with the second one (Chapter 6) being dedicated specifically to religious.
The call to holiness is formulated from the very beginning with these words:
All in the Church, whether they belong to the hierarchy or are cared for by it, are called to holiness, according to the apostle’s saying: “For this is the will of God, your sanctification” (1 Thess 4:3).
This call to holiness is the most needed and most pressing accomplishment of the [Second] Council. Without it, all its other accomplishments are impossible or useless. It is, however, the one most at risk of being neglected since it is only God and one’s conscience that require it and call us to it, rather than pressures or interests from any particular group in the Church. At times one has the impression that in certain circles and in certain religious communities, people were more committed, after the Council, to “making saints” than in “making themselves saints,” that is, they put more effort into placing their own founders and brothers on pedestals than imitating their examples and virtues.
The first thing that needs to be done, when we speak about holiness, is to free this word from the apprehension and fear that it strikes in people because of certain mistaken ideas we have of it. Holiness can involve extraordinary phenomena and trials, but it is not to be identified with these things. If all people are called to holiness, it is because, if understood correctly, it is within everyone’s reach and is a part of normal Christian life. Saints are like flowers: there are more of them than just the ones that get put on the altar. How many of them blossom and die hidden after having silently perfumed the air around them! How many of these hidden flowers have bloomed and bloom continually in the Church!
The basic reason for holiness is clear from the outset, and it is that God is holy: “You shall be holy; for I the LORD your God am holy” (Lev 19:2). Holiness, in the Bible, is the summary of all of God’s attributes. Isaiah calls God “the Holy One of Israel,” that is, the one whom Israel has known as the Holy One. “Holy, holy, holy,” Qadosh, qadosh, qadosh, is the cry that accompanies the manifestation of God at the moment of Isaiah’s calling (Is.6:3). Mary faithfully reflects this idea of God in the prophets and the psalms when she exclaims in the Magnificat, “Holy is his name” (Luke 1:48).
x x x x x x x x x
When one tries to see how human beings enter into the sphere of God’s holiness and what it means to be holy, the prevalence of a ritual approach immediately appears in the Old Testament. The means through which God’s holiness is conveyed are objects, places, rituals, and rules. Whole sections of Exodus and Leviticus are titled the “holiness code” or “laws of holiness.” Holiness is enclosed within a code of laws. It is the kind of holiness that becomes defiled if someone approaches the altar with a physical deformity or after having touched an unclean animal: “Consecrate yourselves therefore, and be holy. . . . You shall not defile yourselves with any swarming thing” (Lev 11:44; see Lev 21:23).
We hear different voices among the prophets and in the psalms. The questions, “Who shall ascend the hill of the LORD? And who shall stand in his holy place?” (Psalm 24:3) or “Who among us can dwell with the devouring fire?” (Is 33:14) are answered in purely moral terms: “He who has clean hands and a pure heart” (Ps 24:4), and “He who walks righteously and speaks uprightly” (Is 33:15). These sublime voices, however, remain somewhat solitary. Even in Jesus’ time, the idea was still prevalent among the Pharisees and in the Qumran that holiness and righteousness consisted in ritual purity and in the observance of certain precepts, in particular about the Sabbath—even though, in theory, no one was forgetting the first and greatest commandment of love of God and neighbor.
* * *
The innovation Christ introduced
The 2nd part of Fr. Cantalamessa’s sermon is titled “2. The Innovation of Christ” and tells how in the New Testament the definition of “holy nation” is extended to include the Christians. And that St. Paul said the baptized are “saints by vocation” or are “called to be saints” (Rom 1:7; 1 Cor 1:2).” And places and things are no longer the key things to holiness. It is the person himself or herself who must be a saint because he/she is called to be one.
Part 3 is titled “3. Saints or Failures.” Among other things, Fr. Cantalamessa tells us that “Holiness is required by the very being of human creatures. It does not concern what philosophy calls accidents but their very essence. They must be holy to fulfill their profound identity, which is to be “in the image and likeness of God.” Therefore,
If we are “called to be saints,” if we are “saints by vocation,” then it is clear that we become true, successful human beings to the extent that we become saints. Otherwise, we will be failures. The contrary of a saint is not a sinner but a failure! People can fail in life in so many ways, but they are relative failures that do not compromise what is essential.
Part 4 is “Resuming the Path toward Holiness” when we have stopped and must be on a fresh start. And that is when we must ask ourselves– “Who am I? What do I want? What am I doing with my life?”