Benedict XVI’s General Audience for today, Wednesday April 13, 2011.
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
In the general audiences of the last two years, we have been accompanied by the figures of many men and women saints: We have gotten to know them up close and to understand that the whole history of the Church is marked by these men and women, who with their faith, their charity, and their lives were the beacons of many generations, as they are also for us. The saints manifest in many ways the powerful and transforming presence of the Risen One; they let Christ possess their lives completely, being able to affirm as St. Paul, “yet I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:20). Following their example, taking recourse to their intercession, entering into communion with them, “joins us to Christ, from Whom as from its Fountain and Head issues every grace and the very life of the people of God” (Lumen Gentium 50). At the end of this series of catecheses, I would like to offer an idea of what holiness is.
What does it mean to be saints? Who is called to be a saint? Often it is thought that holiness is a goal reserved for a few chosen ones. St. Paul, however, speaks of God’s great plan and affirms: “[God] chose us in him [Christ], before the foundation of the world, to be holy and without blemish before him. In love he destined us” (Ephesians 1:4). And he speaks of all of us. At the center of the divine design is Christ, in whom God shows his Face: the Mystery hidden in the centuries has been revealed in the fullness of the Word made flesh. And Paul says afterward: “For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” (Colossians 1:19). In Christ the living God has made himself close, visible, audible, tangible so that all can obtain his fullness of grace and truth (cf. John 1:14-16).
Because of this, the whole of Christian existence knows only one supreme law, the one St. Paul expresses in a formula that appears in all his writings: in Christ Jesus. Holiness, the fullness of Christian life does not consist of realizing extraordinary enterprises, but in union with Christ, in living his mysteries, in making our own his attitudes, his thoughts, his conduct. The measure of holiness is given by the height of holiness that Christ attains in us, of how much, with the strength of the Holy Spirit, we mold all our life to his. It is our conforming ourselves to Jesus, as St. Paul affirms: “For those he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son” (Romans 8:29). And St. Augustine exclaimed: “My life will be alive full of You” (Confessions, 10, 28). In the Constitution on the Church, the Second Vatican Council spoke with clarity of the universal call to holiness, affirming that no one is excluded: “The classes and duties of life are many, but holiness is one — that sanctity which is cultivated by all who are moved by the Spirit of God, and who … follow the poor Christ, the humble and cross-bearing Christ in order to be worthy of being sharers in His glory” (No. 41).
However, the question remains: How can we journey on the path of holiness, how can we respond to this call? Can I do so with my own strength? The answer is clear: A holy life is not primarily the fruit of our own effort, of our actions, because it is God, the thrice Holy (cf. Isaiah 6:3), who makes us saints, and the action of the Holy Spirit who encourages us from within; it is the life itself of the Risen Christ, which has been communicated to us and which transforms us. To say it again according to Vatican Council II: “The followers of Christ are called by God, not because of their works, but according to His own purpose and grace. They are justified in the Lord Jesus, because in the baptism of faith they truly become sons of God and sharers in the divine nature. In this way they are really made holy. Then too, by God’s gift, they must hold on to and complete in their lives this holiness they have received” (ibid., 40).
Hence, holiness has its main root in baptismal grace, in being introduced into the paschal mystery of Christ, with which his Spirit is communicated to us, his life as the Risen One. St. Paul points out the transformation wrought in man by baptismal grace and even coins a new terminology, forged with the preposition “with”: “We were indeed buried with him through baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life” (Romans 6:4). However, God always respects our liberty and asks that we accept this gift and that we live the demands it entails. He asks that we allow ourselves to be transformed by the action of the Holy Spirit, conforming our will to the will of God.
How can we make our way of thinking and our actions become thinking and acting with Christ and of Christ? What is the soul of holiness? Again Vatican II specifies: It tells us that holiness is none other than charity fully lived. “We have come to know and to believe in the love God has for us. God is love, and whoever remains in love remains in God and God in him” (1 John 4:16). Now God has amply diffused his love in our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us (cf. Romans 5:5); because of this, the first and most necessary gift is charity, with which we love God above all things and our neighbor out of love for him. For charity to grow as a good seed in the soul and fructify us, every faithful one must listen willingly to the Word of God, and with the help of his grace, realize the works of his will, participate frequently in the sacraments, above all in the Eucharist and in the holy liturgy, constantly approach prayer, abnegation of oneself, in the active service to brothers and the exercise of all virtue. Charity, in fact, is the bond of perfection and fulfillment of the law (cf. Colossians 3:14; Romans 13:10); it directs all the means of sanctification, gives them their form and leads them to their end.
Perhaps also this language of Vatican II is a bit solemn for us; perhaps we should say things in a still simpler way. What is the most essential? Essential is that no Sunday be left without an encounter with the Risen Christ in the Eucharist — this is not a burden but light for the whole week. Never to begin or end a day without at least a brief contact with God. And, in the journey of our life, to follow “road signs” that God has communicated to us in the Decalogue read with Christ, which is simply the definition of charity in specific situations. I think this is the true simplicity and grandeur of the life of holiness: the encounter with the Risen One on Sunday; contact with God at the beginning and end of the day; in decisions, to follow the “road signs” that God has communicated to us, which are simply forms of charity. From whence charity for God and for our neighbor is made the distinctive sign of the true disciple of Christ. (Lumen Gentium , 42). This is true simplicity, grandeur and profundity of the Christian life, of being saints.
This is why St. Augustine, commenting on the fourth chapter of the First Letter of St. John can affirm an astonishing thing: “Dilige et fac quod vis” (Love and do what you will). And he continued: “If you are silent, be silent out of love; if you speak, speak out of love; if you correct, correct out of love; if you forgive, forgive out of love, may the root of love be in you, because from this root nothing can come that is not good” (7, 8: PL 35). He who lets himself be led by love, who lives charity fully is led by God, because God is love. This is what this great saying means: “Dilige et fac quod vis” (Love and do as you will).
Perhaps we might ask ourselves: Can we, with our limitations, our weakness, reach so high? During the liturgical year, the Church invites us to recall a line-up of saints, who have lived charity fully, have been able to love and to follow Christ in their daily lives. In all the periods of the history of the Church, in every latitude of the geography of the world, the saints belong to all the ages and to all states of life; they are the concrete faces of all peoples, languages and nations. And they are very different among themselves. In reality, I must say that also, according to my personal faith, many saints, not all, are true stars in the firmament of history. And I would like to add that for me not only the great saints that I love and know well are “road signs,” but also the simple saints, that is, the good persons that I see in my life, who will never be canonized. They are ordinary people, to say it somehow, without a visible heroism, but in their everyday goodness I see the truth of the faith. This goodness, which they have matured in the faith of the Church, is for me a sure defense of Christianity and the sign of where the truth is.
In the communion with saints, canonized or not canonized, which the Church lives thanks to Christ in all her members, we enjoy their presence and company and cultivate the firm hope of being able to imitate their way and share one day the same blessed life, eternal life.
Dear friends, how great and beautiful and also simple, is the Christian vocation seen from this light! We are all called to holiness: It is the very measure of the Christian life. Once again St. Paul expresses it with great intensity when he writes: “But grace was given to each of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift. … And he gave some as apostles, others as prophets, others as evangelists, others as pastors and teachers, to equip the holy ones for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of faith and knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the extent of the full stature of Christ” (Ephesians 4:7,11-13).
I would like to invite you to open yourselves to the action of the Holy Spirit, who transforms our life, to be, we also, pieces of the great mosaic of holiness that God is creating in history, so that the Face of Christ will shine in the fullness of its brilliance. Let us not be afraid to look on high, to the height of God; let us not be afraid that God will ask too much of us, but let us be guided in all our daily actions by his Word, even if we feel that we are poor, inadequate, sinners: He will be the one to transform us according to his love. Thank you.