The universal call to holiness

November 4, 2013

One consequence of the Second Vatican Council was that it seemed to make everybody busier. More people became involved in more ministries, and the number of meetings exploded. Where the Church had previously been disengaged from the issues of contemporary society, it now seemed to have an opinion about everything.

A few years ago, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin – not incidentally, sent to Dublin from the Vatican in the wake of the Irish sexual abuse crisis – said the Irish Church had been too concerned with doing things and helping people. It had "run the risk of becoming over-attached to its works and structures and buildings."

The founders of Ireland's great religious orders had, Martin said pointedly, not only been great doers, but also great mystics; they had spent a lot of time on their knees.

Before anything else, the Church should be the place where the faithful encounter God. Following the Exodus, God told Moses to call the people together and tell them: "You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy" (Leviticus 19.2).

That is the central duty of the People of God – to strive for holiness.

Holiness, it must be said, is God's gift, not something we earn with good deeds or by imposing our visions on other people.

God is so awesome, so far above our ways that it is unfathomable that we should even consider that we might become like him. But God comes to us in the form of his Son and doesn't simply show and tell us how to be good people, but calls us to share in God's divine nature.

For Vatican II's vision of holiness to come alive, we need to see the face of Christ in even the most ordinary events of daily life.

For Vatican II's vision of holiness to come alive, we need to see the face of Christ in even the most ordinary events of daily life.

There's nothing new in this, but we keep forgetting.

Church historian John O'Malley says perhaps the most remarkable teaching of Vatican II's Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium) is its chapter on The Call to Holiness. "Holiness, the council said, is what the Church is all about.

"This is an old truth, of course, and in itself is not remarkable. Yet no previous council had ever explicitly asserted this idea and certainly never developed it so repeatedly and at length" (What Happened at Vatican II, 51).

The Church is not simply a guardian of right doctrine and an enforcer of good behaviour, O'Malley said. It is the place where we enter into the life of God.


The "new truth" that Vatican II taught is that everyone is called to be holy. Holiness is not the preserve of priests, sisters and brothers. There are not two tiers in the Church - one comprised of professional Catholics who strive to be saints and the other of the laity who do the minimum necessary to scrape into heaven.

The Church is a communion of grace, not a pyramidal institution in which the people at the top are closer to heaven.

To admit this – to say that lay people with families, jobs and other preoccupations are called to live holy lives – is also to reconfigure what we mean by "holiness."


Obviously, people with such busy lives cannot partake, with any degree of fullness, in a monastic model of holiness - community prayer seven times a day, sometimes severe self-denial and, in general, a life lived in the sanctuary. They must seek the face of God in the ordinary events of daily life.

If you think being a monk is difficult, this is perhaps even more difficult. God's face is not immediately evident in the face of one's spouse, children, co-workers or the cashier at the grocery store. However, for Vatican II's vision of holiness to come alive, those are exactly the places where we need to be looking.

If we do this, we will not be inclined to see the Church as an island of goodness in a sea of sin. For one thing, the sins of the sons and daughters of the Church are all the more evident the closer one gets to the Church's structures. As well, heroic goodness can be readily found among people who have no visible connection with the Church.


Grace abounds. We ought to take seriously the Eucharistic Prayers that became part of the Mass after Vatican II and that acknowledged the presence of holiness throughout creation.

For example, the Third Eucharistic Prayer proclaims: "Through your Son our Lord Jesus Christ, by the power and working of the Holy Spirit, you give life to all things and make them holy."

This does not undercut the need for evangelization, for God calls all people to himself and pours out his grace in a particularly intense way through the sacraments of the Church.

Fullness of life is only possible through the Word Made Flesh. Blessed John Paul II never tired of recalling the words of another council document, Gaudium et Spes, which said Christ the New Adam "fully reveals humanity to itself and brings to light its most high calling."

When we think of Vatican II, we should think first, not of activism, but of the call to holiness. We can never be satisfied with being "good-enough Catholics," but must strive for an ever-fuller union with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

(Among the sources of information for this article were a talk by Christopher Ruddy, a theologian at the Catholic University of America, given at a conference at Catholic University in September 2012 and O'Malley's book What Happened at Vatican II.)