I would like to say something today about holiness, as in Be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy, from this week’s first reading. Or, more accurately perhaps, I would like to say something about what Pope Francis says about holiness in his 2018 document, Rejoice and be Glad, subtitled, the call to holiness in today’s world.
Some of you will remember we used it during the Week of Prayer that year, especially the chapter on The Beatitudes, and there are currently groups of people around the diocese meeting to study it once a month until the end of June. These meetings were publicised in the bulletin here, but, unless someone unknown to me, has attended the group in Stevenston, there was, for some reason, no uptake here in St Bride’s. But I was speaking this week to one person who is in one of these groups and she thought it was one of the best things she has done for a long time. So what is it that Pope Francis has to say? Well, a lot of things. But what I want to do is say a few words about his opening remarks and then look at some of the signs of holiness he highlights in chapter four.
Fundamental to what he says is the phrase we have already quoted from today’s first reading: Be holy, for I the Lord your God are holy. He then goes on quote the Second Vatican Council and its universal call to holiness: Strengthened by so many means of salvation, all the faithful, whatever their consition or state, are called by the Lord – each in his or her own way - to that perfect holiness by which the Father himself is perfect. Now the idea that we should be holy as God is holy may seem a bit much, but the Pope emohasises that this will happen each in his or her own way. He warns us against ideas of holiness that are unattainable. Each one us has to discern or work out our own, unique personal way of responding to the universal call to holiness which means, fundamentally, bringing out the very best of ourselves, the most personal gifts that God has placed in our hearts, rather than hopelessly trying to imitate something that was never meant for us. This is what happened to St Ignatius in the early stages of his spiritual journey. He nearly killed himself trying to do what St Francis and St Dominic had done two hundred years earlier, before realising that the only person he could be was himself. This unique and unrepeatable vocation which belongs to each one of us should, the Pope says, excite us and encourage us to give our all and to embrace that unique plan that God willed for each of us from all eternity, quoting the prophet Jeremiahand the hymn we will sing later : “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you through, I chose you to be mine. Before you left your mother’s side, I called to you my child, to be my sign”. So how do you feel about this call from God? Does it, as the Pope suggests, excite you? Even a little bit? Francis then has a little section about the holiness of women, the implication being that they might be holier than men, but we’ll quickly move on at that pont.
Given what we have just said, it should be obvious that nobody can say what exactly holiness means in the life of any other person, so intricately tied up this is with the individual circumstances of an individuals life: age, work, relationships, responsibilities, personality, giftedness, health and so on. But in chapter four of Rejoice and be Glad, the Pope identifies some general signs of holiness which one would expect to find some evidence of in a person who is growing in holiness, and I would like to say a few words about two of them. And the first of these is joy and a sense of humour.
The saints, Francis says, are joyful and full of good humour. Ill humour or bad temper are no sign of holiness, he says. Life will be hard sometimes, but essentially the Christian is a person whose heart, like Mary’s in the Magnificat, is filled with gratitude and therefore, because one follows the other as night follows day, joy. I’ve told you before about the time I was sitting beside the bride’s mother at a wedding in Kilmarnock. She worked in Nazareth House and said of one of the nuns she worked with there, ‘Ye ken, father. She’s a typical nun, a crabbit old bitch.’ In fact, the nun in question was loved by the children she worked with, but there have been too many cases in the past of priests, brothers and sisters whose lack of joy and good humour has been a far cry from the holiness we are speaking of and sometimes led to abuse.
And the second quality the Pope identifies is boldness and passion, a quality which will be very much needed here in the parish in the years ahead. Called by God to be a Church fit for a new age, I can only quote the Pope’s own words. We need the Spirit’s prompting, lest we be paralyzed by fear and excessive caution, lest we grow used to keeping within safe bounds. Let us remember that closed spaces grow musty and unhealthy. When the Apostles were tempted to let themselves be crippled by danger and threats, they joined in prayer to implore boldness. “And now, Lord, look upon their threats, and grant to your servants to speak your word with all boldness.” Complacency, the Pope reminds us, is seductive. It tells us that there is no point in trying to change things. That there is nothing we can do, because this is the way things have always been…. Yet let us allow the Lord to rouse us from our torpor, to free us from our inertia. Let us rethink our usual way of doing things; let us open our eyes and our ears, and above all our hearts, so as not to be complacent about things as they are, but unsettled by the living and effective word of the risen Lord.
This is what it means to be holy. It has nothing to do with being pious or religious, hanging around churches, or constantly moaning about the state of the world, young people or people different from ourselves. Holiness is being fully alive, hearts filled with joy and gratitude. Holy people are filled with hope and draw others to God by their boldness and commitment to the things of the Kingdom.
So rejoice and be glad. There’s no room here for pessimism or negativity. We are called to be holy.