Statue of St. Thérèse of Lisieux is seen at the National Shrine of St. Thérèse in Darien, Ill., in this 2007 file photo. Referencing her autobiography, “The Story of a Soul,” Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted uses the saint as an example of holiness, writing that God showed her that all gifts are nothing without love and that charity is the way that leads to God. (CNS photo/Nancy Wiechec)

In the earliest centuries of the Christian faith, the rite of Baptism with its powerful gestures, words and symbolism had a strong emphasis on conversion, a radical reorientation of one’s whole life away from sin and toward God. Before the actual Baptism, the candidates were instructed to turn toward the west, the direction from which the sun sets and darkness falls, and to reject sin and the temptations of the devil as if they were standing face to face with him. Once they renounced Satan and sin, they were turned around to face the east, the direction of the sunrise, to the light from where they expected to see Christ return in glory. Having literally turned their back on sin and the devil, they affirmed with confidence their faith and adherence to God.

The call to holiness at Baptism

The Most Rev. Thomas J. Olmsted is the bishop of the Diocese of Phoenix. He was installed as the fourth bishop of Phoenix on Dec. 20, 2003, and is the spiritual leader of the diocese’s 1.1 million Catholics.

From the very moment of Baptism, Christians are committed to fight against “the world, the flesh and the devil” (Cf. 1 Jn 2:16); and as they win the battle, the image of Jesus Christ begins to shine through with ever more clarity. At Baptism, the catechumens are asked: “Do you wish to be baptized?”, which is the same as asking “Do you wish to be holy?”. In other words, Baptism sets before them the radical nature of Christ’s teaching: “Be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48) along with the graces to live it in their lives.

This is what holiness is all about; and every Christian, by his or her Baptism, is called by Christ to pursue it. The Second Vatican Council affirmed this universal call to Christian perfection: “all the faithful, whatever their condition or state, are called by the Lord, each in his own way, to that perfect holiness whereby the Father Himself is perfect” (Lumen Gentium 11). The vocation to holiness extends to all Christians, not just priests and religious; every baptized person, of whatever state in life, is called to be fully alive in Christ, to be perfect in charity.

EN ESPAÑOL: La santidad es para todos

The Greatest Temptation: Holiness is just for a few

One of Satan’s greatest temptations of our time is to plant within us a misconception of holiness which perceives the saints as a special group favored by God with extraordinary capacity for heroic virtues, blessed with special powers and gifts. They become figurines that belong on a pedestal or remote figures on stained glass windows whose lives are admirable stories but impossible to follow. In his famous literary work called “The Screwtape Letters,” which is a fictional collection of letters written by a senior devil to his young nephew Wormwood who is just learning the art of deceiving people and leading them away from God, C.S. Lewis reminds us that this is one of Satan’s prominent deceptions: “we have trained them to think that the Future is a promised land which favored heroes attain — not as something which everyone reaches” (25). In other words, Satan sows the biggest seed of lies when he tries to convince us that holiness is not for average Christians because the majority are incapable of it. Even keeping the Commandments seems too challenging and the exhortation of the Lord to “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” does not apply to “average” Christians, but rather only for an elite chosen few.

Sadly, whoever caves into this “temptation of all temptations” falls into mediocrity. A prominent sign of succumbing to this great lie is when we water down the truth of the teachings of Christ and His Church because we lose confidence that the Truth can set us free. Instead of patiently and perseveringly receiving from God through prayer and the Sacraments the strength needed to live the faith especially when it’s hard and challenging, there is a pessimistic and indulgent attempt to soften the demands of faith. Thus, the Lord’s teaching becomes just an ideal, some abstract goal that one may aspire toward but with no binding force and no lasting impact in real life. In this temptation, the devil lowers the bar of holiness to man’s limited capacity.

Holiness is possible with God’s grace

St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus is pictured in this photograph taken on the patio of the monastery in Lisieux on Easter Monday, April 15, 1894. (Public Domain/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

Holiness is not about seeking to do just enough, to just avoid mortal sins or to do the minimum. Since Baptism opens us up to the divine life with God through the incorporation into Christ and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, it would be a contradiction to just settle for a life of mediocrity, characterized by minimalist moral principles and superficial religious practices. Rather, holiness means seeking God with every fiber of our being, loving others with the same love with which He loves us, saying “yes” wholeheartedly to God and allowing God’s grace to transform us into the image of His Son.

What Jesus did with His Apostles shows the power of God’s grace capable of transforming hearts. Jesus didn’t start by calling the knowledgeable Scribes and Pharisees to follow Him. He didn’t even start with the normal Jews of His time. He began with ignorant men from insignificant places, with thick accents along with some thick heads. They were men who struggled to understand His mission and to live the message He taught. They were men who at the sign of danger fled and hid in fear, abandoning the Lord when He was taken to be crucified. Nonetheless, later they came back and, strengthened by His grace, they went forth to spread the Gospel to the ends of the earth and freely to die for Christ.

The lives of the Apostles are true stories of ordinary people who became, with God’s grace, the greatest that had ever lived. Like the Apostles, Jesus still calls every one of His disciples to heroism and to show the world that holiness is possible. Many of us in our daily lives are dedicated and hard working. Imagine what would happen if we directed all the energy, effort and sacrifice that we put daily into becoming better students, salesmen, professionals and so forth toward the “unum necessarium” (the only thing necessary): becoming saints? We could transform this world!

To become saints, it is not necessary to perform extraordinary deeds or possess extraordinary charism. In her autobiography “The Story of A Soul,” St. Thérèse of Lisieux told of her desire to perform all the most heroic deeds for the Lord: “Jesus, if I wanted to write all my desires, I would have to take your Book of Life, where the deeds of your saints are recorded: all these deeds I would like to accomplish for you” (Chapter 11: “A Canticle of Love”). However, God showed her in prayer that “all gifts, even the most perfect, are nothing without Love … that charity is the excellent way that leads to God” (Ibid.). Thus, the road to holiness for every Christian in every age is summed up in doing the ordinary things in an extraordinary way — that is, doing God’s will in our everyday life with the greatest love. It means seeing every circumstance, every happening, every event, every occasion, every moment of life as an opportunity to love. To love as Jesus loves in every moment is itself a great deed and the one who loves the most is the greatest of saints.

During the month of November, which begins with the celebration of All Saints Day, let us remember all our sisters and brothers who by reaching Heaven have shown us that the “average” people can become saints with the grace of God. It’s time that with courage, great confidence in God’s grace and perseverance we embrace holiness as the path that leads to Heaven. It’s time that we remember our baptismal calling to holiness, to be a mirror of the love of Jesus Christ and to rejoice that God has provided and always will provide whatever is needed to be holy.