Living the Call to Holiness
Holiness implies a certain vulnerability. Christ calls each of us to give up our illusions of self-sufficiency, our need for absolute security, and our desire to be superior to others if we are to embody He who embraced the radical vulnerability of the cross. We believe that Christ is present in everyone we meet and that no one, while that person lives, is beyond the reach of grace.
How does one practice such a life of holiness? What does it look like?
In the third chapter of Gaudete et Exsultate, Pope Francis offers us an answer. He tells us that, even if we can find a good number of theories as to what holiness is,
Jesus explained with great simplicity what it means to be holy when he gave us the Beatitudes. The Beatitudes are like a Christian’s identity card. So, if anyone asks: “What must one do to be a good Christian?” The answer is clear. We have to do, each in our own way, what Jesus told us in the Sermon on the Mount.
We look to the beatitudes, then, as a Christian’s GPS, given to us by the Master Himself, so that we might reflect Him in the patterns of our daily lives. Since we are all created in God’s image and likeness, it stands to reason that we will know true happiness and joy to the extent that our own lives mirror that of Christ, who is at once true man and true God.
The beatitudes may be well-known to us, but what they prescribe cannot be called “no-brainers” from our secular society’s point of view. Indeed, as the Holy Father notes, the beatitudes “clearly run counter to the way things are usually done in our world.” Because the beatitudes go against the flow of the world around us, they may appear as impractical, too demanding, or even impossible. In fact, we can only live them faithfully if we have done the inner work that the Lenten season symbolizes: prompted by grace, we acknowledge our sins and failings and turn to the Lord for mercy; the Lord, on His part, sends the Holy Spirit “who fills us with His power and frees us from our weakness, our selfishness, our complacency, and our pride.”
The Holy Father calls on us to listen carefully to Jesus as He speaks the beatitudes to us “with all the love and respect that the Master deserves.” We are invited to allow Jesus’ words “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.”
Pope Francis offers brief reflections on each of the beatitudes. We can live them faithfully by the power of the Holy Spirit if we keep two things in mind. One, the beatitudes foster what St. Ignatius of Loyola called “holy indifference.” In other words, “we do not set our hearts on good health rather than bad, riches rather than poverty, honor rather than dishonor, a long life rather than a short one.” Rather, we set our hearts on hearing the Lord’s teachings and keeping them. Two, the beatitudes are about seeing Jesus in the faces of those with whom He Himself wished to be identified: “In this call to recognize him in the poor and the suffering, we see revealed the very heart of Christ, his deepest feelings and choices, which every saint seeks to imitate.”
Pope Francis stresses that there can be no separation between one’s own relationship with the Lord, one’s prayer, one’s worship, and one’s reaching out to the poor and suffering. A Christian can only be holy by embracing all these aspects of Christian life. In fact, the Lord will judge us by how well we have served Him by showing mercy to the least of our brothers and sisters. This is the worship most pleasing to Him.
Nor can we allow ourselves to show mercy to some of these “least” but not others: “Our defense of the innocent unborn, for example, needs to be clear, firm, and passionate, for at stake is the dignity of a human life, which is always sacred and demands love for each person, regardless of his or her stage of development. Equally sacred, however, are the lives of the poor, those already born, the destitute, the abandoned, and the underprivileged, the vulnerable infirm, and elderly exposed to covert euthanasia, the victims of human trafficking, new forms of slavery, and every form of rejection.”
The beatitudes challenge us, leave us with a sense of unease – and they should. As Pope Francis reminds us, “Christianity is meant above all to be put into practice.” Each of us is called to live out the beatitudes in our own way, based on our vocation, our health, our abilities. As we let the beatitudes unsettle us and reshape us, we also remember that none of us is meant to live the beatitudes alone. We belong to the Church, the communion of saints, the body of Christ. We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses that encourage us. Together, we can live the beatitudes faithfully as agents of the Lord’s mercy to all the “least of His sisters and brothers” today.
Father Mark Nolette