Catholic Society, Oxford, 9 February 2012
Holiness – union with God – is not just through “holy” activities, but also through our ordinary work: now study

There are four points I would like to make in this talk:
1. All of us in the Church are called to holiness
2. There are all sorts of ways to holiness
3. For ordinary people in the world the normal way is in their ordinary life and work;
4. In the case of students, our basic work is study; how to do this.

1) The first point: all of us are called to holiness
The Second Vatican Council teaches in its most important document, the Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium on the Church, that everyone is called to holiness. This is quoted in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1992), where we read: “‘All Christians in any state or walk of life are called to the fullness of Christian life and to the perfection of charity.’ (LG 40 § 2).” And the Catechism continues: “All are called to holiness” and then it quotes Our Lord’s command in the Gospel: “‘Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect’ (Matt 5:48)” (CCC 2013).
In the recently published catechism for youth, YOUCAT, we read (pt 342): “(Q.)Are we all supposed to become “saints”?
(A.) Yes. The purpose of our life is to be united with God in love and to correspond entirely to God’s wishes. We should allow God “to live his life in us” (Mother Teresa). That is what it means to be holy: a “saint” [CCC 2012-16; 2028-29].
(Explanation) Every man asks himself the question: Who am I and why am I here, how do I find myself? Faith answers: Only in > HOLINESS does man become that for which God created him. Only in holiness does man find real harmony between himself and his Creator. Holiness, however, is not some sort of self-made perfection; rather, it is union with the incarnate love that is Christ. Anyone who gains new life in this way finds himself and becomes holy” (CTS/ Ignatius Press, 2010)
It is good to renew our faith in this in the context of the “Year of Faith” which Pope Benedict is asking us to celebrate from 11 October next, the 50th Anniversary of Vatican II.
In the early centuries after Christ’s Resurrection no one questioned this teaching: people knew that conversion to Christianity was a call to holiness. They had to change completely from their former state. They had to die to their old life and begin to live the life of Christ (cf Rom 6:3-11).
However, when persecution officially stopped in the 4th Century with the coming of Constantine and Christianity in some ways obtained general approval, there was – not unexpectedly – a tendency for the original zeal to cool down.
There always have been saints in the Church. Holiness is one of the marks of the Catholic Church. If we read St Bede’s History of the English Church and People we can sometimes get the impression that everyone was becoming a saint. Kings and queens and ordinary folk went into monasteries to seek holiness. Sanctity was there for all, though it is worth noticing that – by St Bede’s time – it was normally seen as something involving a separation from the world.
Looking closer to our present home, Oxford has no lack of saints: our city’s patron, St Frideswide; St Edmund after whom St Edmund Hall is named. Thomas More and Edmund Campion studied here, as did John Henry Newman, beatified in 2010 by Pope Benedict. At least two 20th Century saints that I know of have visited Oxford, St Josemaría Escrivá and Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, who spoke here in the Oxford Chaplaincy, in 1971 if I’m not mistaken.
But as the centuries unfolded, most Christians came to see sanctity as the preserve of a select few: exceptional people, whom we ordinary mortals could not aspire to imitate. They were in a “state of perfection”; and for the rest of us it might seem folly to aim to be perfect.
So the idea came about of what we could call a “two-speed Church”: those called to be saints were going at top speed; the rest seemed second-class citizens, ambling along, so busy with the business of living in the world that it would be unrealistic for them to aim for sanctity. Indeed it could be seen as a sign of vanity: “What does he think he is, aiming to be a saint? What pride!”
In the 20th Century things changed. On 2 October 1928, God made St Josemaría, the Founder of Opus Dei, see that holiness was for everyone. God wanted him to remind the world of this. For some years his teaching was considered outlandish by some; however, it has been confirmed by Vatican II.
So far, so good. The teaching is clear. Many people are now embarked on a path to holiness. However, the general picture is not so encouraging. As a theory, the universal call to holiness is very attractive. But it could be said that, in a number of ways this teaching is not working and that its effects so far can even appear to have been counter¬productive.
Those who in the past were aiming positively to be saints, those who gave up the world to devote themselves entirely to God, have felt they were now no longer special. In recent decades there has been a haemorrhaging from the religious orders. Along with this, many Catholics have reduced their practice of the faith, if not abandoned it altogether. It could seem that, if everyone is called to sanctity, then sanctity can be no big deal.
Part of the problem is that this universal call has been misunderstood. Some people have thought it unrealistic to expect everyone to aspire to holiness. And there is the attitude that, since everyone is called to holiness, and most people are mediocre, then holiness itself must be mediocre; therefore all the insistence in the past on aiming for “perfection” is now “old hat”. God cannot expect us, the argument goes, to give up everything and follow him, as the Apostles did (cf Matt 19:27).
At the same time, Vatican II has told the laity that their vocation is to sanctify temporal affairs. Some people have seen this – “We’ve got to be in temporal affairs” – as a green light to devote themselves wholesale to worldly business and have become swallowed up by the secular world.
Well, that isn’t what Vatican II teaches. It does not say: “Be in temporal affairs” but “Sanctify temporal affairs” (cf Decree Apostolicam Actuositatem – on the apostolate of the laity -, 2). When Vatican II says the laity should make temporal affairs holy, it means just that: make them holy. And when it includes laity by saying “everyone”, it does not disparage the religious, who remain as important as ever, setting high standards for everyone to follow, reminding us that all our efforts in this world have value only if they bring us closer to heaven.
This evening I’m here to remind you and to remind myself that Jesus really means business: we are indeed commanded: “Be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect”.
We are called, all of us, to holiness, to a holiness just as demanding as that of the saints.

2) Now the 2nd point: since we are all called to holiness, are we all called to the same form of holiness?
In a sense, yes. When we say every Christian is called to holiness, we mean that we should all model ourselves on Jesus Christ. We should live in imitation of Christ. We are called to give up our old life and start to live a new life, his life. As St Paul says to the Galatians: “it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2:20).
But in another sense, a very real sense, and one which is fundamental if we are really to grasp the meaning of the universal call to holiness, the answer is No, for there are many different ways to holiness.
For many years, holiness was seen as the preserve of the religious. Does this mean that, to be saint, all of us have to live in a manner based on that of the religious?
Before I answer that I would like to emphasise that the religious vocation is just as important now as it ever was. The witness of the religious to holiness is vital. But it needs to be holiness. As the traditional saying goes: habitus non facit monachum. A monk does not become a holy man simply by putting on a habit. He has to live up to the ideals of his order.
And we can add that the tradition of the Third Orders, people living in the world but inspired by the spirituality of the religious, is also fully valid today.
But the forms of holiness of the religious do not exhaust the call to holiness. One simply has to look at the statistics: out of more than one thousand million Catholics in the world today, less than two million are religious, between one and two per thousand of the total. To these we should add all those people in the world who live in the spirit of the religious. Nevertheless, the religious, and those who live in their spirit, however numerous they may become, and one wishes that they become much more numerous, will always be in a minority.
The rest, the laity, are also called to holiness, but they are not on that account asked to abandon their living “in the world”. This also applies to secular priests. The teaching of Vatican II, confirming that of the founder of Opus Dei, whom Blessed John Paul II called “the saint of ordinary life”, is that secular priests and all the laity are called to first class holiness, or as St Josemaría would say, “canonisable holiness”.

3) This brings us to our third point: for ordinary people in the world the normal way to holiness is in their ordinary life and work: “either we learn to find our Lord in ordinary, everyday life, or else we shall never find him” (St Josemaría, Homily “Passionately loving the world”, in Conversations with Mgr Escrivá, 114e).
So how are we to follow the path of holiness in the world? I will seek here to outline some of the teaching I have learned from St Josemaría. Again, I would like to emphasise that there are many ways for lay people to seek holiness and that what I shall outline is just one, although it may have much wider applications.
Let us start with what we call “unity of life”, an expression of St Josemaría which has entered into the vocabulary of the Church’s Magisterium: “The unity of life of the lay faithful is of the greatest importance: indeed they must be sanctified in everyday professional and social life. Therefore, to respond to their vocation, the lay faithful must see their daily activities as an occasion to join themselves to God, fulfil his will, serve other people and lead them to communion with God in Christ” (Blessed John Paul II, Apostolic Exhortation Christifideles Laici, after a Synod of Bishops on the Laity, 1988, 17a).
There is a great tendency in man to lead a “dual life”, or indeed a “multiple life”: behaving in one way at home, and in different ways at work, on holiday, in the pub, etc. The problem is an old one. The ancient philosophers talked about the opposition between otium (the life of leisure and contemplation, the ideal to which the philosopher must aim to devote himself) and negotium (that is, denial of otium: the life of material work – preferably done by others! – by the workers). This duality has also been experienced in religious life, with the traditional distinction between the contemplative and the active life.
For the laity the basic question is: can we avoid living a dual life? Must we accept a separation between a prayer life, in close communion with God; and a working life, in close contact with the world around us? “Unity of life” rejects this separation: we are not called to a dual life, which could very easily become a double life, with a constant conflict in us between God and the world (where the world is seen in its negative sense, as opposed to God).
Unity of life postulates that God himself wants us to be in the world, in this world, in our ordinary affairs, but he wants us to be here praying. Ours is to be a life of union with God, in and through everything we do. We are called to be, in another phrase of St Josemaría, “contemplatives in the middle of the world”. In the early 1940s, St Josemaría was giving spiritual direction to a young married lecturer, with children, and he told him: “You are called to be a contemplative.” The lecturer couldn’t believe it: a contemplative, like the great mystics, St Teresa and St John of the Cross? St Josemaría insisted: you are called to be a contemplative, just as committed to God as they were.
Holiness is not just a question of setting aside some time for prayer. Holiness requires a radical dedication of one’s whole life to God, giving ourselves one hundred per cent to God, in our prayer, certainly; but also in our work, family life, meals, human affections, sport, holidays… A saint and someone who is striving to become one does not “switch off” from God.
Furthermore, he has duties. Duties relating him directly with God: prayer, attendance at Mass, etc. And human duties, such as his work, his family. These become part of his God-given vocation.
In Opus Dei, the thread that holds everything together for those seeking holiness is their awareness that God is their Father. They are sons and daughters of God. God is to be addressed and loved not only in his heavenly majesty, as our Almighty Father. He is also, in his fatherliness, close to us in our daily life, interested in everything we do and seeking our awareness of his presence in all those things, like a good father of a family does with his children. As we read in St Josemaría’s book The Way: “It’s necessary to become convinced that God is close beside us all the time. –We live as though the Lord were far away, in the starlit heavens, and we don’t consider that he is also always by our side. / And he is here like a loving Father – he loves each one of us more than all the mothers in the world can love their children – helping us, inspiring us, blessing… and forgiving (…). / We need to be imbued, to be saturated with the knowledge that the Lord, who is close beside us and in heaven, is our Father and very much our Father.”

4) And now our 4th point: study.
One of the basic duties of university students is to study. We all know this and our tutors probably remind us of it often, especially nowadays when Colleges are particularly concerned about how they figure in the Norrington Table, which lists Colleges on the basis of the class of degrees achieved by its members.
We can draw a parallel here with life outside the university. If you are a bus driver, you have a duty to drive buses. You cannot spend your time drinking and playing cards. You have to spend hours each day at your work, and to work well. The same is true of doctors, businessmen, housewives…
Well, for us students our “bus driving” is our study and therefore we have a duty to study, and to study hard; and I include myself here, because study is something we should all do, and keep at it all our life. Unity of life tells us that the reason for this concentration on study is not just that it is good to get a good degree, to get a good job. Yes, those may be suitable aims. But the most important reason is that it is our duty and also our heartfelt wish to please God in everything we do, and one of our basic duties is study.
Now I realise that many people at university wouldn’t think of things quite in that way. A good student will say: “I study because I love study.” A less good one might argue: “I have to study because if not I’ll get into trouble.” If that is the reason why they are studying, neither of those students is on his or her way to holiness. They will only be on the way to holiness if they are offering up their study, their daily work, to God.
In practice what does this entail? We should be working for God, out of love for God. Not just to justify our the money spent on us, not just to get a good degree (and then a good job), but to love God.
Who teaches us how to do this? Jesus himself. One of the discoveries of St Josemaría was the significance of the hidden life of Jesus. Our Lord lived thirty-three years and, although the Gospels relate preponderantly the events of his public life, only three years of his life were devoted to his public ministry. Thirty of them were hidden away, with Mary and Joseph, in Bethlehem, in Egypt and, above all, in Nazareth. He could have been doing so many much more impressive things in society. Instead he, perfect God and perfect Man, spent that time working in a carpenter’s shop!
And we can imagine how he would go about it for, as we read in St Mark, “he did all things well” (Mark 7:37). He would give good service, finishing his work punctually; he would charge a reasonable amount (he and his family had to have money to live on), but would charge less or even nothing to those who could not afford it. At the same time, he would not overwork; family duties, prayer, relaxation all had their part to play. He would be neat and tidy. He would be cheerful, and kind to his customers, who, after being with him, would come away encouraged to be good villagers. And he would do all this without miracles (they came later as part of his public life and as a visible proof that he was God among men). But his life as a worker, if interpreted correctly, was already the life of God made Man, the Saviour of man.
How does this apply to our study? We can all of us list attributes of a good student. We have to study well, with order and punctuality; concentrate on what we are doing; getting our essays in on time; doing an honest job, not cheating; finding ways of doing team-work, not working selfishly; if we are especially talented, not using our talents as an excuse to get away with a minimum of effort, but thinking rather that, if we have been given more talents by God, we should also use them to help others. But we should not overwork; study should not be seen as an excuse to cut ourselves off from others. Work is not an end in itself, but a means to serve society and to love God.
Building on the foundation of offering up one’s work, holiness in the world then overflows into all one’s other activities: family, entertainment, sport, politics, social service and so on.
How does it come about? This is important. In the case of Jesus, as the Saviour, he was confirmed in holiness from the beginning. That is not our case. We do not start out being holy; nor are we confirmed in holiness once we have started. We very easily fall away from our high ideals.
The way for us is the same as has been traditionally recommended in the Church: we need to pray, we need grace and the frequent reception of the Sacraments, the Holy Eucharist and Confession; we need spiritual guidance, and a tender devotion to Our Lady. We also need to know and study our faith. And we need to be constantly converted, beginning again and again to struggle for holiness, not being put off by apparent failures, nor becoming puffed up with pride at apparent successes. If we do these things, we are on the right path. If we are not men and women who pray, relying on God to give us strength, we shall get nowhere for, as Jesus says, “Without me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). But note that he wants us to do. Through that doing, based on prayer, we will sanctify our lives.
Finally, as the Pope insists in calling us to make this coming year a “Year of Faith”, we cannot keep this teaching to ourselves. We have to do all we can to proclaim it to others, by our example first of all, but also by our effort to evangelise, to give people the good news that Christ has come into the world to lift us all up, from our lowly status of fallen men and women, to the exalted reality of being children of God, striving to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect. And part of this evangelising is using our study for the service of others, using the knowledge we gain from it to promote the common good; helping our fellow students now, and receiving training so that, when we take up our place in the world of professional work, we will be able to use the expertise we have gained to help our fellow citizens. That way we will be making Christ’s message more accessible to them.
Wouldn’t it be nice if there could be a new type of Norrington Table in our University, classifying the Colleges by the degree of holiness that they, with God’s grace, have helped to bring about in their students? It is something worth considering, though not something we actually want to bring about – there is a certain bashfulness about genuine holiness that does not want to draw attention to itself. But to value Colleges by their holiness, would that not fit in very well with Newman’s idea of a university?
The media tell us constantly that the world is in crisis, pointing to such things as mountains of debt, or climate change, or terrorism. But a Christian knows that the crisis is a different one. It is a dearth of holiness. It is to be solved by saints. We read in St Josemaría’s book The Way: “A secret. –An open secret: these world crises are crises of saints.
–God wants a handful of men “of his own” in each human activity. –And then… pax Christi in regno Christi – the peace of Christ in the kingdom of Christ (Way, 301).
Our University has a famous motto: Dominus Illuminatio Mea, “The Lord is my light.” Our study here should be principally an opening of our minds and life to God’s light; that is the real purpose of the university, to bring us to God, to illumine us, and prepare us to see that light which brings eternal life.
Fr Andrew Byrne is a priest of the Prelature of Opus Dei and Chaplain of Grandpont House, Oxford
e-mail: [email protected]
© Andrew Byrne