by Bishop A. Elias Zaidan
In life, many of us admire the saints, ask for their intercession for various favors but very few probably think about becoming a saint. In fact, whenever I ask a group of people: “What are your plans? What do you like to do, to be?” The answer comes to anything but holiness. Therefore, our Holy Father reminds us with the words: “REJOICE AND BE GLAD”, the beginning of his most recent Apostolic Exhortation, Gaudete et Exsultate published on March 19, 2018,about the opportunity , the invitation for everyone to become holy.The title is a reference to the Gospel of Matthew 5:12. The whole of verse 12 reads “Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” These words from the Gospel of Matthew conclude the first part of the famous Sermon on the Mount containing the Beatitudes.
The Holy Father writes about our call to holiness, but also stresses the joy that should be found in the Gospel (which means “Good News”). Our pursuit of holiness, that is, being in harmony with the will of God, should be a source of great joy and happiness for us. A life of holiness should not be gloomy or dismal or in any way saddening. Keep in mind that a saint is always happy despite the difficulties and challenges he/she faces. Because this “call to holiness” is universal, it is meant for each and every one of us, regardless of our status in life. Bishops are called to holiness, priests and deacons are called to holiness, monks and nuns are called to holiness and YOU are called to holiness. Husbands and wives, children and the youth, single and married, professionals, those in business, those retired – all are called to live lives in harmony with the will of God. This is a joyful occasion where we hear God’s call and respond.
Pope Francis also holds up the saints who have gone before us as models who can sustain us on this journey of holiness. Those whom we already recognize as saints can be a great support for us as we strive for holiness. They were once like us, that is, sinners, but, with the help of God, they determined to strive to holiness. He also points out that the saints themselves are joyful as it is possible for every Christian person to find joy in their life “in the Holy Spirit.”
The Pope has a broad view of “saints” to include those in our own families and even our neighbors who lead or have led lives of virtue, often called “heroic virtue.” Holinessis universal the Holy Father reminds us – it is for all people, at all times, in all places. Certainly the great martyrs of history have achieved holiness through their ultimate sacrifice, but martyrdom is not the only way to achieve holiness. The Pope gives examples of how little things can build, one upon the other, to move us to leading holy lives. St. Teresa of Calcutta (Mother Teresa) once said: “Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love:” Of course this is an echo of St. Therese of Lisieux(Little Flower) who wrote “Do small things with great love.” Every day, life presents us with choices. We can choose the path to holiness each day in what we say and in what we do or we can choose not to do that. That is, how we speak to others and how we treat others are expressions of holiness. This is “everyday holiness”.
This call to holiness is not new. In the Old Testament, the Lord called his people to holiness (Leviticus 20:26). In the Epistle of St. Peter, the Apostle writes to us: “but, as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in every aspect of your conduct,” (1 Peter 1:15). Christ also invited us as well: “So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect,” (Mt 5:48). When the priest invites us to receive the Holy Eucharist at the Divine Liturgy he proclaims “HolyGifts for the holy!” In other words: That which is Holy is for the holy (us)! In inviting us to receive the Body and Blood of Christ, the Church presumes us to be holy.
Pope Francis goes on to write, “At its core, holiness is experiencing, in union with Christ, the mysteries of his life. It consists in uniting ourselves to the Lord’s death and resurrection in a unique and personal way, constantly dying and rising anew with him” (Para. 20). It is not just that we model ourselves after Christ (which we must do), but more than that, we identify our very selves with him. We unite ourselves to him, thus uniting ourselves to the Second Person of the Most Holy Trinity – we enter into the very life of God.
The first thing to help us on our road to holiness is for us is to always remember who we are. That is, we are Christians, who through Baptism and the Holy Eucharist, are incorporated into the very life of Christ. If we should fail to remember this, let us always remember to whom we belong: we belong to Christ. In one of his homilies, the 5thcentury Pope, St. Leo the Great, advised us “Christian, remember your dignity…” In other words, remember who you are.
Of course, the Holy Father also cautions us about obstacles and hurdles that the modern world throws in our way. He warns about ideas that claim that we can somehow use a purely intellectual approach to holiness or another way of thinking by which we can achieve holiness or perfection without God’s grace, as if original sin does not exist. These are false ways of thinking that cannot lead us to true holiness. Holiness can only come about in us with the grace of God.
In his Exhortationto us the Pope uses the Beatitudes, as spoken by Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew (5:3-12) as the guides to our life in Christ. The Beatitudes, that most of us are very familiar with, are fundamental to our Christian life; they are like the Ten Commandments of the New Testament. The Holy Father exhorts us, “Let us allow his words (the Beatitudes) to unsettle us, to challenge us and to demand a real change in the way we live. Otherwise, holiness will remain no more than an empty word” (Para. 66) But if we do live our lives as outlined in the Beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount, we can “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven” (Mt 5:12).
Pope Francis concludes his message to us by asking us to be open to the Holy Spirit in our lives, as was the Virgin Mary, who, he says “lived the Beatitudes of Jesus as none other”. He also gives us a short meditation on the Holy Spirit: “Let us ask the Holy Spirit to pour out upon us a fervent longing to be saints for God’s greater glory, and let us encourage one another in this effort. In this way, we will share a happiness that the world will not be able to take from us” (Para. 177).
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