What we believe
She enjoyed the music at Mass but complained about the altar servers and how the church steps were so difficult to climb. When would the outside rails be installed? She couldn't always hear what was being said by the ministers of the Word and would have to pay for a taxi if there was no one to pick her up. Her legs no longer took her the two blocks to her home.
Monica would often wonder about sin and forgiveness, about morality and the afterlife. She did not feel that she was a good person. She worried about her family and as an elderly widow, was fearful of being a burden to her only daughter. When her increasing frailty prevented her attending the prayer group, the prayer group held its meetings at her house.
Those rails were installed on the steps leading up to the church some months before Monica died. Ironically, by that stage she was getting too feeble to come to Mass. She was also granted her final wish. The choir she had loved so much in life was able to sing at the funeral which Monica had prepared for herself.
What is inspiring was that Monica was not complacent in her faith life. She did not consider she had all the answers or had fulfilled all the obligations of her faith. Her situation is reminiscent of the rich young man of the Gospels who after explaining he has fulfilled all the requirements of his faith asks what more can he do.
Jesus' response on that occasion was one which the rich man could not afford to make, "You lack one thing, sell all you own and come, follow me."
This call to die to self is a call to vulnerability. It is the call to holiness, not measured in deeds or obedience but in a humble and contrite heart, in the humility of a devout elderly widow who wanted to know if she was good. She knew her own poverty of Spirit. Holiness is not about somehow being more "spiritual". It is about being more earthy, more grounded in our humanity, in our desire to surrender our neediness into God's care.
Confusion about holiness is what stops us from taking up the call to become a more involved in our faith. We may say that we are not holy enough.
George, a retired bricklayer, stood up at church to invite parishioners to become catechists. He stumbled through his talk and then faltered as his son John came up to stand next to him and hold his hand. George became tearful and eventually gently led John back to their pew. People did not remember much of George's speech. What they took away was the witness of a father whose adult son lived with a disability, a father who had taken up the call to be a catechist and a son who stood by him.
George and John would not have called themselves holy, nor would Monica. What was painfully obvious to any who encountered them was their humanity and weakness. Dare we call them holy: a husband caring for wife and son, a son living a single life of faith, an elderly widow coming to terms with death and her need to allow her daughter to care for her? Can we say these people have a calling, have a vocation?
In the past, ordained ministry and consecrated life were considered a more perfect calling. In other words, priests and religious were somehow more genuinely following Christ. They were the ones with the vocation.
This is a tragic distortion of our Catholic tradition. Each Christian has an obligation to respond to their Baptismal call. The 2,860 bishops involved in the Second Vatican Council affirmed the holiness of the Baptised:
It is therefore quite clear that all Christians in any state or walk of life are called to the fullness of Christian life, and to the perfection of love, and by this holiness, a more human manner of life is fostered also in earthly society. (LG 40).
This call, this vocation, takes one of four particular states: committed single life, married life, ordained ministry and consecrated religious life. Each of these ways of being Christian does not compete with the others but are complementary. There is no pecking order in the life of holiness.
If we are in any doubt of this call to step out into the light hear Jesus' response to Nicodemus, a devout Jew searching for answers: "God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not be lost but may have eternal life." Jesus later says, "I have come that you may have life, and have it to the full." (Jn 10:10). God does not give by half measures. We are not invited to a life half full, or to be half holy or holy some of the time. If we listen to our hearts, is not God calling us to take another step, to make a more radical "yes" to the life God offers?
Such a step will be with all our human frailty, indeed we may need to rest heavily on the railing of our Church, yet that is why she is with us. A child asked the question of what is a saint responded, "They are the people that the light shines through". The image of light shining through stained glass is a powerful one. With the saints, the more transparent our humanity and need of God is, the more it may be "plainly seen that what [we do] is done in God". (paraphrased Jn 3:21)
This is the call to holiness, the invitation Jesus makes to each one of us. Leave behind your security, and put out into the deep. Come with Nicodemus, and Monica, climb with painful steps in your darkness to live the fullness of life, the fullness of your own vocation.