An Anthropology of Holiness: A Challenge for the Vincentian Family
by: José Antonio González Montoto
Episcopal Vicar for the Archdiocese of Oviedo
(This article appeared in Urgencias Pastorales de la Familia Vicenciana: XXXII Semana de Estudios Vicencianos [Pastoral Urgencies of the Vincentian Family: XXXII Vincentian Studies Week], Editorial CEME – Santa Marta de Tormes – Salmanca).
Introduction: the need for a holy life
I once again thank the Vincentians of this house for the invitation that they extended to me … an invitation to participate in this time of reflection and meditation and to speak about that which is most necessary at this time. I speak to you from my heart, from my experience of having committed myself to priestly ministry, from my passion for the gospel and the holy Church. Thank you for providing me with this opportunity to speak to you freely and simply about that which I consider essential for ourselves, for our communities and for our plans with regard to evangelization. Without the element of holiness we may do important things, we might even be given awards for our accomplishment, but without the love that proceeds from God, we will be living our lives in a way that contradicts our fundamental commitment: If I speak in human and angelic tongues, but do not have love, I am a resounding gong or a clashing cymbal. And if I have the gift of prophecy and comprehend all mysteries and all knowledge; if I have all faith so as to move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away everything I own, and if I hand my body over so that I may boast but do not have love, I gain nothing (1 Corinthians 13:1-3).
Our Language has been secularized
Today it is not fashionable to speak about holiness. We have secularized our language. We prefer to say: I want to develop myself as a person; I want to be myself; I am pleased with who I am and I do not want to change; you have to accept me as I am … and we use other similar phrases. It could be said that it is not politically correct to speak about these realities with phrases like: I want to be holy; with all my strength I desire to change so that I might have the same attitudes as Jesus Christ had; I would be grateful if you point out my character defects; I am not satisfied with everything that I have achieved and I want to be converted. This latter way of speaking is better suited to our condition as men and women who, through baptism, no longer belong to this world but rather, as a result of our profession of the evangelical counsels, have freely chosen a lifestyle that has impacted our very being as well as our daily activity.
There are signs of hope
There are signs of hope that this situation may be changing and I am happy about this fact. You have chosen the title of this presentation: the anthropology of holiness … this is the central theme that you have asked me to address. Are we in a position of unconditional openness so that we might experience that which we lack and thus able to reflect the image of the risen Lord? Do we really desire to be converted, to be embraced by the Love that transfigures and creates a new person? Is the Vincentian Family on fire with the fervor of the saints, desirous to respond to the inspirations of the Holy Spirit by undertaking a journey of conversion that reveals the beauty of being a child of God? Do we know how to respond today to the pressing and urgent needs of our time; do we know how to be witnesses to God’s love which is patient and responsible, grateful and hopeful, an expression of creativity and solidarity? Do we know how to be witnesses who believe that God’s love can transform and change the lives of men and women?
The call of God in the Old Testament to be holy
We are members of a holy people
God’s call to his people, his salvific action in the history of love that freed people from the power of Pharaoh, is motivated by the following plan: If you harken to my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my special possession, dearer to me than all other people, though all the earth is mine. You shall be to me a kingdom of priests, a holy nation (Exodus 19:5-6).
People cannot live in the manner that they have grown accustomed because God’s covenant has implications: The Lord said to Moses, “Speak to the whole Israelite community and tell them: be holy, for I, the Lord, your God, am holy” (Leviticus 19:1-2).
To live in communion with God and to live as God’s people molds those persons who have been called to live the fullness of this relationship: Fear the Lord, you holy ones; nothing is lacking to those who fear him (Psalm 34:10).
In one of the messianic oracles there is reference to a faithful remnant from which the Messiah would be born: He who remains in Zion and he that is left in Jerusalem will be called holy; every one marked down for life in Jerusalem (Isaiah 4:3).
The call of God in the New Testament to be holy
Jesus is the holy one of God
In the mystery of the Annunciation the Messiah reflects his divine origin by being born by the power of the Holy Spirit: The holy spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God (Luke 1:35).
Even the evil spirits recognize Jesus as the holy one of God: Ha! What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are --- the Holy One of God (Luke 4:34).
During a difficult time the apostles refer to Jesus by using the same title, that is, the holy one of God. Jesus had just proclaimed the doctrine of the Eucharist and as a result many of his disciples abandoned him. When Jesus asked the twelve if they also wanted to leave him, Peter responded: Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God (John 6:68-69).
After the healing of the man who had been paralyzed from birth, Peter, in his preaching, explained how God had revealed the glory of his servant Jesus: The God of our ancestors has glorified his servant Jesus whom you handed over and denied in Pilate’s presence, when he had decided to release him. You denied the Holy and Righteous One and asked that a murderer be released to you. The author of life you put to death (Acts 3:13-15).
After Peter and John had been released by the Sanhedrin the same community gathered together and prayed to the God of creation, the God of history: Sovereign Lord, maker of heaven and earth and the sea and all that is in them … Why did the Gentiles rage and the peoples entertain folly? The kings of the earth took their stand and the princes gathered together against the Lord and against his anointed. Indeed, they gathered in this city against your holy servant Jesus whom you anointed, Herod and Pontius Pilate, together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel to do what your hand and your will had long ago planned to take place (Acts 4:24-28).
Called to be holy and without blemish through love
Christians incorporated into Christ through faith and Baptism also participate in Christ’s holiness: If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person; for the temple of God, which you are, is holy (1 Corinthians 3:17).
Incorporation into Christ has specific demands. People can no longer live as they had before: Therefore, gird up the loins of your mind, live soberly, and set your hopes completely on the grace to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ. Like obedient children, do not act in compliance with the desires of your former ignorance but, as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in every aspect of your conduct, for it is written, be holy because I am holy (1 Peter 1:13-16).
The Trinitarian hymn at the beginning of the letter to the Ephesians reveals God’s plan for each one of us: Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavens, as he chose us in him, before the foundation of the world, to be holy and without blemish before him in love (Ephesians 1:3-4).
The testimony of the founders
The founders speak about holiness
Saint Vincent de Paul and Saint Louise de Marillac have gifted the Church and the world with the witness of a holy life, that is, a life of unconditional surrender to the will of the Father, a life of service on behalf of those men and women who were poor. They are our reference point and they encourage us to constantly return to the charism that the Holy Spirit has given to the Church for the building up of the Kingdom of God. How many wonderful things was the Lord able to accomplish through the mediation of these two saints! Without them we would not have become the people that we are: Christians who rejoice in being members of the Vincentian family; Christians who have received a specific call to be holy; Christians who, following the example of Vincent and Louise, are called to commit themselves to the service of the poor.
Vincent understood that the vocation to be a member of the Congregation of the Mission and the Daughters of Charity is a call to faithful love, a call to surrender one’s self, a call to wholeness. Thus he spoke to the Daughters: But perhaps, Sisters, you do not know how one can love God above all things. I am going to tell you how; it is to love Him more than anything else --- more than father, mother, relatives, friends, or any creature whomsoever; it is to love Him more than ourselves for, if something were to arise contrary to His glory and Will, or were it necessary to die for Him, it would be far better to die than to act contrary to His pure love (CCD:IX:17).
The purpose of the Congregation: personal sanctification
Saint Vincent clearly pointed out the purpose of the Congregation of the Mission: personal sanctification, the instruction of the poor and the formation of the clergy. The saint found his inspiration in the gospel and therefore stated that we ought to act as Jesus acted: We read in Sacred Scripture that our Lord Jesus Christ, sent on earth for the salvation of the human race, began first by doing, and then by teaching. He carried out the former by practicing perfectly every type of virtue, and the latter by preaching the Good News of the Gospel to poor persons, and giving His Apostles and disciples the knowledge needed to guide the people. And since the little Congregation of the Mission wants, with God's grace, to imitate Jesus Christ Our Lord, so far as this is possible in view of its limitations, both with regard to His virtues as well as in the works He did for the salvation of the neighbor, it is only right that it should use similar means to carry out this devout plan in a worthy manner. That is why its purpose is: (1) to strive to grow in holiness, but doing its utmost to practice the virtues this Sovereign Master was pleased to teach us by word and example; (2) to preach the Good News to persons who are poor, especially to those in rural areas; (3) to help those in the priestly state to acquire the knowledge and virtue necessary for their state (CCD:XII:66-67).
To work for one’s perfection is the language of the era; to work for our sanctification is the language that the magisterium uses at this time.
The task then is very clear. Now each one of us has to live with the consequences of this task: how specifically are we working for our perfection; are we projecting the image of the Risen Lord? Is it obvious that we aspire to live a life of holiness, that is, is it obvious that we do not want to become caught up in the dominant ideology: consumerism; eat, drink and be merry; viewing ourselves as the only absolute, the only ones who are important and refusing tot allow ourselves to be manipulated by “the system” (and in this case “the system” could be the Church, the congregation, the local community, the community plan).
The Second Vatican Council
We are all called to holiness
In every era the Church possesses the power of the Spirit and therefore reminds us of the following commitment: be holy, for I, the Lord, your God, am holy.
The powerful experience of renewal undertaken by the Second Vatican Council convoked by John XXIII and Paul VI … this experience includes a call to the whole Church with regard to our vocation to holiness: The Church, whose mystery is being set forth by this Sacred Synod, is believed to be indefectibly holy. Indeed Christ, the Son of God, who with the Father and the Spirit is praised as "uniquely holy," loved the Church as His bride, delivering Himself up for her. He did this that He might sanctify her. He united her to Himself as His own body and brought it to perfection by the gift of the Holy Spirit for God's glory. Therefore in the Church, everyone whether belonging to the hierarchy, or being cared for by it, is called to holiness, according to the saying of the Apostle: "For this is the will of God, your sanctification". However, this holiness of the Church is unceasingly manifested, and must be manifested, in the fruits of grace which the Spirit produces in the faithful; it is expressed in many ways in individuals, who in their walk of life, tend toward the perfection of charity, thus causing the edification of others; in a very special way this (holiness) appears in the practice of the counsels, customarily called "evangelical" (Lumen Gentium, #39)
The Council also recognized the importance and the role of those Christians who experience themselves called to profess the evangelical counsels: This practice of the counsels, under the impulsion of the Holy Spirit, undertaken by many Christians, either privately or in a Church approved condition or state of life, gives and must give in the world an outstanding witness and example of this same holiness (Lumen Gentium, #39).
Religious are part of the life and the holiness of the church
In the sixth chapter of Lumen Gentium the participants at the Second Vatican Council referred to the role of religious and pointed out their offering in love to the Lord and the Church: Through Baptism individuals die to sin and are consecrated to God. However, in order that they may be capable of deriving more abundant fruit from this baptismal grace, they intend, by the profession of the evangelical counsels in the Church, to free themselves from those obstacles, which might draw them away from the fervor of charity and the perfection of divine worship. By their profession of the evangelical counsels, then, they are more intimately consecrated to divine service … The evangelical counsels which lead to charity join their followers to the Church and its mystery in a special way. Since this is so, the spiritual life of these people should then be devoted to the welfare of the whole Church …. The profession of the evangelical counsels, then, appears as a sign which can and ought to attract all the members of the Church to an effective and prompt fulfillment of the duties of their Christian vocation … Thus, the state which is constituted by the profession of the evangelical counsels, though it is not the hierarchical structure of the Church, nevertheless, undeniably belongs to its life and holiness (Lumen Gentium, #44)
A grace and a responsibility
The call to live life and to be holy is both a grace and a responsibility. It is a grace because God calls us and our fidelity to this call is nourished by the power of the Holy Spirit, by the prayer of all the saints, by the needs of our sisters and brothers and by the fervor of the sisters and brothers who live in community with us. It is also a responsibility because we are called to develop the gifts that the Lord has given to us: gifts of freedom and love; the gift of seeking to make justice and truth realities in our midst; gifts of creativity and joy; gifts of trust and patience when confronted with difficulties; the gift of the cross which enables us to accept our weaknesses and to cry out with Paul: About myself I will not boast, except about my weakness … Three times I begged the Lord about this (a thorn in the flesh), that it might leave me, but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” I will rather boast most gladly of my weakness, in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me. Therefore, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and constraints, for the sake of Christ; for when I am weak, then I am strong (2 Corinthians 12:5, 8-10).
Being a religious has ecclesial and social repercussions. Our personal holiness communicates light, meaning and hope to those whom we encounter: All the faithful who have been called to the profession of the evangelical counsels, therefore, carefully see to it that they persevere and ever grow in that vocation God has given them. Let them do this for the increased holiness of the Church, for the greater glory of the one and undivided Trinity, which in and through Christ is the fount and the source of all holiness (Lumen Gentium, #47).
Vita Consecrata of John Paul II
At the very heart of the Church
In his apostolic exhortation, Vita consecrata, John Paul II recognized that religious life is not some isolated or marginal reality but is a very important reality: The consecrated life is at the very heart of the Church as a decisive element for her mission, since it manifests the inner nature of the Christian calling and the striving of the whole Church as Bride towards union with her one Spouse (Vita Consecrate, #3).
The Pope also recognized that it has also been a time of tension and struggle, in which well-meaning endeavors have not always met with positive results (Vita Consecrata, #13). But in spite of all these difficulties the Pope extended a call for greater hope and for the needed renewal because he saw consecrated life as necessary for the church and the world: we need to commit ourselves with fresh enthusiasm, for the Church needs the spiritual and apostolic contribution of a renewed and revitalized consecrated life (Vita Consecrata, #13).
To give fullness to all reality
Consecrated life has a special bond with Jesus, the beloved Son who invites us to place our lives at the service of the Kingdom of God. For the sake of Christ we have left everything behind and followed him … and this is possible only because we have received all of this as a gift from the Spirit. As a result of our experience of transfiguration we are able to say: Lord, it is good that we are here (Matthew 17:4). It is wonderful to be united with the Lord and to experience ourselves as being sent to serve the poor! Yes, it is wonderful that the beloved Son has duped us and set us apart to serve God: You are the most handsome of men (Psalm 45:3).
The consecrated life reveals Christ as the fullness, as the goal toward which all reality moves: it is the duty of the consecrated life to show that the Incarnate Son of God is the eschatological goal towards which all things tend, the splendor before which every other light pales, and the infinite beauty which alone can fully satisfy the human heart. In the consecrated life, then, it is not only a matter of following Christ with one's whole heart, of loving him "more than father or mother, more than son or daughter" (cf. Mt 10:37) — for this is required of every disciple — but of living and expressing this by conforming one's whole existence to Christ in an all-encompassing commitment which foreshadows the eschatological perfection, to the extent that this is possible in time and in accordance with the different charisms (Vita Consecrata, #16).
Witness and prophets with regard to belief in the Trinity
Being configured to Christ makes the consecrated individual a witness and a prophet with regard to belief in the Trinity which characterizes the Christian life. Consecrated persons trust the Father and hand themselves over unconditionally into the Father’s hands thus responding to the Father’s initiative who called them to life, to faith, and to the profession of the evangelical counsels. Because the Father’s love takes the initiative and is powerful, because the Father has first loved us, therefore we are able to place our personhood, our freedom, our future, our life, our whole being in the Father’s hands.
Consecrated persons aspire to identify themselves with Christ, to clothe themselves in Christ’s attitudes and to live as he lived. They want to be poor and chaste and obedient because Jesus is their Life, their Fullness, and their Hope.
Consecrated individuals live the gift of the Spirit and are able to exclaim: You duped me, O Lord, and I let myself be duped (Jeremiah 20:7). The Spirit enables us to mature in what we call an “anthropology of holiness”, that is, in following Jesus Christ we have matured throughout our life. The Spirit awakens in us a desire for unconditional surrender and guides and leads us so that we can make this offering of self. The Spirit leads us to maturity and a total response while sustaining our fidelity and relationship with the Triune God. In this way consecrated life becomes a profound expression of the church as Spouse that shines forth in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish (Ephesians 5:27).
The beauty of the saints
Today God does not need apologists who give witness to the existence of God. Rather God desires witnesses of unconditional love, the grateful witness of people who find beauty in being able to serve men and women who are most in need, the joyful witness of people who belong wholly to the Lord and the Church and who willingly serve the little ones and those who are impoverished. Only from the perspective of beauty can the world be saved. Today, for us, the most significant beauty is the beauty of the saints who reflect on their face and in their activity and in their whole being the fact that they are possessed by Love and are sent forth to live their life with meaning and thus here on earth they have become a foretaste of what is to come in heaven: The first objective of the consecrated life is to make visible the wonderful things that God does on behalf of fragile humanity. Men and women give witness to these marvelous deeds not just with their words but also with the eloquent language of a life transfigured, a life capable of surprising the world. To the surprise of people these men and women respond by proclaiming the marvels that the grace of God has brought about in those who love him. As consecrated men and women allow themselves to be led by the Spirit to the heights of perfection, they are able to exclaim: “I see the beauty of your grace and I contemplate your brilliance and reflect your light. I am delighted by your incredible splendor and am impelled to move beyond my own concerns. I see how I was and how I am now. How wonderful! I am watchful and filled with respect and reverence and fear. I feel as though I stand before you. I do not know what to do because timidity overwhelms me. I do not know where to sit and where to go and where to rest … divine marvels are revealed in all your work!”
In this testimony of a transformed life we find an eloquent revelation of the presence of the sacred Trinity who leaves its marks in the history of humankind. Those persons who are open to truth and goodness are able to discover the attractiveness of divine beauty.
John Paul’s plan for the new millennium
Some pastoral priorities
After the joyful experience of the Great Jubilee of the year 2000, the servant of God, John Paul II, wrote an apostolic letter, Novo Millennio Ineunte, in which he gave thanks to God, gathered together the fruits of the Jubilee and proposed specific lines of action. The Pope, filled with hope, pointed out that a time of renewal awaits us. This is the time to project ourselves into the future: What awaits us therefore is an exciting work of pastoral revitalization — a work involving all of us. As guidance and encouragement to everyone, I wish to indicate certain pastoral priorities which the experience of the Great Jubilee has, in my view, brought to light (Novo Millennio Ineunte, #29).
What was most urgent for John Paul II? Where should the focus be placed? Society must be transformed and people must be provided with meaning in order to live; the Church must be a voice that defends the poor who are exploited by the powerful; a climate of détente and dialogue must be created among nations and the path of peace must be sought. The Church must place herself in the vanguard and defend our planet against every attempt to upset its ecological balance. Catholics ought to be committed to the defense of life, the defense of the family and justice and the defense of integral and liberating education.
The members of the hierarchy, consecrated men and women and all faithful lay persons ought to be provided with a formation so that they can be signs of hope. After admitting that all these things are necessary, the Pope points out the path that the Church must travel.
The path of holiness
There is no doubt … today that which is most important for us in the here and now situation is the journey along the path of holiness: First of all, I have no hesitation in saying that all pastoral initiatives must be set in relation to holiness. Was this not the ultimate meaning of the Jubilee indulgence, as a special grace offered by Christ so that the life of every baptized person could be purified and deeply renewed … Once the Jubilee is over, we resume our normal path, but knowing that stressing holiness remains more than ever an urgent pastoral task (Novo Millennio Ineunte, #30).
John Paul II refers to the fifth chapter of Lumen Gentium which deals with the universal call to holiness. From the insight into the church as mystery follows the further insight of holiness, that is, the Church belongs to the One who is three times holy (cf., Isaiah 6:3). The Church is spouse who is handed over to Christ in order to be made holy (cf., Ephesians 5:25-26). Scripture is uncompromising in this regard: This is the will of God, your holiness (1 Thessalonians 4:3).
To place our pastoral activity and our plans within the context of holiness is an option that is filled with consequences for our everyday life: To place pastoral planning under the heading of holiness is a choice filled with consequences. It implies the conviction that, since Baptism is a true entry into the holiness of God through incorporation into Christ and the indwelling of his Spirit, it would be a contradiction to settle for a life of mediocrity, marked by a minimalist ethic and a shallow religiosity. To ask catechumens: "Do you wish to receive Baptism?" means at the same time to ask them: "Do you wish to become holy?" It means to set before them the radical nature of the Sermon on the Mount: "Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Novo Millennio Ineunte, #31).
We need a “pedagogy of holiness”
Here we are not dealing with a form of life that is so lofty that it can only be attained by “experts” in holiness. Every individual has their own path, a path that they must travel in accord with their vocation. We are at a most appropriate time to undertake both a personal and a communal journey. Our personal journey must respect the rhythms of growth and must discover what John Paul II calls “a pedagogy of holiness”, that is, a journey that is adapted to each individual person, a journey that takes into consideration one’s past history, temperament, emotional state, and then places all of these elements within the context of the Vincentian charism. Hopefully there is no need to look outside for that which ought to be found within the Congregation: affectivity, stimulation, guidance, support on a human, spiritual and pastoral level, community life, witness to love of the Church, fraternal correction, acceptance, accompaniment and forgiveness.
The challenge is pointed out to us: we have to be holy. This is our vocation and our personal plan for life. This does not mean that we are better than others or that we can be proud of what we have achieved through our effort and our will-power. No, the exact opposite is the truth. We engage in this process in order to respond in a better way to God’s love, in order to love God with our whole strength, in order to communicate to our sisters and brothers that which is above all else, namely, Christian love.
Some demands of the anthropology of holiness
Without an experience of the Triune God I am nothing
God appears to count for nothing
Do we have a relationship with God? Do we experience the God of Jesus Christ? Have we matured in Christian love? How is our prayer life? These questions immediately arise as a result of our insertion into the world in which we live. People seem to have no need for God and in fact many people feel that God is the enemy of human happiness and therefore God is to be discarded. Even further there are people who believe it is necessary to free ourselves from God because God is seen as the source of so many different anxieties and fears that result from not being able to live according to the commandments or according to the teachings that he has given the Church: doesn't the Church, with all her commandments and prohibitions, turn to bitterness the most precious thing in life? Doesn't she blow the whistle just when the joy which is the Creator's gift offers us a happiness which is itself a certain foretaste of the Divine? (Benedict XVI, Deus caritas est, #3).
The Church then is presented with a powerful challenge. Does God enslave people, making them childlike or are saints the signs of the full realization of the human condition? Each one of us is challenged to respond to these radical questions by the life that we live in society and in the church. Are we more human as we give hand over everything to God and to our brothers and sisters, especially our brothers and sisters who are most poor?
Transformed by an encounter
The need for an anthropology of transcendence from a Christ Centered perspective presents us with fundamental questions. If Christ is our model of openness to the Trinitarian God, then just as Christ was being both true God and true man and lived the hypostatic union as the very reason for which the eternal Word of the Father embraced the human condition, so too we, as we become immersed in the Father’s love for the Son through the Spirit, we discover the most excellent manner to satisfy our desire for the infinite, our desire for the boundless openness to the One who continually invites us to live in communion with him: What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked upon and touched with our hands concerns the Word of life --- for the life was made visible; we have seen it and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was made visible to us --- what we have seen and heard we proclaim now to you so that you too may have fellowship with us; for our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. We are writing this so that our joy may be complete (1 John 1:1-4).
The verbs are very clear: “we have heard”, “we have seen”, “we have looked upon and touched with our hands”. Here we are dealing with a true experience of life. Not just some doctrine but an encounter that has transformed our experience and filled our experience with meaning, joy and love. Without this experience we are nothing and we can convince no one … we simply communicate ideas, an ideology, unintelligent words.
On-going formation as a path to conversion
A new understanding of on-going formation
We are not simply dealing with updating ourselves nor with becoming familiar with the latest techniques of group communication. It is not sufficient that we become involved in objective analysis of the structural problems of a society, examining its cultural, economic and political elements with the assistance of the social sciences. All of this is important and even necessary in order to become aware of the causes of our current situation and in order to be able to confront these problems in a systematic manner.
On-going formation is a process that continues throughout our life, a process in which we clothe ourselves with the attitudes of Jesus. We want to reflect his vision, the movement of his heart, his motivation, his option, his unconditional relationship with the Father and the Kingdom. Understood in this way, on-going formation is then identified with on-going conversion, with the journey for holiness, with the process of becoming ever more Christian which through Baptism and the profession of the evangelical counsels opens up the possibility of being free, committed, joyful, creative, patient, hopeful. This process enables us to continually grow and to live in an on-going relationship with God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This process also enables us to accept with humility our weaknesses and our sins. We invite others to correct us and are grateful for such advice. To live in this love is to be committed to the cause of those who are poor, to understand those who think differently than we do and to trust because we are convinced that God has not abandoned his people. God acts and at times is closer then we believe because God loves us and wants us to be free and also wants us to rejoice in the fullness of life.
How do we understand on-going formation? Are we willing to learn, willing to allow ourselves to be molded by Jesus Christ, the Way, the Truth and the fullness of Life?
The challenge of community: only for adult religious
Community: a home and school of communion
The challenge of the servant of God, John Paul II, to the whole Church is summed up in the following words: To make the Church the home and the school of communion: that is the great challenge facing us in the millennium which is now beginning, if we wish to be faithful to God's plan and respond to the world's deepest yearnings (Novo Millennio Ineunte, #43). This is not some strategy or tactic. Rather we are dealing with the very heart of the mystery of the Church. The church is a reflection, an historical revelation of the Trinitarian communion of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Without affective and effective communion the church becomes something else, an institution without spirit, an institution without a community life, an institution with interpersonal communication.
In order to enter into this dynamic we must discover on a practical level the meaning of a spirituality of communion. If the Trinity dwells in us then we see our brothers and sisters with new eyes, with the eyes of faith. Our brothers and sisters are persons “who belong to us” … they are part of us and we are part of them. Their triumphs are our triumphs and their failures are our failures. Their needs are our concern and their successes have joyful repercussions in our life. We no longer succumb to old temptations which are expressed in the following ways: “I can’t accept you because you upset me”, “I don’t know why you don’t change immediately because you continually make our life more difficult”, “no one supports you”. John Paul II extends this challenge and encourages us to be attentive: A spirituality of communion means, finally, to know how to "make room" for our brothers and sisters, bearing "each other's burdens" (Gal 6:2) and resisting the selfish temptations which constantly beset us and provoke competition, careerism, distrust and jealousy (Novo Millennio Ineunte, #43).
This spiritual path requires mature persons who are capable of adapting themselves to new situations without complaining, persons who are respectful, willing to understand, to forgive, and not make value judgments. Without this maturity the community becomes a place that consumes our energy and weakens our mission. We begin each day in a bad mood as we consider what awaits us in our house.
Option for the poor
The presence of the Lord in the poor
The Church, the universal sacrament of salvation, recognizes a special presence of the Lord Jesus in the poor: the Church encompasses with love all who are afflicted with human suffering and in the poor and afflicted sees the image of its poor and suffering Founder. It does all it can to relieve their need and in them it strives to serve Christ (Lumen Gentium, #8).
John Paul II gave further consideration to this idea when he presented us with the Lord’s judgment with regard to love, that is, when we are asked how we have recognized the Lord’s presence in those who are poor. This is not therefore some invitation to be more charitable. It is much more because it involves the very heart of Christology that impels the Church to reflect on her fidelity to the Spouse. The words of John Paul II express this idea in the following manner: There is a special presence of Christ in the poor, and this requires the Church to make a preferential option for them. This option is a testimony to the nature of God's love, to his providence and mercy; and in some way history is still filled with the seeds of the Kingdom of God which Jesus himself sowed during his earthly life whenever he responded to those who came to him with their spiritual and material needs (Novo Millennio Ineunte, #49).
The challenge for us, as members of the Vincentian Family, is the following: how do we respond to the new situations of poverty? What does it mean when we say that now is the time for a new "creativity" in charity (Novo Millennio Ineunte, #50)? What must we do so that the poor feel at home when they are among us?
When we work in the Church on behalf of the poor we need professional competency in order to provide the most effective assistance in the best possible manner. At the same time we must also provide people with that which is proper to our identity. Technical competency is not enough. Something more is required. Dedication arises from the heart and from the experience of faith. Therefore the employees in our charitable institutions need to be formed: Consequently, in addition to their necessary professional training, these charity workers need a “formation of the heart”: they need to be led to that encounter with God in Christ which awakens their love and opens their spirits to others. As a result, love of neighbor will no longer be for them a commandment imposed, so to speak, from without, but a consequence deriving from their faith, a faith which becomes active through love (Benedict XVI, Deus caritas est, #31a).
Pope Benedict reflects on the history of the Church and refers to the following saints: Francis of Assisi, Ignatius of Loyola, John of God, Camillus of Lellis, Vincent de Paul, Louise de Marillac, Giuseppe B. Cottolengo, John Bosco, Luigi Orione, Teresa of Calcutta. He holds these individuals up as illustrious models of social charity for all people of good will. The saints are the true bearers of light in history because they are men and women of faith, hope and love. Among the saints, Mary, the Mother of Jesus and the mirror of all holiness is a most significant individual: Devotion of the faithful (to Mary) shows an infallible intuition of how such love is possible: it becomes so as a result of the most intimate union with God, through which the soul is totally pervaded by him—a condition which enables those who have drunk from the fountain of God's love to become in their turn a fountain from which “flow rivers of living water” (John 7:38). Mary, Virgin and Mother, shows us what love is and whence it draws its origin and its constantly renewed power. To her we entrust the Church and her mission in the service of love (Benedict XVI, Deus caritas est, #42).
The adventure of holiness
The adventure of holiness is not something that is optional, something that can be embraced or rejected according to how we feel. Our vocation, as a response to God’s unconditional love, urges us to opt in a decisive manner for the path of sanctification, for the path of patient and courageous work, for the path of the sanctification of our brothers and sisters who are united with us in community. If we life this dynamic it will be easier to walk in this direction because this means that we have clothed ourselves in the charism of Vincent and Louise.
Only those persons who have experienced the Lord’s love and who have allowed themselves to be transformed interiorly can proclaim the word and the truth and thus give witness to the wonderful marvels of the love of our Lord Jesus. These are the saints, our brothers and sisters. They live among us. They do not consider themselves as saints but they aspire to this new way of life. They know they are sinners, imperfect and inconsistent, yet they experience healing and forgiveness in the depths of their being … healing and forgiveness through the loving word of the Father who is filled with tenderness and mercy for all his children.
The saints are those who most reflect the beauty of God … being light they enlighten the darkness of our world with the light that they have received from Christ.
Each one of us is called to walk along this path. Are we excited about traveling along this path?
Translated: Charles T. Plock CM