We often think of holiness as something that is only available to some who, by their vocation, are “predestined” to a path of holiness. On the contrary, holiness is a free gift to all. In this way, it becomes the mission and responsibility of each one.
In the hustle and bustle of everyday life, we lose sight of what we are from the beginning of existence: the image and likeness of God. (Gen. 1:26) In the essence of every human being is the mark of God, the mark of holiness! If we take this dimension into account, the question of holiness is not referred to as “humanly impossible.”
On the contrary, holiness is something that already inhabits us and, in this sense, to live holiness is to live in coherence with what we truly are, in a way that comes from God (because we have been created into His image), remains in God (through the coherency of a “holy” life) and that leads to God.
In fact, as Pope Francis affirms, “To the extent that each Christian grows in holiness, he or she will bear greater fruit for our world… Holiness does not make you less human, since it is an encounter between your weakness and the power of God’s grace.” (Apostolic Exhortation, Gaudete et Exsultate, 33-34).
Holiness is the free gift of God to all, without exception. In this way, it also constitutes itself as the mission and responsibility of each one, in the here and now of life. Holiness is neither an illusory dream nor something that will exist (as if it were a thing) only in the future. The time of holiness is always today, now. If this is not the case, holiness remains an object and not a life, and consequently is incapable of generating new life in God.
To live the gift of holiness is to enter a missionary path in fidelity to one’s own baptism. In fact, despite the many vocations that exist within the Church, they are all rooted in the vocation that springs from the waters of baptism: the vocation to holiness!
It is this vocation that configures every Christian to a missionary life, according to certain specificity, that is, holiness is the mother-vocation of all vocations: laity, parenthood, bishop, priest, religious, etc. Everyone, according to his or her way of life, is called to live this first vocation: the vocation to holiness.
Holiness, because it is about life and not something static, always implies a life in mission. In fact, contrary to what one might think from the life of some missionary saints, the truth is that “the call to mission derives by its nature from the vocation to holiness.” (Pope John Paul II, Encyclical Redemptoris Missio, 90) and not the contrary!
The example of life of any Christian/missionary reflects his or her experience of holiness. Holiness precedes action, it manifests itself according to the way each one lives and acts.
It should be borne in mind that missionary life, as a reflection of the vocation to holiness, cannot be reduced to a geographical question. The mission of proclaiming the Gospel is of all and for all (Mark 16:15), regardless of its geographical location.
The missionary challenge inherent in the gift of holiness must lead to a discovery and personal journey. In fact, if we are often confronted with examples of holiness before which we feel small, it should be borne in mind that the life of holiness, or the testimony of it, should serve as a motivation for us. Everyone, according to what each one is, “is called to be witnesses, but there are many existential forms of witness.” (Apostolic Exhortation, Gaudete et Exsultate, II)
Of course, our life, in one way or another, has in mind the place we are in, the culture and way of living and thinking that surround us. However, not turning a blind eye to this reality, the determining factor is life according to the vocation to holiness and not the external constraints that present themselves to us.
Without pretending to serve as an example, I would like to present two realities that I have lived through: one, on a mission in the Central African Republic (where I lived for five years); another, on a mission in Portugal, my home country.
The Central African Republic is one of the poorest countries in the world. Many still do not know the person of Jesus Christ. For this reason, there are many missionaries who, leaving their countries, come to live among these people, announcing the Gospel of Jesus Christ with words and deeds.
The time I lived in this country was shared with other lay people. In fact, in the place where I lived – Mongoumba – there was no community of priests or sisters. Only the laity sought to respond to the challenges of their vocation through the formation of small communities, and it was only after decades of lay presence in these places that a religious community settled down.
In this context, as in any other where one wants to live the essence of the vocation, there is no room for superheroes who are saints on their own. On the contrary, we experience daily that sanctification is a community endeavour, in which all are at the service of the salvific proclamation of Jesus Christ.
This was a time shared with other people, both with other lay people who came from different European countries, as well as with Central African people: Pygmies and Bantus. This represented a daily challenge to the community, but also a call to live the coherence of a life in God.
It could be said that, in Portugal, the life of mission would end, but that would deny the essence of the vocation that springs from baptism. Far from being an easier mission, “today the mission remains difficult and complex, as in the past, and it also requires the courage and light of the Spirit.” (Encyclical Redemptoris Missio, 87).
In a supposedly evangelized context, there are permanent cries of despair, discouragement, pain and anguish that demand a daily Christian response. A mission entrusted to me and to all those who claim to be Christians and become a manifestation of the gift of holiness in the gestures of everyday life: at work, in the University, at home or in any action or socio-political space.
The meanders of holiness refer not only to a goal, but to an origin. In fact, it is important to remember that it is God who wants to “save and sanctify men and women, not individually, excluding any connection between them, but constituting them as people who know Him in truth and serve Him in holiness.” (Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium, 9)
In this sense, holiness is not the fruit of great theological actions and considerations, nor of great innovations in the pastoral sphere: it results, rather, from the ardour of holiness present in the heart of every Christian, an ardour that urges to mission and makes every believer a true missionary of the Kingdom, regardless of where he or she is located.
It is important to keep in mind that holiness, because it is a gift of God and manifests itself in concrete actions of mission, is not something static, nor definitive, nor something that can only be seen to progress.
On the contrary, it is something human, with the ups and downs of human frailty that is slowly maturing and manifesting itself. This dynamism of holiness should not discourage or scare us. Rather, it should spur us, with joy and confidence, to respond to the challenges.
Walking and experiencing life in God should not frighten us: it does not mutilate or enslave us. Rather, it elevates us to the fullness of what we are, fullness reachable by living out the gift of holiness that was given to us by God when He created us.
Life in God is not a perfect life, but a life shared with Him who is perfect. In this sense, we take heed of the words of Pope Francis, “Do not be afraid of holiness. It will take away none of your energy, vitality or joy. On the contrary, you will become what the Father had in mind when He created you, and you will be faithful to your deepest self.” (Apostolic Exhortation Gaudete et Exsultate, 32). (Susan Vilas Boas)