In my first assignment after ordination, I was at a large parish. We would have infant baptism regularly, and there were a lot of them. On one Sunday afternoon in 2012, I had 13 children to be baptized and a church of almost 200 people! I remarked in my homily how quiet it was compared to my expectation for such a large crop of babies. But I spoke too soon. By the time I was baptizing the last child, I am not sure if the parents holding the child could hear me. The infants and their siblings were now making a “joyful noise” to the Lord (cf. Ps 98:4) that was impossible to drown out with the ritual. It was chaos.
Baptism washes us clean of the stain of original sin (and any other personal sins up to that point), makes us heirs to the kingdom of God and makes each of us a son or daughter of the Father. But these are not simply passive things we receive at baptism. Instead, all of these gifts are given to us so we can be actively involved in Christ’s plan of salvation. Among the many gifts of baptism is that it makes us “sharers in [the Church’s] mission” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1213).
This mission of the church that we share through our baptism is what the Second Vatican Council calls the “Universal Call to Holiness.” In Chapter 5 of the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, the fathers of the Second Vatican Council wrote: “It is evident to everyone, that all the faithful of Christ of whatever rank or status, are called to the fullness of the Christian life and to the perfection of charity” (Lumen gentium40). The gift of baptism — new life in Christ — has the power to transform us into saints!
In previous times, perhaps there was a thought that holiness was a reserved status for priests, nuns, monks or those who received special visions. It might be tempting to give ourselves a pass for the work of holiness, that we are busy raising a family, working a stressful job or committing to our classes. This temptation was clear to the members of the Council when they gathered last century. They desired to directly confront this notion of a special class of people who were called to holiness. Thus, they wrote that “all the faithful of Christ are invited to strive for the holiness and perfection of their own proper state. Indeed they have an obligation to so strive” (Lumen gentium 42).
The call to holiness for you and for me is rooted in our baptism. Because we have been washed clean from sin, we are no longer held bound by it (see Romans 8:2). Because we have become adopted sons and daughters of the Father, we have full access to the storehouse of all of his grace. We are brought into the family of God, and he has shared his unlimited data plan of grace with everyone in his family!
At Our Fingertips
One of the challenges for understanding the universal call to holiness is that we are tempted to think of holiness as something distant, unattainable and unrelated to our daily lives. That could not be any further from the truth. By virtue of our baptism, God is closer to us than we are to ourselves. He has drawn near to us (cf. Mk 1:15). Baptism gives us faith to see that God is close to us and wants us to live in this reality.
St. John Vianney would often tell his parishioners to pray a Pater, an Aveand a Gloria — an “Our Father,” a “Hail Mary” and a “Glory Be” — every hour on the hour. This small devotion that took less than two minutes was a way of reminding his people to call their minds back to God at regular intervals. By frequent short prayers, they would know that God was never far from them, whatever they might have been doing.
Holiness is attainable because Christ desires it for us. He wants us to be holy; he wants us to be saints. When Christ desires something, the only thing that stands in his way is us. He does not force it, because he wants friends and not slaves (cf. Jn 15:15). Therefore, he gives us all the tools we need, but he wants us to choose to use them. Just as parents have to let their children learn to walk on their own, Christ desires us to attain the maturity so that we won’t be spiritual infants but spiritual sons and daughters of the Father, living with strength but always in relationship with Christ (cf. Eph 4:11-16). There is something powerful in realizing that if we strive for spiritual greatness — holiness — God will not leave us wanting.
In 1999, St. John Paul II told young people gathered for the European Youth Meeting, “Do not be afraid to be holy! Have the courage and humility to present yourselves to the world determined to be holy, since full, true freedom is born from holiness.” That message should resonate with people of all ages, all over the world.
Everyday, Real-life Holiness
Holiness is intimately bound up with our daily lives. One cannot be “theoretically holy” because God does not work in the realm of theory. By becoming man and taking on our flesh, God works through the real world. This means he empowers us to be holy in our day-to-day lives.
The communion of saints is a witness to the way you and I can become holy in each walk of life. God wants you to be a holy engineer, a holy soccer coach, a holy HR representative, a holy stay-at-home mom, a holy artist, a holy student, a holy priest. The sacramental world of the church shows us that God works through material things. The material sign of baptism (water) is a reminder that God takes the ordinary and makes it extraordinary. He communicates his eternal truth through material means. He has invited you to be holy today, right where you are, with the duties of your state in life. This invitation does not have to wait until a better version of you comes along or until you have everything in your life figured out. It is an invitation to accept the universal call to holiness from your baptism and do the ordinary things of this world with extraordinary love.
In the midst of the chaos of that crowded church some eight years ago, God was doing something beautiful. He was creating heirs to his kingdom amid the noise and the distraction. God was inviting those moms and dads — and me! — to choose holiness in that moment. He was inviting us to attend to the duties of our stations (parents, caring for their children, changing diapers, assenting to the promises they were asked to make for their infants; me, praying for them, saying the words of the church, making sure the temperature of the baptism water had been turned up ahead of time). There can be no bystanders in the life of discipleship and the call to holiness.