Desiring to be saints
The following homily was given by Bishop Rhoades at the Rekindle the Fire Men’s Conference on February 22nd:
God said to Moses to tell the whole Israelite community: Be holy, for I, the Lord, your God, am holy. Similarly, Jesus said to the disciples in the Sermon on the Mount: Be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect. God calls us to walk the path of holiness, the way of perfection.
The purpose of the Christian life is to live in Christ, to be holy. After his conversion to Catholicism as a young man, Thomas Merton was asked by a friend: “Tom, what do you want to be?” A bit puzzled by the question, Thomas Merton replied: “Well, I guess I want to be a good Catholic.” His friend fired back: “No, that’s not it. You should want to be a saint.” That strange answer changed Thomas Merton’s life. From that day on, he set out to walk the beautiful way of the Gospel, the path to perfection.
Perhaps you came to this conference with the hope of leaving here a better person, a better Catholic. That’s good. But I hope you leave here with the desire to be a saint, to be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.
I think the path to holiness begins with putting God at the center of our life. How do we do this? The first thing is to realize deep in our hearts who we are, to experience deeply our true identity as beloved sons of the Father and as beloved brothers of Jesus Christ, our Redeemer. Then the love of God becomes the center of our life: not money, not fame, not power, not a political party, not our national identity, and not the culture we live in. Nothing should compete with the absolute center of our life, our faith in God. Father Robert Barron writes that to say, as we do in the Nicene creed: I believe in one God, the Father Almighty is “to perform a subversive act, because it challenges the claim to ultimacy of any other person or thing or institution.” The first step in the path of holiness is finding our center and that center is the divine love: God the Father who sent his Son to gather us into the Spirit! With God at the center of our life, we can face any storm in our life with the peace and security of our faith. For we have the deep awareness of Saint Paul who wrote: I am convinced that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. I pray that you have this conviction of Saint Paul as you leave this conference today.
I encourage all of you to be ambitious. Now I’m not talking about selfish ambition, which is sinful. I’m talking about holy ambition, the desire to live your lives completely for God, striving to do His will. With holy ambition, we are not focused on ourselves and our success in this world. Those with holy ambition put God and others first in their lives. I think of the words of Saint Paul to the Corinthians: Run so as to win. Every athlete exercises discipline in every way. They do it to win a perishable crown, but we an imperishable one. Thus I do not run aimlessly; I do not fight as if I were shadowboxing. No, I drive my body and train it (1 Corinthians 9: 24-27). Maybe you’ve been watching the Winter Olympics. These athletes are striving for greatness, for perfection. They are not laid back or lazy or lukewarm in their efforts. I love St. Paul’s athletic images. We should be spiritual Olympians, with this burning fire within us to strive for holiness. In an Olympic game, even a small mistake can cost one to lose an Olympic medal. So the athletes don’t ignore any imperfections. So also in our Christian life. We must not minimize, for example, the evil of venial sins. They can pull us away from God. They are obstacles to our growth in perfection. We need to have holy ambition and fight against lukewarmness in our spiritual lives. The Lord calls us to love Him with all our heart, all our soul, all our strength, and all our minds.
The Olympic athletes have a practical plan to achieve the goal of a gold medal. So we need to have a practical plan to achieve the goal of sanctity. I need to make one thing clear before I offer some practical suggestions. It is not humanly possible to achieve perfection, to attain holiness, by our own human powers. It is God’s grace that makes us holy. Without Him, we can do nothing! Becoming holy is a matter of opening ourselves to God’s grace, to His power, to His love. Holiness does involve our freedom — our cooperation with God’s grace.
Brothers in Christ, I’d like to suggest three things to you in pursuing holiness: be men of prayer; make the “secular” sacred; and be evangelists.
#1 Be men of prayer. Maybe some of you are called to be monks, but probably very few. But you are all called to be contemplatives, contemplatives in the midst of the world. I don’t think we can be holy without a strong interior life, a life of prayer. We all need to have a daily plan of prayer and it needs to fit with our own lifestyle and our obligations in life. So one size does not fit all. Maintaining a disciplined plan of life that includes prayer can be a daily battle, but it is a battle worth fighting.
I recommend that we all begin our day, every day, by offering it to the glory of God. How do you do this? The traditional Morning Offering is a great help. Or one can get out of bed and first thing, kneel down by the bed, and say the Our Father slowly and attentively. Or just say to the Lord: “Lord, help me to serve you today.” “Jesus, I offer you my prayer, works, and sufferings of this day.” Let’s consecrate every day to God.
The Church gives us so many beautiful prayers and devotions. As Catholics, we have an abundance of great spiritual traditions and resources. Choose what is most helpful to you. Make a plan and be faithful to it. It might include a daily rosary or daily prayerful reading from the Scriptures, perhaps the daily Angelus at noon or a daily visit to the Blessed Sacrament. Or there might be something you also decide to do weekly, like the Stations of the Cross on Fridays. Or a monthly day of recollection where you spend a few hours away for prayer and reflection. Pray about it and decide what’s best for you, what works for you. Maybe daily Mass is a possibility. I started going to daily Mass when I was in college and it changed my life. The Eucharist is the source and summit of the Christian life. The grace that flows from Holy Communion, the spiritual strength we receive in the Eucharist, is amazing. And there is no way we can become holy without the humble recognition that we are sinners. We all need the Lord’s forgiveness through the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation, an essential part of our spiritual lives.
#2 Make the “secular” sacred. By this, I mean, that we not separate our prayer life from the rest of our life. We must sanctify our ordinary life, including our family life, our work, and even our recreation. Saint Josemaria Escriva taught a lot about this: the sanctification of ordinary life and work, becoming holy in the midst of the world. This involves the disciplined prayer life that I mentioned, but it also involves bringing that into our secular activities, living one’s responsibilities in the family and at work faithfully and offering all we do to God. We shouldn’t live a double life: our prayer life, on the one hand, and our secular life on the other. Every part of our life is an invitation to grow in holiness. Every earthly or secular activity can lead us closer to God, if it is done with love and offered to Christ. For the saint, work and a life of prayer are inseparable. It can help to have little reminders at one’s place of work and at home of God and his centrality in our life. For example, a little crucifix on your desk, a picture of a saint above the kitchen sink, putting on the scapular in the morning, etc. It’s also very helpful to say aspirations throughout the day, at different times, like the Jesus Prayer (Lord Jesus, Son of the living God, have mercy on me, a sinner) or a Hail Mary. These practices help us to have intimacy with God throughout the day.
#3 Be evangelists. It’s not enough to just lament and complain about our culture, about secularism, relativism, materialism, and hedonism. We live in this culture, with its good and bad currents. We are to live in the world, but not of the world. After all, we’re passing through. Our true home is in heaven. But we all have the duty to share the Gospel of Christ in the world, to spread the faith, to witness to Jesus Christ right where we are: in our family, at our job, in the day to day activities of ordinary life. You don’t have to go door to door evangelizing, though that’s not bad. More important is that we be apostles wherever we are. This is what Pope Francis is teaching us, not only to be disciples of Jesus, but to be missionary disciples. This is what will renew the Church. I think another way of saying this is that we are to live holy lives. Pope Francis says that many Christians live lives that seem like Lent without Easter. He says that “an evangelizer must never look like someone who has just come back from a funeral!” He’s calling us to live and spread the joy of the Gospel. This is evangelization: living the Gospel with joy at home, at work, and in society. We do so by practicing the virtues, performing the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, being faithful to God in the ordinary and often little things of life, like Saint Therese living the greatest love in the smallest things of daily life. Think about the early Christians who lived in a culture of death, the pagan Roman empire. They did not separate themselves from it. But by witnessing to Christ, living the Gospel, they became a leaven that penetrated the society. The Church grew and flourished because of their witness, including the ultimate witness, martyrdom. In today’s post-Christian world, this is what we are called to do — evangelize it from within.
Saint Paul wrote to the Corinthians in today’s second reading: Do you not know that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? And then he writes: the temple of God, which you are, is holy. This is our calling. God says: Be holy, for I, the Lord, your God, am holy. This is what the Church needs most today: we need saints. May the Blessed Virgin Mary and Saint Joseph help us to walk the path of holiness!