The Universal Call to Holiness
Talk Given at Mount Calvary Church
Matthew G. Collins
October 30, 2016
I’d like to start with a prayer composed by St. Josemaría that many people I know use to begin their prayer.
My Lord and my God, I firmly believe that you are here. That you see me, and that you hear me. I adore you with profound reverence. I beg your pardon for my sins and the grace to make this time of prayer fruitful. My Immaculate Mother, St. Joseph, my father and lord, my Guardian Angel, intercede for me.
In imitation of Thomas Jefferson’s opening to the Declaration of Independence, I’d like to lay the foundation for my comments by clearly stating some of what we, as Christians, hold to be self-evident. There is a God. He loves us. We are not God. There is a heaven. There is a hell. The reason God made us is to know him, love him, and serve him in this life, and to be happy with him in the next. What we do in this life will determine whether we spend eternity in blissful, intimate, loving union with him, or in the torment of everlasting separation from him.
I want to be clear about all that because the topic we’re considering here is a serious one: our eternal salvation, and how most of us are called to attain it by living out our Christian vocation in our everyday life as lay people.
If we can end up in hell by sinning “in our thoughts, and in our words, in what we have done, and in what we have failed to do,” then through God’s grace, we can likewise please him in those same ways, in our ordinary lives, and attain our salvation.
I won’t be talking so much about what is often called a “plan of life,” that is, a formal plan for daily prayer, such as the Rosary, Holy Mass, spiritual reading, or mental prayer. The importance of such a plan is obvious to most practicing Catholics, and perhaps we can talk about that another day.
Rather, I’m going to talk about how all the moments of our ordinary lives can be turned into encounters with Jesus Christ, who is always passing by in even the most insignificant, or seemingly insignificant, moments of our day.
I think we’ve all had the experience of some small, insignificant detail of some equally small, insignificant moment stick in our memory for years, perhaps even decades, only to realize at some point that it wasn’t really so insignificant, after all. I firmly believe God plants these memories in our hearts and minds as just one of his many ways of leading us, of communicating his will to us, and of showing us how he accompanies us throughout our lives.
One such memory for me is this. When I was a kid, my brothers and sisters and I would take turns each day with the funny pages in the newspaper. We’d spread them out on the floor of the living room, and on our hands and knees we’d lean over them and read the Family Circus, Dennis the Menace, Gasoline Alley, Winnie Winkle, Nancy, Dick Tracy, and of course, Peanuts. I remember one such evening my father was sitting in a chair reading a book—I was nine or ten years old. For some reason I asked him what he was reading and he replied “Theology and Sanity, by F.J. Sheed.” That stuck in my mind because I have a brother named F.J., and I thought it was a rather unusual name. But I was also struck by the name of the book. I asked him what it was about, and he replied “It’s about God, and about our faith.” I asked “Why are you reading about that? Don’t you already know it?” I knew he had spent six years in the seminary, and figured he already knew all there was to know about God. He replied that we can never know everything about God, and that we should study our faith throughout our lives, and that’s what he was doing.
I tell you this story because I think it illustrates two things. First, relating back to Lee Podles’ talks a few weeks ago about the importance of men in the Church, it’s an anecdote that supports a statistic I heard years ago, that the single greatest predictor of whether or not someone—boy or girl—will practice the faith as an adult is whether or not their father does. I mentioned that to Lee, and he immediately recognized it and was able to give the reference for it.
In 1994, two Swiss researchers conducted a study to “determine what factors paved the way for the successful transference of the parent’s faith to the next generation—specifically measured by church attendance.” The study found that by far, the most important factor was the father’s regular attendance. Far more, even, than the mother’s. I think this should serve as motivation, at least for the men out there, to become ever more faithful Christians. You will have to give an account to God for the example you gave to your children. And single women out there should consider this when thinking about potential husbands.
The second reason I told this story about my father’s example is because it introduces the topic of today’s talk: the Universal Call to Holiness.
About eight years after that conversation with him, I was a senior at Archbishop Curley High School, here in Baltimore. It’s run by the Conventual Franciscan Friars. My older brother and I would usually attend morning Mass at Curley before the school day started, following the example of our father, who regularly attended daily Mass, and still does even now, at the age of 87. Naturally, the friars suggested that we might want to consider becoming Franciscans. They had no luck with my brother, but I did seriously consider it, even attending some of their retreats for potential novices. I even went so far as to start the formal process of applying. One evening I spoke to my father about my plans, telling him that I wanted to consider entering the Franciscans, which would involve a year of novitiate at their novice house in Ellicott City. It would also mean not starting college right away. Given his own experience in the seminary, I knew he would be receptive to the idea, and he was. But he told me he’d like to think about it. A few days later he pulled me aside. He simply said that if the reason I wanted to become a Franciscan was that I wanted to be close to God, that I could do that as a lay person, too. I immediately saw he was right, because I saw him trying to do just that in his own life, and I thought back to that time when he told me about that book, Theology and Sanity, and how he attended daily Mass, and how he had left the seminary after discovering he did not, after all, have a vocation to be a priest, and how he frequently would spend time in quiet prayer, and how he was always trying to help people grow in their life of faith. And I saw that that was what God was calling me to do, too.
God had used that seemingly insignificant moment, one of the most ordinary things you can imagine: reading the comics in the newspaper, noticing that my father was reading a book, and asking him about it, along with all the other ordinary moments in our family’s life, to plant a seed in my heart and mind that would slowly germinate until the moment he chose, again in the most ordinary circumstances you can imagine, to reveal to me the vocational outline of my life.
And that moment continues to enlighten and guide my path, even 50 years later. I can look back now and see how God used our family dinner time, chores, homework, school plays, vacations with my grandfather, Saturday visits to the Blessed Sacrament, birthdays, even watching All in the Family, M*A*S*H, Mary Tyler Moore, Bob Newhart, and Bonanza on TV, together as a family, to not only bond us together, but to pass on our family’s values and faith. These memories don’t just evoke sentimental feelings in me. They serve as a bonding cement of love and affection with my parents and siblings, and as guideposts in times of uncertainty and trouble. They transmit God’s love to us in ways we poor humans can understand and receive it.
Beside the example and influence of the Franciscans at school, and my father’s example at home, there was another influence that helped me see God’s will for me. It was the homilies of a Spanish priest, Msgr. Josemaría Escrivá, the founder of Opus Dei. The homilies had been published in a series of short pamphlets. I used to devour them. They had titles such as “Passionately Loving the World,” “In Joseph’s Workshop,” “Time is a Treasure,” “Christ is Passing By,” and “In the Heart of Christ.” I’ve brought some of them for you to borrow, if you’re interested. They helped me understand that everyone, from the simplest and most uneducated, to kings and presidents, can, and must, become a saint. A canonizable saint! Not that we should seek to be canonized. Rather, we should seek to grow in holiness, day by day, using the means given to us by Our Lord, which for most of us include not only the sacraments and prayer, but also our professional work, our family life, our friendships, and even our hobbies.
Of course, Msgr. Escrivá wasn’t the first to propose this idea. St. Francis de Sales is famous for his efforts to promote the sanctity of the laity. And going back to the early Church, before there were such things as religious brothers and sisters, it was obvious that sanctity is for lay people, just as it is for priests and bishops. But somewhere along the way, an idea crept into the Church’s culture that said “sure, lay people should be good, and some are probably holy, but if you really want to be a saint, you need to enter ‘Religious’ life,” as if life out in the world could never be truly “religious.” It’s almost as if the laity and marriage are what’s left over after all the real vocations have been handed out.
If you take a moment to consider even our vocabulary about vocation, you’ll see that this is true, and it’s still true, despite Vatican II’s proclamation of the Universal Call to Holiness. How many times have we seen posters in our churches showing men and women dressed in a religious habit or clerical clothing asking “Considering a vocation? Call the archdiocesan vocations office at 410-555-1212?” If you were to attend one of those “vocations workshops” how likely would you be to hear a talk about marriage, or life as an intentionally celibate lay person? In practically every parish there’s a prayer in the Prayer of the Faithful asking for more “vocations,” meaning specifically the priesthood and Religious life. You’ve probably heard someone, referring to a particularly gifted lay theologian or speaker, someone like Scott Hahn, saying “he missed his vocation.” Well, maybe not. Maybe he actually discovered and accepted the particular vocation God called him to.
Of course we need many, many more vocations to the priesthood and Religious life. There’s no doubt about that. But it seems to me that familiarity breeds contempt, that because the lay life, either married or single, are the more common vocations, they cease to be in our minds true vocations, that is to say, specific paths for specific persons to carry out the will of God in their lives.
Consider, too, the lack of canonized lay saints from the middle ages until the pontificate of St. John Paul II. I know there are others, but the only one that immediately comes to my mind is St. Thomas More, to whom we should all pray unceasingly as we approach the election. I’m just sayin’.
If we believe in an infinite God, a God who loves each of us intimately and individually, with a love that is particular to each of us, if we believe that we can have a personal relationship with this King of the Universe, that he wants to spend eternity blissfully united to each of us, then of course we have a personal vocation, a particular path to that intimacy and union, and it will encompass all aspects of our life. And for most of us that personal path, that personal calling, will be as a lay person. So it follows that everything that goes into living our lives in the lay state in the modern world is something that can bring us closer to God, if we let it.
A few months before his election as Pope John Paul I, Albino Cardinal Luciani wrote an article in Il Gazettino di Venezia about St. Josemaría’s teachings about the Universal Call to Holiness. He wrote:
More than three hundred years earlier St. Francis de Sales taught something along the same lines.… However, Msgr. Escrivá went further than St. Francis de Sales in many respects. St. Francis proclaimed sanctity for everyone but seems to have only a “spirituality for lay people” whereas Msgr. Escrivá wants a “lay spirituality.” Francis, in other words, nearly always suggests for the laity the same practical means used by religious, but with suitable modifications. Escrivá is more radical; he goes as far as talking about “materializing”–in a good sense– the quest for holiness. For him, it is the material work itself which must be turned into prayer [and] sanctity.
For St. Josemaría, the daily activities of ordinary life and work are no obstacle to holiness, but are, rather, the very “stuff” of the holiness of a lay person. He described this as turning “the prose of ordinary life into heroic verse.” Speaking of the Universal Call to Holiness, he said:
Our calling discloses to us the meaning of our existence. It means being convinced, through faith, of the reason for our life on earth. Our life, the present, past and future, acquires a new dimension, a depth we did not perceive before. All happenings and events now fall within their true perspective: we understand where God is leading us, and we feel ourselves borne along by this task entrusted to us.
In a famous quote, which Noah found and used in the announcement for this talk, St. Josemaría says “Understand this well: there is something holy, something divine hidden in the most ordinary situations, and it is up to each one of you to discover it.”
The prayer asking for St. Josemaría’s intercession captures that thought. It speaks of learning to “turn all the circumstances and events of my life into occasions of loving you, and of serving the Church, the pope, and all souls with joy and simplicity, lighting up the pathways of this earth with faith and love.”
When I was a student at Loyola College, one of the Jesuits there, Fr. William Driscoll, would say the noon Mass during the week. After Mass he would often invite me to share his meager lunch with him in the sacristy. It usually consisted of a can of sardines and a banana. He would open the sardines and we would each take one, and then another, until the can was empty, and then for dessert he would peel the usually over-ripe banana and give me half. We’d talk about my studies, about God, about Opus Dei, about my friends and how I could help them grow closer to God. He noted that St. Josemaría’s insistence on the sanctification of ordinary life was shared by the Jesuits. One day he told me a story about a Jesuit novice who asked his spiritual director if it was OK to smoke a cigar while he prayed. The spiritual director said “Of course not! But it’s fine to pray while you smoke!” So I learned as much about sanctifying daily life from those intimate lunches with a humble Jesuit priest as I did from St. Josemaría.
I learned that to sanctify my work, I had to do it with as much human excellence as possible, paying attention to the details, and to do it for the glory of God. When painting our family room recently, I noticed that the tops of the moldings on all the doorways were all unpainted. You’d never notice it without a ladder. At least not if you’re short, like me. It made me think back to when I visited St. Peter’s Basilica last year. I looked up at all the artwork and marveled that some artist, several hundred years ago, paid attention to the smallest details, details that no one at ground level would ever be able to see, because he was doing it for the glory of God. And I was certain that these same artists, if they had painted my family room, would have painted the top of that molding, even though no one would ever see it without a ladder. So even painting your family room should be done with the same care, intention, and excellence as you would give to painting a great cathedral.
We have to turn our work into prayer. But what does that mean? Naturally, we can’t stop our work every few minutes to say an Our Father. St. Josemaría would often suggest that we start our workday by writing down the names of people who need our prayers and keep the paper on our desk, and then to assign an hour of the day for Bill, an hour for Tony, an hour for Mary, and so on. Then, before beginning our day, to offer up each hour of work or study for that person. And then to work with as much excellence and intensity as we can.
No matter how much you do your work with excellence, you will sometimes make mistakes. No matter how embarrassing, own up to them, without making excuses. By doing this you’ll gain a reputation for professional excellence, honesty, humility, and integrity. Then, when you have an opportunity to speak with someone about God, your words will carry far more weight.
St. Josemaría taught that even a cup of coffee can be an opportunity to sacrifice ourselves for others. We can say “I’m not going to put any sugar in my coffee, and offer up that sacrifice for so-and-so.” Or we can postpone it for five minutes until we finish the task at hand.
He would suggest that we find opportunities to do other people’s work for them, lessening their burden, without them knowing. A lot of my work these days involves responding to Help Desk tickets that come in from the users of our computer system. I hate doing it. It always feels like the sword of Damocles hanging over my head. I can offer up that anxiety for my colleague’s husband, who is struggling with alcoholism, or I could go into the queue of tickets and take an extra one without anyone ever being the wiser. And if I’m really feeling holy, I could take one of the ones I know everyone hates doing, and offer it up for the conversion of my friend who is dying.
St. Josemaría would suggest doing the task we find the most unpleasant first. He tells us to live our day according to a schedule so that we don’t waste time. As Fr. Driscoll would do with me, he would suggest having lunch with people so we can get to know them, become their friends, and ultimately, perhaps after many years, bring them closer to the Lord.
We should constantly be on the lookout for opportunities to serve others, especially in ways that go unnoticed. For example, if you find the coffee pot area at work to be a mess, clean it up without giving in to judgmental thoughts about the person who left it a mess. When you’re driving, look for opportunities to let other people in front of you. When someone cuts you off in traffic, say a prayer that they win the lottery or have some other good fortune. When you come home from work and just want to sit in your favorite chair and read the news on your iPad, listen to your daughter’s story about what happened that day at school, instead. When you smell the dirty diaper, don’t pretend you don’t smell it, hoping that your spouse takes care of it. Instead, change it without being asked, offering up the unpleasantness for your mother, who did the same for you.
You can also look for opportunities to mortify your senses in ways that will go unnoticed by others. Put a little less salt on your steak. Take one brownie instead of two. Don’t click on that ad that shows up in your browser. Instead of listening to the radio in your car, use the time to talk with Jesus about your relationship with that colleague you’re not getting along with. St. Josemaría would say “Don’t think ‘that person irritates me. Think ‘that person sanctifies me.’”
Pick a specific thing you’re going to try to improve and examine yourself on it every day. It’s especially pleasing to God if it’s something that makes life easier for the people you live with. Perhaps it’s keeping your clothes organized, or keeping up with the bills or the laundry. Keep track of how you’re doing and bring it to confession.
There’s nothing wrong with taking a very human thing like wanting to lose weight and “double-dipping” by adding a spiritual intention to the fasting it requires.
Look for ways of making others in your life feel your special affection for them. Birthdays and anniversaries of important events are an obvious opportunity. My mother, for example, wrote a birthday song for each of my brothers and sisters and me. She took a tune that was popular at the time and put her own words to it. Even to this day we sing each others’ songs on their birthday. Our children have continued the tradition with their kids. You see, there’s nothing explicitly religious about these types of things, but when done with creativity and generosity, for the love of God, they take on a whole new meaning and power.
Don’t limit yourself to birthdays and special occasions. Rather, develop your own family traditions that have the effect of reinforcing in each other the knowledge that you love them. It’s only if they feel loved by you that they will be able to believe that they are loved by God.
Of course, sometimes, it’s good to be explicitly religious, too. One way we supernaturalized our dinner time as a family was that we would ask the kids religious trivia questions. How many kinds of angels are there? (That’s a trick question, for those of you versed in angelology!) Which sacraments can you receive more than once? How many popes have there been? The kids loved it and it had the effect of imparting important truths to them that they can rely on for the rest of their lives, just like my father’s example of reading a spiritual book.
Nighttime is also a good time to sanctify in an explicitly religious way. At night, we would read to our kids, of course, and say their prayers with them. During November we would go through a litany of their saints, including all of our first and middle names. St. Matthew. Pray for us. St. George. Pray for us. St. Timothy. Pray for us. St. Rose. Pray for us. St. Mary. Pray for us. St. Cecilia. Pray for us. And then each night we’d surprise them at the end with a saint who had a funny name. St. Polycarp. Pray for us. St. Clotilda. Pray for us. St. Hermenegild. Pray for us. Then we’d read a short summary about their life. The more bizarre the name or story, the better. We still note St. Polycarp’s feast day.
And before you go to bed, spend two or three minutes examining your conscience. Try to pay attention to all opportunities to sanctify your life that you let slip by.
It’s precisely in these most ordinary things that make up our days that we can discover Christ as he passes by, and invite him into our lives and our hearts and our homes. We will become, as St. Josemaría would encourage us to be, “contemplatives in the middle of the world.”
So basically, sanctifying our ordinary life means doing the same things we did before, but with a new spirit of creativity, generosity, love, excellence, and desire to give glory God. Or as my friend, Fr. Driscoll and his fellow Jesuits would say, ad majorem dei gloriam.
But none of this will just happen. You need to make it happen. And it will be the work of a lifetime. So learn to take a few minutes every day to talk directly with God, as a friend opens his heart to a friend, about the ordinary stuff that makes up your life. He will help you see where he is in all of it. He will help you see all the opportunities he offers to grow closer to him.
Saints, St. Josemaría would remind us, are just sinners who always get up, dust themselves off, and start again. They return to their loving father, over and over and over again, and see themselves as his children. To help you acquire this sense of divine filiation, or spiritual childhood, I recommend reading the autobiography of St. Thèresé of Lisieux, Story of a Soul.
So you see, the life of a layman or woman is chock full of opportunities to grow in holiness. You just have to dig below the surface a little, and be creative in the ways you offer your daily life to the Lord, so that he can do wonders through you, even if they are wonders you won’t fully see until you are united with him in heaven.
Next week we’ll explore how we can integrate Christ’s command to spread the Gospel into our daily life. I’ll give you two hints: Why is a cloistered Carmelite nun the patron of the missions? And what did St. Josemaría mean when he said “these world crises are crises of saints?”
I’ve brought many of the pamphlets I referred to earlier. Some of them are homilies by St. Josemaría, some are homilies by other priests. There are a bunch of pamphlets that discuss family life, passing on the faith to others, and many other spiritual topics. Feel free to “borrow” them. I only ask that if you don’t return them to me, that you pass them on to someone else you think might benefit from them.
I’ve also brought some sheets with resources you can use to learn more about St. Josemaría and Opus Dei.
Let’s conclude with the companion closing prayer to the one I used to open this talk, and then I’ll open the floor for questions and discussion.
I thank you my God, for the firm resolutions, affections, and inspirations which you have communicated to me in this time of prayer. I ask your help to put them into effect. My Immaculate Mother, St. Joseph, my father and lord, my Guardian Angel, intercede for me.