We can talk on and on about holiness, but that does not make any of us truly holy. Holiness is made possible by a profound openness or receptivity toward almighty God. He shares something of himself. We have many tools to further spiritual formation. We have religious books, bibles, catechisms and works on prayer. We have the sacraments which give grace. We have the Church’s preaching and teaching. We have our solidarity with one another in the Lord. All this benefits us, if we want to be forgiven, healed, strengthened and enlightened.
Holiness is not the same as piety. It is easy to go through the motions of faith. Indeed, some are quite good at it and that is why there is so much scandal in the Church. St. Augustine tells us in his work, THE CITY OF GOD, that we must wait until the consummation of the world to know for sure who is truly in the kingdom of Christ and who belongs to the opposing city of darkness. The problem is that sometimes good and holy people will occasionally do bad things and bad or wicked people will sometimes do good things. While the gift is shared with a few confessors, it is God who can truly read and know souls— getting past the deception or walls planted by rebellion and sin.
The writer and apologist C. S. Lewis remarked that he came back to the Christian faith through the route of academia and the intellectual life. He observed that most converts come by way of friendships or relationships with other believers. There is something evocative or moving about a good story. When we encounter the saints, either from the past or in our encounters with living holy men and women, there is also a meeting with Christ. Our stories intersect. The saints inspire and energize us. They give us hope that we might know forgiveness and not fear the troubles of life or the specter of death. Similarly, vocations to the priesthood are often linked to a relationship with a hardworking pastor of souls. This does not mean that such a priest would have to be the best preacher or even the most agile or healthy of men. The faithful in the pews are moved by the sacrifices and holiness of their shepherds. It is for the same reason that much harm is cause by clergy who are selfish and who abuse their charges. All this is to say, and this includes clergy and lay alike, that it is often difficult or impossible to separate the message from the messenger. The believer is not merely commissioned to spread the Good News, he or she must BECOME the Good News. We become imitators of Christ. We are to shine with the likeness of the Lord. As with the late Pope John Paul II and Mother Teresa, it was said that one felt in meeting them that one was in the presence of Jesus.
Back in the late 1990’s and early 2000, a number of schools, parochial and public, sought to offer a “virtues curriculum.” The catalyst was THE BOOK OF VIRTUES by William Bennett. The idea was to teach values and make saints or at least better people. Catholic schools had some success but the secular schools less so. I suspect the reason for the disparity is that it is hard to teach virtues or values divorced from religious faith in God. Separated from faith, rules or laws become arbitrary and lack certainty. We are experiencing something of the fallout from this in that political and social reformers believe they have dominion over both divine positive law and natural law. “Thou shalt not kill” is abrogated to permit capital punishment and abortion. Fidelity to the marriage bed is dismissed to allow for the excesses of an erotic society, no fault divorce and same-sex unions. Separated from a properly formed conscience and the truth, even the rule of a majority can become a tyranny against the Church and those with traditional values. Indeed, fiction can rule over facts as with the crisis over gender identity. By contrast, the saints realized the Gospel mandate and help us to find ourselves and how we should behave. They give meat to the virtues and inspire us to live them out as well.
The saints are often beacons to the moral virtues: courage (bravery), fortitude (diligence), temperance (moderation), justice (righteousness), prudence (discernment), liberality (altruism), and truthfulness (veracity). Such natural values (shared even with the pre-Christian Greeks) set the stage for supernatural virtues. When we think about saints, we immediately ponder how we are supposed to behave and our need to be oriented toward “the good” and not evil. They set the ground for the capital virtues and positive habits against bad inclinations and temptations. The saints take charge of their lives through the virtues while men and women of sin are ruled by their vices. While the natural virtues can be made known through the proper use of reason, the supernatural virtues are only discerned through divine revelation: faith, hope, and charity. Faith and hope will get us to the door of heaven. Charity or love is what ushers the saints inside.
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