Insofar as the Church exists to help people to respond to God's gift and become holy like God is holy, the Church exists to help people become heroic in their daily living of the faith.
We begin this month of November not merely by celebrating all the saints but pondering the universal call to holiness. The fundamental reason why we're alive is to become saints and help others along the path of holiness. St. Paul tells us with translucent clarity: "This is God's will for you: your sanctification" (1 Thess 4:3), and November is the month we focus on saying to God, "Thy will be done!"
Holiness, we know, is first God's gift. It's the perfection of charity, a participation in God's own holiness and life, something we can't achieve on our own. God, however, always provides the means for us to respond to his call. He draws us to himself, strengthens us and makes holiness possible through prayer, the sacraments, the opportunities he provides for loving him and others, even through the sufferings we endure and the forgiveness we have to extend.
At the same time, however, God makes holiness the result of our choice. St. Thomas Aquinas teaches that to get to heaven, to become like God, we have to will it. We need to receive on good, faithful soil the graces God implants and respond with determination through the thorns, stones and other obstacles that arise. This involves the persevering decision to stake our life on what God teaches and offers: to seek first his kingdom, his will, and his glory; to build our life on the rock of what he reveals; to deny ourselves, pick up our Cross and follow him along the path of the beatitudes; to cross the road with him as Good Samaritans loving our neighbor and even our enemies as he has loved us; to love him with not just some but all our mind, heart, soul and strength; to find in him the pearl of great price, serving him rather than mammon, divesting ourselves of our attachment to material things and giving them to others; to eat his flesh and drink his blood worthily and live our life yoked in communion with him; in short to save our life by losing it with him and for him.
This requires ordinary spiritual heroism. The first step on the road to canonization is the conclusion by the Church that someone lived the virtues, especially faith, hope and charity, to a heroic degree. Insofar as the Church exists to help people to respond to God's gift and become holy like God is holy, the Church exists to help people become heroic in their daily living of the faith.
When the early Church prepared adults for baptism, this was clear. The goal of the catechumenate was not merely to impart the truths of the faith, the art of prayer, the importance of the sacraments and the habit of Christian charity: the goal was to help form in catechumens the intrepid faith that would keep them true to Christ and confident in his promises under persecution and martyrdom.
To prepare people for martyrdom is still the purpose of the Church and the goal of all her formation today, even if the martyrdom for which we're preparing kids and adults is more commonly in the West the "white" or "dry" martyrdom of giving witness to the faith when others will mock us for it, forgiving others not just once but "70 times 7 times," remaining faithful to God and spouses even under the strongest of temptations or when the spouse isn't similarly faithful, and choosing Christ over Barabbas under the multiplicity of disguises Barabbas assumes in daily life.
There's an opposing school of formation and thought, suggested last year in an interview in Commonweal by a senior Churchman who's been trying to water down Jesus' teachings on the sin of adultery and get Pope Francis and the Synod of Bishops to agree with him.
"Heroism is not for the average Christian," this prelate stressed.
In other words, "average Christians" -- meaning most Christians -- are not called to holiness because they're incapable of it. Even with God's grace, they're spiritually incompetent to do anything valiant or hard. Even not breaking the commandments is too challenging. Jesus' words, properly understood, "Be perfect as your Father is perfect," don't apply. Neither does the Second Vatican Council's powerful reminder about the universal call to holiness. And so under the title of "mercy," there's the condescending, pessimistic and indulgent attempt to soften the demands of faith rather than to help everyone, patiently and perseveringly, to receive from God in prayer, the sacraments and the Word of God, the strength they need to live the faith, even and especially when it's hard.
Good teachers recognize that not every student will be a Rhodes Scholar but nevertheless try to help every student achieve all his or her potential. Drill sergeants grasp that not every 18 year-old recruit will become a Ranger or SEAL, but nevertheless knows that each of them can become a great hero and trains them accordingly, pushing them to do much more than they might originally have thought them themselves capable. Great coaches take ordinary kids who in other circumstances might deem themselves losers and try to form in them the heart of a champion, regardless of whether they actually achieve the dream of winning a championship.
When we look at what Jesus did with the apostles, we see the mission of the Church in every age. He didn't start with rabbinical students or geniuses among the Pharisees and scribes. He didn't even start with "average" Jews. He began with relative nobodies, from obscure places, with thick accents and occasionally thick skulls, men who struggled to understand his message and live what he taught, men who would in weakness all abandon him when he was arrested, but 11 of the 12 of whom would come back and, strengthened by his grace, would heroically bring the Gospel to the ends of the known world. And God did the same with women. Who, according to worldly criteria, were Mary of Nazareth, Mary of Magdala and Mary of Bethany?
Jesus still calls in every age the "foolish of the world to shame the wise, ... the weak of the world to shame the strong, ... the lowly and despised of the world, those who count for nothing, to reduce to nothing those who are something" (1 Cor 1:27-28). He calls them to heroism and through them shows everyone that such spiritual heroism is possible. And that's one of the greatest beauties of the Christian vocation. Ordinary, average people can become, in eternity, among the greatest who have ever lived.
The conversion of St. Augustine -- someone who really was a giant in the eyes of the world -- happened when, after years of caving into lust, an African named Pontitian told him and his friend Alipius about two ordinary men who had been suddenly and wholeheartedly turned to God's service through reading the life of St. Anthony of the Desert. Ashamed that, despite all his talents, he had been such a spiritual chicken up until then, Augustine exclaimed to Alipius, "What are we doing, letting the unlearned seize Heaven by force while we with all our learning remain behind, cowardly and heartless, wallowing in our sins?" That's when his tears overwhelmed him, he ran out into the garden, heard God mysteriously calling him to take and read the Scriptures and fell upon the passage that would challenge him, heroically, to leave sin behind once and for all and put on the Lord Jesus Christ (Rom 13:13-14).
The month of November is a time in which all of us ponder all those "unlearned" people who have seized heaven by force and learn how to imitate their virtues. It's a time when, in response to God's grace, we learn how to choose heaven -- and the holiness that leads to heaven -- with courage, perseverance and strength. It's the time we remember that by our baptism we're called to spiritual heroism and to rejoice that God has provided and always will bestow the means.
Father Roger J. Landry is a priest of the Diocese of Fall River, Massachusetts, who works for the Holy See’s Permanent Observer Mission to the United Nations.
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