Willing the Means to Holiness, Solemnity of All Saints, November 1, 2013

Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Bernadette Parish, Fall River, MA
Solemnity of All Saints
November 1, 2013
Rev 7:2-4.9-14, Ps 24, 1 Jn 3:1-3, Mt 5:1-12

To listen to an audio recording of this homily, please click below: 

 

The following was the starting text of the homily:

The Year of Faith and Holiness

We’re now drawing toward the conclusion of the Year of Faith, a special 410-day year dedicated not only to getting to know our faith better, but principally to living and walking by faith better. Today we celebrate all the saints — not just the famous canonized saints like our patroness St. Bernadette, but all those holy men and women who have lived by faith, lived by hope, lived by love, and lived with Jesus intimately in this world and now, known only to God, live with him forever.

In his letter announcing the Year of Faith, Pope Benedict indicated that the saints are the great icons of faithful living, those who trust in the Lord so much that they believe and act on what he said and called them to. He describes the saints as a great cloud of witnesses (Heb 12:1) who based their whole lives on Jesus, and who are seeking to cheer us on to victory while we’re still on earth. In today’s first reading, we have a glimpse of the saints in heaven in the vision God gave St. John for the Book of Revelation. The saints we celebrate today are the “great multitude that no one could count from every nation, race, people and tongue,” who stand before the throne and before the Lamb, wearing white robes and holding palm branches in their hands” who were crying out in a loud voice: “Salvation comes from our God, who is seated on the throne, and from the lamb.” Later these saints are identified as those who have “washed their robes and made them white in the Blood of the Lamb.” This refers to not only to the martyrs “who have survived the time of great distress” but also all of those whose souls have been washed through Christ’s blood in the Sacrament of Baptism and have kept those garments unstained. The image is a powerful reminder for us that the whole point of the life of faith, which begins with our baptism, is to become a saint, to live a truly holy life, to live our whole life in the white robes of baptism before the Lamb proclaiming his victory and the salvation that victory won for us.

The motivation for this holy life as a consequence of our baptism is given to us quite powerfully in today’s second reading. Through baptism we become true children of God, a reality that gets St. John to exclaim, “See what love the Father has bestowed on us in letting us be called the children of God. But that is what we are. … Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we shall later be has not yet been revealed, but we know that when it is revealed we shall be like him for we shall see him as he is. Whoever has this hope based on him keeps himself pure as he is pure.”  We keep ourselves pure, holy, undefiled, because we are living in accordance with our dignity as sons and daughters of our Holy, Holy, Holy God. We keep our white garments clean because we have our hope in God that one day, when we with the great multitude dressed in white prostrating themselves before the throne in heaven, will see him as he is and become as like God as a human being can. Heaven is, in some ways, an eternal All Saints Day, a day that has no sunset, in which the saints rejoice forever. And as the old Negro spiritual reminds us, when the saints come marching in, “I want to be in that number!”

I want to be in that number! That’s the real action item of this feast day, to stoke our desire for heaven so that we may enter fully into the communion of saints. St. Bernard of Clairvaux says that we don’t celebrate All Saints Day because the Saints need our prayer, praise, honor or recognition. We celebrate it because we need their example, their help, their inspiration and their intercession so that one day this will be our feast day too. In the Psalm today we prayed, “Lord, this is the people that longs to see your face!” That certainly applies to the saints who wished to see God face-to-face and to become like him. But it’s also supposed to apply to each one of us, that today is a day for us to ponder our own longing for God, to see his face looking on us with love forever. All Saints Day is a great gift of God to help us intensify our desires for heaven and, in desiring that end, to begin to will the means. We don’t become holy by default. We become holy by choice, in response to God’s grace.

Willing the Means to Holiness 

What are the means? Jesus gives us them in the Gospel today. And what Jesus says is the road to happiness, holiness and heaven cannot contrast any more with what many people’s true longings are.

  • The world believes that to be happy, you have to be rich; Jesus says we need to be poor in spirit and treasure his kingdom above everything thing, to make the choice the Rich Young Man didn’t, and use all we have for the good of others, become rich in the kingdom, and follow him.
  • The world says that you have to be a party animal; Jesus says that we need to be so sensitive to others that we mourn over their physical, material, emotional misfortune.
  • The world teaches that you have to be strong and powerful, finish fights that others unwisely start, teach them lessons they’ll never forget, and become a dominant superpower. Jesus says, rather, blessed are the meek — like martial arts experts who know they’re strong enough that they don’t have to fight back — and blessed are the peacemakers (not peace “wishers”),  for they will be called children of God.
  • The world believes that to be happy you have to have all your sexual fantasies fulfilled; Jesus teaches we need to be pure of heart and see him, and reverence him in others, never desecrating the temple of the Holy Spirit we are and others are.
  • The world says that we’ll be happy when we’re voted most popular in our high school senior class, when others all say only good things about us, and we’re given all types of accolades, awards and honorary doctorates; Jesus says, blessed are you when they persecute you, hate you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely because of me, for your reward will be great in heaven.

To live the beatitudes as Jesus incarnated each of them isn’t easy. It’s in fact countercultural and tremendously challenging. We’re never going to live them if we seek to be a Christian part-time, if our faith is only a compartmentalized reality. The only way for us to live the beatitudes is, as the beatitudes themselves describe, to “hunger and thirst for holiness,” because it’s only those who are starving for every word that comes from the mouth of God, who are craving the Living Water, who are ravenous for holiness will have that desire satisfied. The saints all had this desire, although many of them not at first. It developed over the course of time until a burning love for God became the most significant characteristic of their life. That’s what the entire communion of saints in heaven is praying that each of us acquire, the same longing to see God’s face, the same desire to live always with the dignity of being God’s beloved children.

But it’s not enough to have the desire to be a saint. We also have to act on that desire. St. Thomas Aquinas was once asked what was someone needed to do to be a saint and he replied, “Will it!” We have to will the means. We have to make the choice to respond to the help God gives us to become holy. What are those means?

Last year on All Saints Day we talked about those means to holiness as given to us very cleary by Blessed John Paul II. No other Pope in history acted more on the Church’s mission to form saints than he did. Over the course of his 26 and a half years as pope,, he beatified and canonized more blessed and saints than all his predecessors did over the previous 500 years combined. He constantly called all people to holiness and lifted up for them models in every way of life to help them see that it’s possible likewise for them. But he also recognized how much the people of God needed help to become saints. In 2001, he wrote an exhortation (Novo Millennio Ineunte) for the entire Church in which he tried to impart a real training in holiness. Like athletes, or singers, or people being a new profession, we need training. We need a teacher and a set of practices so that we can become heroically virtuous, grow in the perfection of charity, grow in consciousness of our belonging to the Lord. The principal purpose of the Church, he said, is to be a vocational-technical school in which people are trained in holiness just as much as students are trained in HVAC or plumbing or carpentry at Diman.. It’s a school in which John Paul II excelled, as is clear by his upcoming canonization by Pope Francis next April. But I’d like to re-present what John Paul II gave us as the “core curriculum” of the training in holiness in the vocational school that is the Church. We can ask ourselves whether, since we pondered them a year ago, we have advanced with the help of God in living these pillars. Regardless of our answer to that question, today is a day to will these means. Blessed John Paul II, St. Bernadette, the Blessed Virgin Mary and all the saints are interceding for us to do so, because these constitute the path to heaven.

I’ll begin with the six pillars of holiness, pillars of the Catholic faith, that John Paul II gave to us and on which he urged us to build our whole life. Then I’ll add two more, which are implied within the six, but which I want to make explicit, because we’ll never become holy without them either.

The primacy of grace

The first pillar is the primacy of grace. John Paul II says, “There is a temptation which perennially besets every spiritual journey and pastoral work: that of thinking that the results depend on our ability to act and to plan.” Everything starts with God and his help. “Without me, you can do nothing,” Christ told us during the Last Supper. Holiness is not principally about our good deeds, however many, but about our allowing God to do his work in us, to cooperate fully with his saving plans. The Christian life is a fiat not a faciam, a “let it be done to me” according to your Word (as Mary said to the Archangel) rather than an “I will do.” St. Therese Lisieux used to use a beautiful metaphor to describe the primacy of grace in the ascent to heaven. It’s not like our climbing up a ten-thousand step staircase, but as if God comes down on an elevator and asks us if we’d like to ride. Everything begins with God.

Prayer

The second pillar is prayer, which, as we’ve been talking about throughout this year, is “faith in action.” John Paul II said, “Training in holiness calls for a Christian life distinguished above all in the art of prayer.” Our Christian life must be distinguished above all by the way we pray, by the way we respond to God’s grace to help us to pray. John Paul II warned us all about the danger of a tepid prayer life. “It would be wrong,” he said, “to think that ordinary Christians can be content with a shallow prayer that is unable to fill their whole life. Especially in the face of the many trials to which today’s world subjects faith, they would be not only mediocre Christians but ‘Christians at risk.’ They would run the insidious risk of seeing their faith progressively undermined, and would perhaps end up succumbing to the allure of ‘substitutes,’ accepting alternative religious proposals and even indulging in far-fetched superstitions.” He went on to say, “It is therefore essential that education in prayer should become in some way a key-point of all the Church does.” To become a saint, we can’t be content with a  shallow prayer life, when we pray if we have the time after we’ve done all of the other things on our daily agenda. We can’t be content with just saying a few prayers before we go to bed. We must prioritize prayer, schedule it, make time for it. Otherwise we’re in danger of having our whole Christian life undermined. The parish exists above all to provide this “education in prayer,” a training in how to pray the Mass, how to pray the Rosary, how to adore the Lord in the Holy Eucharist, how to listen to God’s voice. That’s what I’ve been trying to do here as your pastor, step-by-step. But’s imperative that we have the desire for a “deep” rather than a “shallow” prayer life. It’s necessary for us to show up to receive that education in prayer as it’s provided.

The Mass

The third pillar is the Sunday Eucharist. John Paul II says, “It is obvious that our principal attention must be given to the liturgy, ‘the summit towards which the Church’s action tends and at the same time the source from which comes all her strength.’ Jesus in the Eucharist is supposed to be the starting point and the goal of our life, not just as individual Catholics but as a family of faith. John Paul II wrote an entire encyclical in 2004 to stress that we’re called to live off of Jesus in the Eucharist. There’s no greater means to grow in holiness, no greater grace, that receiving God within. St. John Vianney, the patron saint of priests, described the power of the Eucharist to make us saints. He used an unforgettable image: “Next to this sacrament, we are like someone who dies of thirst next to a river, just needing to bend the head down to drink; or like a poor man next to a treasure chest, when all that is needed is to stretch out the hand.” All we needed, he said, to advance on the path to holiness and heaven is to come thirsty to Mass to receive the Living Water and poor to receive the world’s greatest Treasure. The Curé of Ars tried to get his people and us to “upgrade” their faith from weekly communicants to daily. He lamented how many good people remained merely good: “What a shame! If they communicated more often, they would be saints.” The same thing is true of many of us. That’s the third pillar.

The Sacrament of Confession

The fourth pillar is the Sacrament of Reconciliation. John Paul II said, “I am also asking for renewed pastoral courage in ensuring that the day-to-day teaching of Christian communities persuasively and effectively presents the practice of the Sacrament of Reconciliation.” We cannot become saints if we’re carrying our sins around, if instead of garments made white in the blood of the Lamb we carry around all the stains of sin. We’re going to fall many times on the road to holiness. Jesus knew that ahead of time, which is why he gave us the great Sacrament of Penance, which I like to call his great dry-cleaning business, returning our baptismal garments to their original splendor. Jesus founded the Sacrament of Penance on Easter Sunday evening in order to stress the connection between Reconciliation and Resurrection. It’s in the Sacrament of Mercy that Jesus says to us, in the words of the Parable of the Prodigal Son, “My Son was dead, but has been brought back to life again!” If we wish to experience forever the full meaning of Christ’s resurrection within us, we need this Sacrament. There’s also another connection between the Sacrament of Penance and the Saints in heaven. Jesus tells us that there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need of repentance. The most effective way to make the Blessed Virgin, St. Joseph, St. Bernadette and all the saints happy in heaven is to respond to their constant intercession to get us to make a good and devout confession.

Listening to the Word of God

The fifth pillar is listening to the Word of God, in the liturgy, in preaching, in meditation on Sacred Scripture, in Bible Study and other means. John Paul II said, “This primacy of holiness and prayer is inconceivable without a renewed listening to the word of God.” Benedict XVI said in 2010 in his exhortation on the Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church that the saints are those “who have truly lived the word of God,” who “let themselves be shaped by the word of God through listening, reading and assiduous meditation.” They are the ones whose lives were “good soil” that received the seed of the word of God and bore fruit thirty, sixty, or 100-fold. For us to become holy, we need to let the Word of God shape our life. We need to respond to God’s help to become living commentaries of his Word. That means, first, John Paul II says, that every home, every family, should have a Bible and use the Bible to pray and to encounter God. It also means that there should be a focus on helping people understand the Bible in parishes, dioceses and other places. We’re trying to do that here with our weekly Bible study, with daily Mass and Sunday Mass homilies, and with other means. Please take advantage!

Proclaiming the Word of God

The sixth pillar, John Paul II says, is proclaiming the Word of God. “A priority for the Church at the dawn of the new millennium,” John Paul II declared is “to nourish ourselves with the word in order to be ‘servants of the word’ in the work of evangelization. He insisted, “We must rekindle in ourselves the impetus of the beginnings and allow ourselves to be filled with the ardor of the apostolic preaching which followed Pentecost. We must revive in ourselves the burning conviction of Paul, who cried out: ‘Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel.’ If we have truly received the faith, if we’re living it, then we can’t help but share it with others as the greatest gift we could ever give them, the greatest blessing they could ever receive. Spreading the faith, John Paul II insisted, “cannot be left to a group of ‘specialists,’” like priests, religious or catechists, but “most involve the responsibility of all the members of the People of God. Those who have come into genuine contact with Christ cannot keep him for themselves, but they must proclaim him!” This sharing of the Word of God is to be done not merely in words, but also in the way we put Jesus’ command to love others as he has loved us into practice. We need to show the power and beauty of the Word of God in action. That’s the most effective way to share it.

Sanctifying our daily work

The seventh pillar is to sanctify our ordinary work and life, to turn our work into prayer, into an occasion of loving God and serving our neighbor. John Paul II stated, “The time has come to re-propose wholeheartedly to everyone this high standard of ordinary Christian living: the whole life of the Christian community and of Christian families must lead in this direction.” Catholics are not called to spiritual schizophrenia, in which part of our life is united to God and the rest of it lived apart from him. Our entire life is meant to be lived in loving communion with God and that’s one of the things that distinguished the saints. When John Paul II in 2002 canonized St. Josemaria Escriva — whose entire life was dedicated to helping lay people become saints in the midst of their ordinary duties — the Pope quoted the Spanish priest who said, “The ordinary life of a Christian who has faith when he works or rests, when he prays or sleeps, at all times, is a life in which God is always present.” This is what makes our ordinary life extraordinary and holy.

Purity and chastity

Lastly, the eighth pillar is purity. St. John tells us in the second reading, “Whoever has this hope based on him keeps himself pure as he is pure.” Holiness is incompatible with impurity. Nowhere is this truth more powerfully and succinctly expressed that in St. Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians, where he famously says, “This is the will of God, your sanctification.” But few really know what he says immediately thereafter, as an explicitation of the path to fulfill God’s will for our holiness. St. Paul writes, “that you abstain from porneia” a Greek term that refers to all sexual sin and is generally translated as unchastity. We can’t’ be holy if we’re looking at porn, if we’re lusting, if we’re sexually active outside of a sacramental marriage, if we’re using contraception and other forms of conjugal utilitarianism within marriage. It’s important for us to grasp this today because we’re living in the midst of a culture that trumpets, in total contrast to God’s revelation, the right to sex with whomever we want, whenever we want, wherever we want, however we want. The Church’s teachings on sexuality, based on God’s holy word, is not is not a type of asbestos that we try to wrap around the most passionate of human experiences. Rather it’s a wisdom that seeks to help those flames not destroy what God wants the sexual urge to lead to: real love, so that we might genuinely love others as Christ has loved us. So that we may love them in a holy way. And if we wish to get to heaven we must live it. St. Paul was very clear about it several times. As he wrote to the Galatians, “I’ve warned you as I’ve warned you before, those who engage in such things (porneia) will not enter the kingdom of God.” Jesus says, on the other hand, “Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God.” Purity is the means by which we live in the world as people who long to see the Lord’s face.

Going all the way! 

To become a saint, we must will it, knowing that God in fact wills it dependent on our free response. And we must really will it. St. Therese once said, “You cannot become half a saint. You must be a whole saint or no saint at all.” To become a saint, we must live our Christian life the way Dustin Pedroia and Jonny Gomes play baseball, with all we’ve got. If we could hear St. Therese’s voice today, John Paul II’s voice, St. Bernadette’s voice and the vast cloud of witnesses dress in white at Jesus’ right side in glory, they would all be saying to us today, “Go for it! Don’t be afraid to respond to the call to be a saint! Don’t be satisfied with an average Christian life! God who has called you to spiritual greatness, to be holy as he is holy, will give you all the help you need to become holy, just receive his grace and respond!”

That’s what this feast is about. As this Year of Faith draws to a close, let us ask for the grace that its fruits might flourish in a true life of faith, because it is only a life of deep faith that will lead us to heaven. Let’s ask all the saints to pray for us that we may live lives like they did, not trying to become half a saint, but willing to become truly holy, so that we may one day have the chance to share the eternal joy that God has given them and wants to give us. Amen!

The readings for today’s Mass were: 

Reading 1
RV 7:2-4, 9-14

I, John, saw another angel come up from the East,
holding the seal of the living God.
He cried out in a loud voice to the four angels
who were given power to damage the land and the sea,
“Do not damage the land or the sea or the trees
until we put the seal on the foreheads of the servants of our God.”
I heard the number of those who had been marked with the seal,
one hundred and forty-four thousand marked
from every tribe of the children of Israel.After this I had a vision of a great multitude,
which no one could count,
from every nation, race, people, and tongue.
They stood before the throne and before the Lamb,
wearing white robes and holding palm branches in their hands.
They cried out in a loud voice:“Salvation comes from our God, who is seated on the throne,
and from the Lamb.”All the angels stood around the throne
and around the elders and the four living creatures.
They prostrated themselves before the throne,
worshiped God, and exclaimed:

“Amen. Blessing and glory, wisdom and thanksgiving,
honor, power, and might
be to our God forever and ever. Amen.”

Then one of the elders spoke up and said to me,
“Who are these wearing white robes, and where did they come from?”
I said to him, “My lord, you are the one who knows.”
He said to me,
“These are the ones who have survived the time of great distress;
they have washed their robes
and made them white in the Blood of the Lamb.”

Responsorial Psalm
PS 24:1BC-2, 3-4AB, 5-6

R. (see 6) Lord, this is the people that longs to see your face.
The LORD’s are the earth and its fullness;
the world and those who dwell in it.
For he founded it upon the seas
and established it upon the rivers.
R. Lord, this is the people that longs to see your face.
Who can ascend the mountain of the LORD?
or who may stand in his holy place?
One whose hands are sinless, whose heart is clean,
who desires not what is vain.
R. Lord, this is the people that longs to see your face.
He shall receive a blessing from the LORD,
a reward from God his savior.
Such is the race that seeks him,
that seeks the face of the God of Jacob.
R. Lord, this is the people that longs to see your face.

Reading 2
1 JN 3:1-3

Beloved:
See what love the Father has bestowed on us
that we may be called the children of God.
Yet so we are.
The reason the world does not know us
is that it did not know him.
Beloved, we are God’s children now;
what we shall be has not yet been revealed.
We do know that when it is revealed we shall be like him,
for we shall see him as he is.
Everyone who has this hope based on him makes himself pure,
as he is pure.

Gospel
MT 5:1-12A

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain,
and after he had sat down, his disciples came to him.
He began to teach them, saying:“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are they who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the land.
Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be satisfied.
Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the clean of heart,
for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness,
for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you
and utter every kind of evil against you falsely because of me.
Rejoice and be glad,
for your reward will be great in heaven.”