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Vol 39 No 4


Francis Mansour LCM

Charles Hill

Terry Lyons

Vincent Battaglia

Sophie McGrath RSM

Peter Malone MSC

Kevin Mark



Holy, or saintly?


IT IS NOT UNCOMMON to meet good Christian people who have a low self-esteem, spiritually speaking. If you were to ask them if they think themselves holy, they would vehemently deny it. If you were to persist, and ask if they know any holy people, they would likely refer you to clerics or consecrated religious. If you were to persist further, they might think of others of their acquaintance who possess a pious demeanour or are known for conspicuous practice of religious devotions (the badge of holy people, after all). As for themselves, holiness is not something they would lay claim to.

A Debilitating Weakness
A pity: this low self-esteem can translate into disqualification from deeper involvement in Christian life. In some cases, if these good people are invited to assume ministerial roles such as extraordinary minister of the eucharist, they might protest their unworthiness. Just such a response is conveyed in a piece in The Tablet of 30 October 2004, 'In awesome wonder,' by an English Catholic, Judy Roblin (a convert, who like many such suffers from an acute bout of this debilitating ailment). When asked by her parish priest to become a eucharistic minister, Judy's first response was to plead 'my own sense of inadequacy.' Fortunately, she came to realise that 'if the role required someone who was worthy of it, the position would never be filled;' and so she accepted, though never losing that sense of 'awesome wonder.' Well and good; just a pity, though, that Judy—and so many of us—had not been drilled also in a sense of the holiness she enjoys as a member of God's holy people.

Judy, you see, and we her fellow members of the people of God, have inherited muddled thinking on this matter of holiness. Where we have it right is in seeing holiness, whether of ritual or person (or object, or place), somehow to involve apartness, separation from the ungodly, dedication to God. The Bible is full of references to (a holy God and) a holy ark, a holy temple, holy vessels, holy ministers, holy festivals—and a holy people. Peter insists in his first epistle (2:9-10) that this holiness has been transferred to the Christian community, who are now 'the holy ones' in Paul's frequent term as well (usually rendered—misleadingly, as we shall see—'the saints').

Likewise, a preacher in those early times whom I have been reading lately, Severian of Gabala, nemesis of John Chrysostom in Constantinople, does what we may be remiss in doing, drilling a sense of holiness into his congregation (in Lent in 401). He insists that it is appropriate for a holy people to engage in holy fasting. Let me quote it for you:

Beneficiaries of holy fasting as we are, and enjoying heavenly things thanks to bodily deprivation, let us be zealous in observing the holy fast. Scripture says, remember, 'Make holy a fast' (Joel 1:14). Are we making it holy, or being made holy by it? The prophet meant by this for us to keep it holy, just as we pray, 'Hallowed be thy name' (Matt 6:9)—not that we are praying for his name, since his name hallows everything; instead, since his name is invoked on us, being called Christians after Christ (Acts 11:26), it means, May your name be hallowed in our case. After all, with the Holy One everything is holy, nothing unholy coming near God; God, who is holy, rests in holy people. Even his heaven is holy; Scripture says, 'He will hearken to him from his holy heaven' (Ps 20:6). The angels are holy: 'When the Son of man comes in his glory with his holy angels' (Mark 8:38). The land where there is divine worship is holy: 'He will wish to overthrow a covenant in his holy land.' David says that his court is holy, 'Adore the Lord in his holy court' (Ps 95:9 LXX), Isaiah, the Temple is holy, 'Holy is your temple, wonderful in righteousness' (Ps 65:4 LXX). The irrational sheep that are sacrificed are said to be holy, 'Like holy sheep in Jerusalem' (Ezek 36:38). The covenant is holy, 'He will confirm his holy covenant with many;' this city was said to be holy, 'And on the holy city of your fathers, Jerusalem' (Dan 9:27,24). Nothing that is not holy, in fact, has access to God—hence Paul's remark, 'Holiness, without which no one will see God' (Heb 12:14). [PG 56.437]

In short, for Severian, Lenten fasting is a holy exercise that befits a holy people. While we might have preferred that more of his scriptural documentation of this conviction derived from the New Testament, where the emphasis falls less on holy things and more on the holy people that is the Christian community ('you are washed, you are made holy,' says Paul to the Corinthians), Old Testament statement does highlight that objective character of the people's holiness. As one commentator says of this biblical picture of holiness, 'Holiness is not something that is worked up, but something that is rather sent down—conferred upon those things and persons that are brought into relation with God. Nor is holiness a quality naturally possessed, but one supernaturally granted from the underived holiness which belongs to God alone. Holiness is not so much acquired as conceded' (J. K. Reid).

Different Theological Models

The New Testament's phrasing of our state of holiness, involving a separation from what is ungodly and our dedication to God, can represent it as due to the Paschal Mystery of Jesus. It also speaks of 'the love of God poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us' (Rom 5:5). In keeping with Old Testament statement of a holy people's being dedicated to God by a covenant relationship, Christian theology proceeds to present holiness as stemming from admission to a Church by a sacramental ritual of baptism, and will go further to speak in terms of indwelling grace. Some communities prefer to speak rather in terms of justification, or righteousness.

Under whichever theological model, the Christian people can confidently say, I am holy as God is holy; Jesus made me holy. Judy, the reluctant eucharistic minister, and other holy members of this holy people were clearly not made aware that we are entitled by this objective state of holiness to 'present our bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God' (Rom 12:1). In the sense that admission to the holy people is a call, a choice, it is a call that has been not only uttered but obeyed; in the New Testament the called are identified with the chosen or elect (Rom 8:33; 16:13, Rev 17:14). It is not a call we Christian people have yet to answer.

What Judy and the rest of us were made clearly aware of, on the other hand, was the fact that consequent on our holy state comes an obligation to move towards the goal of saintliness. No sooner has Peter drummed into his readers that they are a holy people than he urges them to respond to this state of apartness and dedication: 'I urge you as aliens and exiles to abstain from the desires of the flesh that wage war against the soul' (1 Pet 2:11). Noblesse oblige, or as the Fathers say, 'Be what you are.'

Holiness—Or Perfection?

It is the deep-seated awareness in all of us that this goal of saintliness has not been achieved that nourishes our sense of unworthiness, even to the extent of obscuring a realisation of our innate holiness. To some extent scriptural statement—or at least one text often quoted to us—has contributed to this imbalance. Twice in Leviticus the people are reminded of their apartness and dedication: 'You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.' Unfortunately, when Matthew comes to reproduce the statement, he opts (at least in the language of our present text) for a different term: 'Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect' (5:48). Perhaps aware that the term 'perfect,' teleios, is never applied to God in the Greek Bible, Luke (as his commentator Joseph Fitzmyer observes) prefers to employ a term applicable to God, 'Be merciful' (6:36). But the damage has been done: we draw a sense from the oft-quoted Matthean text that the goal of perfection, saintliness, lies (unachievably?) ahead of us, ignoring the levitical endorsement of our present state of holiness.

While superficially the discrepancy in evangelical statement may seem slight, its impact on spiritual direction and more fundamentally on magisterial statement has been most regrettable. The phrase commonly quoted in works of spiritual direction, 'the call to holiness,' derives from the title to Chapter Five of Vatican II's Constitution on the Church, De universali vocatione ad sanctitatem in ecclesia. While the chapter begins soundly with a statement that the Church is 'unfailingly holy (sancta),' the focus throughout wavers between holiness (sanctitas) and perfection (perfectio); Matthew's version of Lev 19:2, not Luke's, is quoted. The accent falls uncertainly on holiness as a state and saintliness as a goal, both to be 'pursued;' Judy and the rest of us could rightly presume we have not attained either. We are not reminded that there may be progress in holiness for a holy people, not towards holiness. Post-conciliar statements from the magisterium on lay spirituality that are heavily indebted to the council's teaching, like the 1988 Christifideles Laici, reveal an accent (predictable in concerned pastors) further in the direction of presenting holiness as a goal to be 'pursued' (pars. 16,17). Spiritual directors could thus be encouraged to present it as an ideal to be aimed at, not a state already enjoyed.

Transmitting Biblical Precision

The principal factor contributing to this muddled thinking in our community seems to lie in inadequate translation of those basic biblical texts; as has happened in the past, our community's doctrinal tradition has betrayed the force of biblical tradition. In the course of translating Hebrew texts into Greek, and putting both biblical languages into Latin, precise distinctions have suffered. The trisagion of Isaiah 6:3, 'Holy, holy, holy,' for instance, moves in translation from qadosh to hagios to sanctus. But sanctus comes to denote both a holy person and a saintly person, and sanctitas both the state of holiness (enjoyed by God's people) and the goal of saintliness, sanctity, to be aimed at by members of this people. Remember the popular cry at the obsequies of Pope John Paul II, 'Santo subito,' a demand for this saintly man's immediate canonisation as an official 'saint.' It was a holy people making this appeal.

It is to this eminence of sainthood that Judy and the rest of us believe we cannot attain—hence the low levels of self-esteem. We have been led to confuse holiness with saintliness; because we know that we have not reached a 'perfect' degree of the latter, we abjure any claim to a share in the former. We have not had Yves Congar to remind us to fasten both on the déjà as well as the pas encore.

Is all this only a play upon words? By no means: we cannot emphasise often enough that the Christian people (however widely we interpret that term—and Vatican II allows for generous interpretation) are holy, separated, dedicated, even if there is room for debate on the nature of this apartness, the notion of growth in holiness, possibility of loss of holiness, etc. After that, the obligation of movement towards saintliness, and the common meaning of sainthood, can be proposed and explored. Surely there is nothing to be gained from the holy people's being kept in ignorance of their incontestable state of holiness, for it is from this separation and dedication that the obligation to saintly living stems. 'Be what you are,' we should instead constantly urge and encourage them, as the Fathers did. (And stop singing 'Amazing grace, that saved a wretch like me.')

Charles Hill lives in the Blue Mountains. He teaches and writes on the bible, theology, the Fathers and spirituality.