Holiness: The Vocation We Share

Bishop Thomas J. Tobin - Without a Doubt

The Celebration of All Saints on November 1st is a joyful and blessed day for the Church; it’s a victory celebration for us. On this day we honor the saints, our heroes, members of the Church who are now enshrined in the heavenly Hall of Fame. We look to the saints for inspiration and guidance, and we pray for their assistance in our daily lives.

Pope John Paul II, now counted among the saints himself, put it this way: “Let us all rejoice in the Lord on this Solemnity of All the Saints! Ours is a sheer joy, a strengthening one, like that found in a big family.”

Devotion to the saints is one of the really special aspects of our Catholic Faith. It speaks to us of the “Communion of Saints.” As I’ve observed previously, Catholics embrace their saints as favorite, if sometimes eccentric, members of our spiritual family.

We know that our spiritual family, the Church, is comprised of diverse vocations – priests, deacons, religious and lay. Everyone has a role to play and an important contribution to make. The saints, however, remind us of the one vocation, the foundational vocation, that we share: the call to holiness! Simply put, that’s the goal of our entire Christian life – to be holy!

Now, when we speak of goals, we realize that some goals are attainable and others are completely beyond our reach. For example, I might really want to travel in space and visit Mars, but it’s never going to happen. I might want to be the star quarterback on a winning team in the NFL, but it’s never going to happen.

And some people think of holiness as one of those impossible goals. If you ask the average Christian if they think of themselves as holy, if they consider themselves a saint, most will laugh, or be embarrassed and humbly object. “Me, a saint?” they’ll respond incredulously. “Far from it.” They consider holiness to be the special gift of a privileged few.

The truth is, however, that holiness is a very attainable goal. That’s one of the things the saints teach us. Think about it – would God give us a goal that’s beyond our reach? How cruel would that be!

Holiness is our primary vocation, and God has provided all the tools we need to attain it, to become, in fact, a saint. As St. Paul reminds us: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavens, as he chose us in him, before the foundation of the world, to be holy.” (Eph 1:3-4)

So, if we’re all destined for holiness, if God has blessed us with “every spiritual blessing in the heavens,” why do we think that achieving holiness is so unrealistic? Why do we consider ourselves unworthy to be a saint?

Or, we might, ask, how did the saints become holy? Where did they get their courage and conviction? After all, they too, built their lives on the very fragile foundation of human nature, as we all do. All of the saints – our Blessed Mother being the sole exception – had weaknesses and imperfections. Some were notorious sinners before they became saints.

The difference, I think, is that the saints took their call seriously. They longed for holiness, they thirsted for it, they worked at it, and they wanted to be holy more than anything else in the world.

The saints embraced all the means of spiritual growth at their disposal. They spent time in prayer; they listened to the Word of God; they received the Sacraments; they obeyed the Commandments; they were involved in the Church; and they found inspiration in the lives of other saints who had gone before them.

You see, there is no secret to holiness. All of these spiritual tools the saints used, we have them too! The prayer, the Bible, the Sacraments, the Commandments, the Church, and the example of the saints – we have all of them available to us too.

So, what’s keeping us from growing in holiness? Could it be our own lack of commitment, our apathy, our spiritual laziness?

In a book written by Anton Gill, Il Gigante, a compelling story of the David statue and the City of Florence in the 16th century, there is an excerpt from a letter written by Michelangelo in which he describes the difference and the similarity between sculpture and painting. The great artist wrote: “Those things that have the same end are the same thing; painting and sculpture are the same thing. I understand sculpture: that which is made by the force of taking-away. Painting is that which is made by the force of adding-on.”

Isn’t that a great description of the spiritual life? Our progress in holiness is a combination of taking away and adding on. We chisel away temptation, vice, and sin, and we add to the canvas of our life virtue and godliness.

Growing in holiness is the work of a lifetime. We’re never finished; we’re never perfect. The important thing, though, is that we never give up. Sometimes we fall, but we get up again. Sometimes we take two steps backward but then, we walk again, taking one step forward. Yes! We keep on going.

We’re all called to be holy. We’re all meant to be saints. We should never tire of longing for holiness. And someday, when the faithful celebrate the Feast of All Saints, they’ll be praying to you and me!