(Lumen gentium, Chapter 5)
A few days ago we have entered the 50th anniversary of the conclusion of Vatican II and the jubilee Year of Mercy. We must say that the link between the theme of mercy and the Second Vatican Council is anything but arbitrary or minor. St. John XXIIII, in his opening address for the council on October 11, 1962, pointed to mercy as the new approach in the council’s style:
“The Church has always opposed . . . errors [throughout the ages]. Frequently she has condemned them with the greatest severity. Nowadays however, the Spouse of Christ prefers to make use of the medicine of mercy rather than that of severity.”
In a certain sense, half a century later, the Year of Mercy celebrates the faithfulness of the Church to this promise.
Some think that insisting too much on God’s mercy we neglect another equally important attribute of God, his justice. But God’s justice, not only does not contradict his mercy, but consists precisely in it. God is love and mercy, so for that reason he is just to himself—he truly demonstrates who he is—when he has mercy. Centuries before Luther St. Augustine had clearly explained the meaning of the phrase “the righteousness of God” according to Paul’s use of it: “‘The righteousness of God’ is that by which we are made righteous, just as ‘the salvation of God (salus Domini) (Psalm 3:4) means the salvation by which he causes us to be saved.”
All this doesn’t exhaust all the meanings of divine justice; it is however the most important one. There will be, one day, another kind of justice, that by which God “will render to every man according to his works” (Rom 2, 5-10), but it is not the justice Paul is speaking of when he says: “Now God’s justice has been revealed” (Rom 3, 21). This is a present event, the other a future one. In an another passage the Apostle explains what he means by God’s justice: “When the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of deeds done by us in righteousness, but in virtue of his own mercy” (Titus 3:4-5).
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 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 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).
As for the content of the idea of holiness, the biblical word qadosh suggests the idea of separation, of difference. God is holy because he is completely other with respect to what human beings can think, say, or do. He is the Absolute in the etymological sense of ab-solutus, separate from everything else and apart. He is the Transcendent One in the sense that he is above all our categories. All of this points to a moral meaning, prior to its metaphysical meaning, because it concerns the action of God and not just his being. In Scripture what is called “holy” is above all God’s judgments, his works, and his ways.
Holiness is not, however, primarily a negative concept indicating separation and the absence of evil and of any mixture in God. It is a concept that is supremely positive. It indicates a “pure fullness.” In us, “fullness” never completely corresponds to “purity.” One contradicts the other. Our purity is always obtained by purifying and removing the evil in our actions (see Is 1:16). But that is not the case with God. Purity and fullness coexist and together constitute God’s supreme simplicity. The Bible expresses this idea of holiness to perfection when it says that “Nothing can be added or taken away” from God (Sir 42:21). Insofar as he is the height of purity, nothing should be taken from him, and insofar as he is the height of fullness, nothing can be added to him.
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.
2. The Innovation of Christ
Moving now to the New Testament, we see that the definition of “holy nation” is soon extended to include the Christians. According to Paul, the baptized are “saints by vocation” or are “called to be saints” (Rom 1:7; 1 Cor 1:2). He habitually refers to baptized people with the word “saints.” Believers are chosen “in him” to be “holy and blameless before him” (Eph 1:4). But underneath this seemingly identical language we are witnessing profound changes. Holiness is no longer a legal or ritual matter but a moral one, if not an ontological one. It is not found in hands, but in the heart; it is not determined by external actions but is internal and can be summed up as charity: “Not what goes into the mouth defiles a man, but what comes out of the mouth, this defiles a man” (Matt 15:11).
The mediators of God’s holiness are no longer places (the temple of Jerusalem or Mount Gerizim), rituals, objects, or laws but one person, Jesus Christ. Being holy does not consist so much in being separated from this or that thing but in being united to Jesus Christ. In Jesus Christ the very holiness of God reaches us through a person and not through its distant reflection. Twice in the Gospels this exclamation is addressed to Jesus: “You are the Holy One of God!” (Jn 6:69; Lk 4:34). Revelation calls Christ simply “the holy one” (Rev 3:7), and the liturgy echoes that in proclaiming in the “Gloria,” “Tu solus Sanctus,” “You alone are holy.”
We enter into contact with the holiness of Christ that is communicated to us in two ways: through appropriation and through imitation. Of the two, the first is more important because it occurs by faith and through the sacraments. Holiness is above all a gift, a grace, and is the work of the whole Trinity. Since, according to the apostle’s saying, we belong to Christ more than we do to ourselves (see 1 Cor 6:19-20), it follows that, similarly, the holiness of Christ belongs to us more than our own holiness. “The things of Christ,” says the Byzantine theologian Nicholas Cabasilas, “are ours more than our very selves.” This is the leap or the bold move that we need to make in spiritual life. We do not usually discover this at the beginning but at the end of our spiritual journey, not in the novitiate but later, when all other ways have been tried and we see that they do not take us very far.
Paul teaches us how to make this “bold move” when he solemnly declares that he does not want to be found with his own righteousness or holiness that derives from observing the law but only with the righteousness that derives from faith in Christ (see Phil 3:5-10). Christ, Paul says, has become for us “our righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (1 Cor 1:30). Since it is “for us,” we can thus claim his holiness as ours with all its effects. Saint Bernard is also making this bold move when he cries, “Whatever is lacking in my own resources I appropriate [literally, usurp!] for myself from the heart of the Lord.” “To usurp” the holiness of Christ is “to take the kingdom of heaven by force” (see Matt 11:12)! This is a bold move that we should often repeat in our lives, especially at the moment of eucharistic communion.
To say that we participate in the holiness of Christ is like saying that we participate in the Holy Spirit who comes from him. For St. Paul, to be or to live “in Christ Jesus” is the equivalent of to be or to live “in the Holy Spirit.” St. John in turn writes, “By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his own Spirit” (1 Jn 4:13). Thanks to the Holy Spirit, Christ dwells in us and we dwell in Christ.
It is the Holy Spirit, then, who sanctifies us. Not the Holy Spirit in general but the very Holy Spirit who was in Jesus of Nazareth, who sanctified his humanity, who was dwelling in him as in an alabaster vase, and who was poured out on the Church by Jesus from his cross and at Pentecost. Because of this, the holiness that is in us is not a second-rate or different kind of holiness but the very holiness of Christ himself. We are truly “sanctified in Christ Jesus” (1 Cor 1:2). Just as in baptism someone’s body is immersed and washed in water, so too one’s soul is baptized, so to speak, into the holiness of Christ: “But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor 6:11). Paul is referring to baptism when he says this.
Alongside these fundamental channels of faith and the sacraments, however, imitation, works, and personal effort also need to find their place. Not as unconnected and different means but as the unique means that are adequate to manifest our faith and translate it into action. The opposition of “faith vs. works” is an unfounded problem that has been held onto mainly for the sake of polemics. Good works without faith are not “good” works, and faith without good works is not true faith. Of course “good works” does not primarily mean, as it did in Luther’s time, indulgences, pilgrimages, and pious practices but rather observance of the commandments and in particular the command of brotherly love. Jesus says that at the Last Judgment some will be excluded from the kingdom because they did not clothe the naked and feed the hungry. No one is justified through good works, but no one is saved without good works. That summarizes the doctrine of the Council of Trent.
The process is the same as in physical life. A baby can do absolutely nothing to be conceived in his mother’s womb; he needs the love of two parents (at least that is how things have been up until now!). Once he is born, however, he needs to exercise his lungs to breathe and to suck milk. In brief, he needs to do some things; otherwise the life he received dies. The statement from Saint James that “faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” (Jas 2:17) should be understood in the same way, in the present tense: faith without works dies.
In the New Testament two verbs alternate concerning holiness, one in the indicative and the other in the imperative: “You are holy” and “Be holy.” Christians have been sanctified and are becoming sanctified. When Paul writes, “this is the will of God, your sanctification” (1Thess 4:3), it is clear that he is referring to a person’s holiness that is the fruit of personal commitment. In fact, as if to explain the sanctification he is talking about, he adds, “that you abstain from immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor” (1 Thess 4:3-4).
The text of Lumen gentium clearly highlights these two aspects of holiness, one objective and the other subjective, based respectively on faith and on works. It says,
The followers of Christ, called by God not for what they had done but by his design and grace, and justified in the Lord Jesus, have been made sons and daughters of God by the Baptism of faith and partakers of the divine nature, and so are truly sanctified. They must therefore hold on to and perfect in their lives that holiness which they have received from God.
Since, according to Martin Luther, the Middle Ages was misguided in always emphasizing the aspect of Christ as a model, he focused on the other aspect, affirming that Christ is a gift and that faith is required to accept this gift. Today we are all in agreement that we should not set these two perspectives in opposition to each other but keep them united. Christ is above all a gift to receive through faith, but he is also the model for us to imitate in life. He inculcates that idea himself in the Gospel: “I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you” (Jn 13:15); “Learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart” (Matt 11:29).
3. Saints or Failures
This is the new ideal of holiness in the New Testament. One point remains unchanged and is even deepened as we move from the Old Testament to the New Testament, and it is the basic reason for the call to holiness. The “rationale” for needing to be holy is because God is holy: “Become holy in the image of the Holy One who called you.” The disciples of Christ must love their enemies “so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he . . . sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matt 5:45). Holiness is thus not an imposition, a burden that is put on our shoulders, but a privilege, a gift, a supreme honor. It is an obligation, of course, but it comes from our dignity as the children of God. The French saying “noblesse oblige,” in its fullest sense, applies here.
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.” According to Scripture, people are not, as they are in Greek philosophy, chiefly what they are destined to be by birth (physis) and thus “rational animals” but are instead what they are called to become through the exercise of their free will in obedience to God. It is not so much a question of nature as of vocation.
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. However, there can be a radical failure in terms of who people are and not merely in what they do. Mother Teresa was right to tell a journalist who asked her point-blank what she felt in being acclaimed as a saint by the whole world, “Holiness is not a luxury, it is a necessity.”
The philosopher Blaise Pascal formulated the principle of three levels of greatness: the level of bodies and of material things, the level of intelligence, and the level of holiness. An almost infinite distance separates the level of intelligence from that of bodies, but a distance “infinitely more infinite” separates the level of holiness from that of intelligence. Geniuses do not need greatness on the material level; it can neither add nor subtract anything from them. In the same way, saints do not need intellectual greatness because their greatness is found on a different level. “They are recognized by God and the angels, not by bodies or by curious minds. God is enough for them.”
This principle allows us to value things and people around us in the right way. Most people stop at the first level and do not even suspect the existence of a higher level. These are the people who spend their lives preoccupied only with accumulating wealth, cultivating physical beauty, or increasing their own power. Others believe that the supreme value and the height of greatness are found in intelligence. They try to become famous in the area of letters, art, and thought. Only a few know that there exists a third level of greatness, holiness.
This greatness is superior because it is eternal, because it is superior in God’s eyes, which is the true measure of greatness, and because it is also the fulfillment of what is noblest in human beings, their freedom. It does not depend on us to be born strong or weak, beautiful or less so, rich or poor, intelligent or less so. What depends on us instead is being honest or dishonest, good or bad, saints or sinners. The musician Charles-François Gounod, who was a genius himself, was right when he said, “A drop of holiness is worth more than an ocean of genius.”
The good news about holiness is that people are not forced to choose just one from among these levels of greatness. They can be holy in each of them. There have been, and are, saints among the rich and poor, the strong and weak, the geniuses and the uneducated. No one is precluded from the greatness of the third level.
4. Resuming the Path toward Holiness
Our pursuit of holiness is similar to the journey of the chosen people in the desert. It too is a journey consisting of continuous stops and fresh starts. Every so often the people stopped and pitched their tents, either because they were weary, or because they had found food and water, or simply because it is tiring to be continuously on a journey. But then unexpectedly the command comes from the Lord to Moses to take down their tents and get back on the road again: “Depart, go up from here, you and your people, to the promised land” (see Ex 33:1; 17:1).
In the life of the Church these invitations to set out on the road again are heard especially at the beginning of a new seasons of the liturgical year and on special occasions like the Jubilee of Divine Mercy that has just been opened by the pope. For each of us, individually, the time of breaking camp and setting out again on our march toward holiness occurs when we sense within ourselves the mysterious call that comes from grace. At the beginning, it seems like a pause. People stop in the whirlwind of all they are preoccupied with to take a step back from everything, as we say, to look at their lives as though from the outside and from above, sub specie aeternitatis (from an eternal perspective). The great questions then emerge: “Who am I? What do I want? What am I doing with my life?”
Despite being a monk, Saint Bernard had a very busy life: councils to preside over, bishops and abbots to reconcile, crusades to preach. Every so often, says his biographer, he would stop and, as though entering into dialogue with himself, he would ask himself, “Bernard, what was your purpose in coming here?” (Bernarde, ad quid venisti?) Why did you leave the world and enter a monastery? We can imitate him; we can say our name (this is helpful too) and ask ourselves, “Why are you a Christian? Why are you a priest or religious? Are you doing what you are in this world to do?”
The New Testament describes a type of conversion that we could define as an awakening-conversion or a conversion from being lukewarm. In Revelation there are seven letters written to the angels (that is, to the bishops, according to some exegetes) of the seven churches in Asia Minor. In the letter to the angel of Ephesus, Christ begins by acknowledging that this church has done some good things: “I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance. . . . You are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary” (Rev 2:1, 3). Then he goes on to list what displeases him: “You have abandoned the love you had at first!” (Rev 2:4), and at this point the cry of the Risen One is heard like a trumpet blast by those who are sleeping, Metanoeson, repent, shake yourselves, wake up!
This is the first of seven letters. The last one, which is addressed to the angel of the church in Laodicea, is much more severe: “I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were cold or hot!” (Rev 3:15). Convert and return to being zealous and fervent: Zeleue oun kai metanoeson! (see Rev 3:18ff). This letter, like all the others, concludes with the mysterious warning, “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (Rev 3:22).
Saint Augustine offers us some advice: begin to rekindle in ourselves a desire for holiness: “The entire life of a good Christian,” he writes,” is a holy desire [that is, a desire for holiness]”: “Tota vita christiani boni, sanctum desiderium est.” Jesus said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied” (Matt 5:6). Biblical righteousness, as we know, is holiness. Let us end with a very simple and direct question to meditate on: “Do I hunger and thirst for holiness, or am I resigning myself to mediocrity?”