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How to Grow in Holiness

Deepening a love for Jesus through Scripture and Tradition

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One summer during priestly formation, I was traveling in West Virginia with the Dominican preaching team there. Somehow I learned that my best friend’s father had died. The man had been very solicitous of me, a kind of surrogate for my own dead father. I wanted to attend his funeral in Chicago but, at the moment, did not have transportation.

The pastor of the parish where we were staying stepped forward to offer me his car. When I hesitated, he told me that the car needed a long stretch on the road. I took it on the more than 1,000-mile trip. Gratefully, it worked fine and was returned within a few days.

St. John Vianney.  CNS

My patron’s kindness was more than an act of fraternal charity. It was a demonstration of detachment from material things — a critical step to holiness. When the rich young man of the Gospel asks about gaining eternal life, Jesus tells him to first let go of his riches. In a society where people have more than they use, let alone need, a semblance of poverty serves as an introduction to holiness. Of course, the way to holiness, which here is equated with eternal life, is by following Jesus.

Jesus himself was poor. His impoverishment began at the Incarnation when he stripped himself of deity. Some argue that Jesus was born into an economically stable family and had patrons as an itinerant preacher. Still, he could honestly say that he had no place to lay his head. More than that, he was a poor man because he exposed himself to the disgraces poor people face. As a child, he became a refugee. As an adult, he was continually harassed. Although innocent, he was summarily sentenced and executed.

The term “poverty” is both relative and equivocal. It is hardly the same condition in America as it is in Africa. Most religious in the United States vowing poverty live comfortably. They eat well and have much better-than-average medical coverage. Nevertheless, religious priests can begin to share Jesus’ poverty by making their resources available to the needy. Diocesan priests have long been encouraged to do so.

Then-Archbishop Oscar Romero. CNS

Quoting another source, Pope Benedict XVI said the Curé of Ars “was rich in giving to others and very poor for himself.” John Vianney’s stance vis-à-vis money conforms to the ideal of the Second Vatican Council. According to the council’s Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests, priests “are invited to embrace voluntary poverty by which they are more manifestly conformed to Christ and become eager in the sacred ministry” (Presbyterorum Ordinis, No. 17).

Of course, voluntary poverty goes deeper than generosity. It goes without convenience to identify with Jesus hanging on the cross with only a loincloth. Many priests think voluntary poverty is a charism meant for others. Diocesan priests relegate it to religious. Religious see it as peculiar to Franciscans. I once asked a Third Order Regular about poverty in his community. He said that they were not that kind of Franciscans! But we should recognize poverty as a quality of the sanctity of all Christians, especially of priests. St. Oscar Romero forfeited an archbishop’s mansion to live in the chaplain’s quarters of a hospital. Pope Francis offers a similar example.

Loving Jesus Intimately

The path to holiness calls us beyond detachment and generosity. Jesus bids the rich young man to “follow me.” A close following, fervent discipleship cannot but lead to an intimate love of the Lord. He is all-wise and good. Love for him explains priests’ motivation for the acceptance of celibate chastity. Other reasons are often proffered, because in our pragmatic culture they make more sense. Accessibility, dedication to the Church community, disentanglement from questions of inheritance, et al., are proposed. Nevertheless, the most authentic motive for priests to remain celibate is profoundly Christocentric. Like nuns, we want to be wedded to our most gracious Lord. (I owe a debt to Father Boniface Ramsey of New York for many of these insights regarding Christocentric discipleship.)

A scene from the movie “Of Gods and Men” illustrates what is meant here. A young Muslim woman asks her monk-doctor what love is like. He replies that it is “an attraction, a desire, a quickening of the spirits, an intensification of life itself.” The monk admits that he fell in love a number of times as a young man. Why did he never marry? He says that he met a greater love that led him to the monastery. This same love, although often inarticulate at first, lies behind most priests’ commitment to our way of life.

The desire for Jesus grows in a priest; at least, this has been my experience. Struggling with the question of vocation, I reasoned that I wanted to help many people through preaching and accompaniment in ministry. Celibacy was not so much aid in this objective as it was the sunken cost for doing business. But as I have come to know Jesus better through years of reflection on the Gospels, I am drawn closer to him. He is not only my model, but also my intimate friend. He forgives my shortcomings and boosts my flagging efforts.

Listening to God’s Will

St. Augustine
The fresco by Giuseppe Rollini of St. Augustine (1889-91) is in Basilica Maria Ausiliatrice. Renata Sedmakova/Shutterstock

“Do you love him; do you want to follow the one you love?” St. Augustine asks his congregation in one of his recorded sermons. He continues, “He has run away; he has flown off.” Then Augustine says: “Do you want me to tell you which way you must follow? By the way of distress, of abuse, of false charges, of spittle in the face, of slaps and whips and scourges, of a crown of thorns, of a cross, and of death?” Augustine uses rhetoric to move his listeners to live righteously despite life’s hardships. He wants them to set their sights on heaven, not on worldly esteem. We priests, however, should hear Augustine as calling us to greater obedience.

In an age that yearns for autonomy, obedience sounds almost like a betrayal of one’s identity. Most people are not interested in following others, at least completely. They would rather display a distinctive peculiarity like a tattoo. They want to stand apart, be different and — as is heard — be “cool.” They pride themselves on doing things “my way.” In an exhortation to priests and religious, Pope Benedict offered a profound insight on this postmodern penchant for self-determination in a homily in 2007.

The pope located obedience primarily in attentive listening to God’s will. “Only by entering into God’s will,” he said, “do we attain our true identity.” The Scriptures spell out that will. They tell us that we are loved, the most important message for our existential selves. They also tell us of our destiny to live in eternal bliss — a second critical message. Finally, they show us how to please the God who loves us so that we might obtain all that he promises.

But Scripture is not the only source of ascertaining God’s will. We discern it as well in our traditions, our surroundings and our daily life. In this effort, we imitate Jesus, our mentor and our love. Doing so, we frequently meet the cross, a symbol of our suffering as it was the instrument of Jesus’ suffering.

God’s will is made known through Church law and customs, which should be followed implicitly. It is also revealed through the people who seek our assistance. Of course, we need the Spirit’s guidance to determine the divine will from chimeras. But when someone calls asking us to visit a dying patient or to bury a dead relative, we should hear the voice of God. His will is also manifested in the explicit demands of superiors — bishops, pastors, provincials or heads of the community.

Sometimes instructions from these sources of the divine will cry in our minds for justification. They seem to conflict with our own sense of rightness or appropriateness in a given situation. Yet we regularly submit to them for good reason. Jesus has shown us that doing so does not lead to self-abasement but to glory. Pope Benedict noted that obedience to the will of God supplies the truth for which the world yearns. “Only by entering into God’s will do we attain our true identity,” he said. “Our world today needs the testimony of this experience precisely because of its desire for ‘self-realization’ and ‘self-determination.’”

Ongoing Conversation

Mark’s Gospel is definite about Jesus’ purpose in appointing apostles. It reads, “He appointed twelve … that they might be with him and he might send them forth to preach” (3:14). They were with him so that he might teach them his unique relationship with God. This is to say that Jesus showed his apostles how to pray. He also sent them out to preach, to take up his ministry. We priests not only have the right but also the duty to see ourselves as Jesus’ apostles. We too have the dual obligation to pray and to minister. These two engagements are the final and most critical keys to holiness.

This painting of Jesus and Apostles in the Mount of Olives is at the Church of St. Matthew in Stitar, Croatia. Zvonimir Atletic / Shutterstock

Although not identical with holiness, prayer is as necessary to it as legs are to mountain hiking. Cardinal Avery Dulles writes that a priest who does not pray is a “contradiction in terms.” After all, in persona Christi caput priests lead the people in sacrifices of praise. We must establish a line of communication with God by personal prayer. If not, problems will likely crop up in our service as prayer leaders.

But prayer is more than preparation for and execution of our work. It is carrying on a loving conversation with our beloved. In personal prayer, we express our gratitude for the benefits with which God has inundated our lives.

During the 1970s, while studying for the priesthood, I participated in the cynicism of the times. Nothing in the Church seemed to be done right. Imitating the pretensions of disgruntled critics, I thought that, once ordained, I would do everything better. In reality, I was heading for a disaster. Either I would live in misery as a frustrated cleric or would eventually make a non-return trip to the seminary or rectory door. Then I picked up a pamphlet by Henri Nouwen. “From Resentment to Gratitude” changed my attitude and lightened my travel. My life had been full of blessings, but I blinded myself to them. I concentrated on shortcomings where there was a wealth of virtue to thank God for. Prayer enables us to focus on the positive aspects of reality. It opens us to see God’s goodness.

However, a sense of gratitude does not deny the difficulties and trials of priests’ lives. Whose life is without them, anyway? Here prayer assists us in two ways. It not only strengthens us with the resolve to face our challenges; it also softens their effect on us. I cannot articulate why, yet it is as certain to me as the value of healthy food and daily exercise. Whenever I stop fretting about a predicament to ask the Lord’s help, the difficulty dissipates. Like cold weather in May, it soon disappears. This has been my experience time and after time. And there is no such thing as luck.

In his apostolic exhortation Pastores Dabo Vobis, St. John Paul II ties the priestly vocation to the imitation of Christ, the servant. He writes of the need for priests to take on the “Spirit of Christ.” The first exercise the pontiff gives for us to achieve this union is “fervent prayer.”

Father Claude Paradis
Father Claude Paradis of Montreal distributes Communion during an outdoor Christmas Eve Mass for homeless people in downtown Montreal. CNS photo/Yves Casgrain, Presence

As much as he was a preacher, a healer and a teacher, Jesus was a man of prayer. Luke’s Gospel shows Jesus at prayer before he takes significant actions. Before choosing his apostles and dying on the cross, he goes to a secluded place to commune with his heavenly Father. He prayed principally to do God’s will and never seemed to tire of that prayer.

Taking on the “Spirit of Christ” actually means surrendering ourselves to the Holy Spirit. The paintings of Alice Dalton Brown give us a glimpse of this Spirit. Her landscapes feature sunlight, a swift breeze and expansive water. These symbols remind us of how the Spirit cleanses and refreshes. It purifies us of sin and obsession. More than that, it moves us to transcend our self-centeredness to become one with God who is self-giving love. Availing us of the Holy Spirit, prayer leads us to holiness.

Two further comments on Christocentric prayer are in order. First, in addition to praying to our beloved, priests are commissioned to pray with him. I knew a Lebanese priest who jokingly said that he was not comfortable with praying Jewish songs. But the psalms, which we are to read throughout the day, were also Jesus’ prayer. It is reassuring to know that he too reflected on their meaning. He too felt the emotions that they contain.

Second, in the Catholic tradition, the faithful draw closest to Christ through the Eucharist. We priests, of course, have a major role in this sacrifice of love. Benedictine Father Mark O’Keefe has written that presidency of the Eucharist should give priests added motivation to strive after holiness. Repeating Jesus’ words as he anticipated his death on the cross, we should endeavor to conform our lives to his.

There is an even deeper reason to cherish the Eucharist as the vehicle of holiness. It unites us to Christ in utmost intimacy. It is physically more integrative than the sexual act, which brings a couple together in matrimony. As Augustine pointed out, we consume our beloved’s flesh and paradoxically become more deeply integrated into his body.

Fullness of Holiness

Father Meinrad Marbaugh, also a Benedictine, labored many years as a parish priest in Fort Worth, Texas. Arriving there after he had left, I only met him a couple of times. People who knew him much better, however, told me about him. They said that Father Meinrad could not preach very well, although he took care to prepare his sermons. Nor did they give him high marks for other priestly functions. He was not considered a very competent administrator, Mass celebrant, counselor, etc. But parishioners did find him a remarkably compassionate confessor. Father Meinrad was also admired for visiting the sick. He walked the two-mile or so circuit covering the city’s hospital district regularly. His caring ways brought Christ’s healing love to the ailing.

Unsurprisingly, Father Meinrad was known as a holy priest. We hear that the root of the Hebrew word for “holy” is “separate.” But this does not mean that holy people are not engaged with others. Quite the opposite, God calls his holy ones apart for a special purpose. They are to serve him, most often by ministering to his people. For this reason St. Teresa of Calcutta was considered one of the holiest people of the 20th century.

Father Mark Ivany
Father Mark Ivany, pastor of the Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Washington,
D.C., prepares to hand crates of food to volunteers. CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn

Of course, Jesus, the exemplar of holiness, epitomized the man for others. He cured the sick, dispelled demons and instructed the people in order to establish God’s kingdom on earth. St. John Paul II called the virtue by which we imitate Jesus’ self-giving service pastoral charity. Those like Father Meinrad who continually demonstrate pastoral charity are the holy ones among us.

Priests develop pastoral charity in several ways. We take time to prepare homilies that relate to the experiences of the people we are serving. We pray by name for the people who asked our prayers and those for whom we are responsible. We respect everyone, even those who may despise us. We give special care to the marginalized. All of us will have items to add to this agenda.

Fasting and other ascetical practices have long marked Christian holiness. They still play a part in its quest. After all, Christ fasted and foresaw the time when his followers would do so. For the time absorbed and emotions stirred, watching television often impedes pastoral charity. Priestly asceticism will set limits on this practice.

St. John Paul II noted that priests sometimes fail to see their own special call to holiness. He said that in promoting Vatican II’s “universal call to holiness,” priests may not perceive the priesthood’s distinctive holiness. I suppose this failure stems from being humbled by the deep faith of valiant lay women and men. Yet it is critical that we strive for a holiness that is disciplined and reflected upon as well as Christ-centered. After all, we serve the Church precisely by enhancing the holiness of the people.

The Way, Truth and Life

We see Jesus, like he says of himself, as “the way and the truth and the life” (Jn 14:6). This is true for all Christians, but especially for us priests. Jesus is the way, in the sense that we come to holiness by imitating his virtue. As he offered himself to the Father, we dedicate our resources, our affection and our will to him. We also pray and serve others that God’s kingdom may be established on earth. Jesus is the clearest manifestation of the ultimate truth — God’s love for humans. We proclaim this truth on Sundays in our reflections on the word of God and every day by our words and actions. And Jesus is the life — that is, he is the holiness we seek. When we become like him, we have fulfilled our vocation. 

FATHER CARMEN MELE, OP, is the rector of St. Martin de Porres National Shrine and Institute in Memphis, Tennessee.


Example of St. John Vianney

When Pope Benedict XVI proclaimed a Year for Priests on the 150th anniversary of the dies natalis of John Mary Vianney, 2009, he spoke of the example of the Curé de Ars: “St. John Mary Vianney taught his parishioners primarily by the witness of his life. It was from his example that they learned to pray, halting frequently before the tabernacle for a visit to Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. ‘One need not say much to pray well’ — the Curé explained to them — ‘We know that Jesus is there in the tabernacle: let us open our hearts to him, let us rejoice in his sacred presence. That is the best prayer.’”


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