Monday, January 20, 2020

All of us have paths in life that we take that lead us to heaven. Mine just doesn’t happen to include being temperate with alcohol.

There’s a very erroneous notion of what being holy is, and it just doesn’t bode well for many Catholics who don’t know that this is erroneous.  For many Catholics, the idea that the norm and standard for every baptized Catholic is to be holy as God is holy is not for them.  Rather, they believe that it is something that is reserved for special (or some may even call them weird) people like members of the clergy or those who have taken religious vows.  Apart from them, holiness is just either not attainable, or at best, something like searching for the proverbial pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.  And what is perhaps even more of an erroneous notion is that sainthood and holiness is a reserve that is meant only for contemplatives and mystics (seen as those who are priests, monks and nuns special reserve).  

To be fair, this isn’t a new error in thought. It had been the thought of the general lay person from way back in the Renaissance period in Europe, and the fact that almost all of the canonized saints of the Church in that era, right up to the time of Pope (now Saint) John Paul II, were people who were either clerics or men and women who had given their lives to God’s cause as nuns, brothers and priests, and of course, those who had been martyred for the faith.  

But this notion did experience a turnaround when Pope John Paul II started to canonize many holy lay people who had lived their lives not behind convent or monastery walls, but in ordinary homes with ordinary families, having married spouses, being parents and grandparents themselves. These people had jobs like many do nowadays, and certainly not all of them had degrees in theology or spirituality. 

In fact, this ‘explosion’ of canonized saints since the pontificate of John Paul II has exponentially increased after his pontificate, with the current Pope, Francis, who has already canonized 848 saints since becoming the Bishop of Rome in March of 2013.  In total, the three most recent Popes have since canonized 1,375 saints, and this number far exceeds the combined total number of canonized saints since 1588 till the pontificate of JPII, 1588 being the year of the establishment of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints.

It certainly isn’t because the requirements for anyone’s canonization has been lowered.  Rather, what made JPII such an avid saint-maker was because he was inspired by the Constitution Lumen Gentium which came out of Vatican II.  In that constitution, there is a chapter entitled “The Universal Call of Holiness in the Church”, with its stress that all people are called to lead a holy life united to Christ.

This call to holiness isn’t just for the ordained clergy or religious who had made public vows.  It is something meant for all the faithful, regardless of rank or status in the body of Christ.  In whatever vocation of life one is called to, whether to marriage or to singlehood, every baptized Catholic is equally called to live the fullness of the Christian life and thereby to the perfection (as far as possible, with God’s grace of course) of charity.  

I don’t think that this message and truth has really filtered down to the laity in a deep and pivotal way.  There have been so many times where I have asked my parishioners if they want to be saints, and nine out of ten times, I hear their response of either an outright “no”, or “that’s not for me”, or “I don’t think so”. Occasionally, I may get a weak “maybe”. And when I ask them why, their answer is often “because it is so hard to be holy”.

Well, they got one thing right at least – that it’s hard, and that it requires effort.  A holy life that doesn’t require any effort on one’s part is almost an oxymoron. This effort that one needs to make is really an effort to love God above all else.  Love that doesn’t require any effort, any sacrifice and any self-donation isn’t a very high form of love.  But when we aspire for holiness and know that it is reflected in the way that we, with great effort, turn away from sin and all that leads to sin, it is really showing how much our love for God costs us.  Certainly not so that we can “buy” holiness or God’s love, but because it then shows how much we value being loved by God, and want to return it in effortful and extraordinary ways.

I always want to encourage people coming to me for either counseling or confession to strive for holiness, and often, I seem them struggling to overcome a personal sin, like some addiction or predilection in life.  I tell them that their path to sainthood is precisely going to be through this particular cross that they are carrying, and most likely not in any other challenge that they are going to face in life.  Sometimes their response to me is “I wish God would just take this addiction away from me, and then I will be set for holiness without much problems”.  What they fail to see is that if this “cross” is taken away from them, their being able to live without stumbling and getting up in this particular way through this particular sin is no longer going to be of much merit to them at all.

I sometimes give them the example of my relationship with alcohol.  I have never liked it, and I really cannot understand how anyone can find it delightful or delicious at all.  In fact, I have no relationship with alcohol, period. I just wasn’t given the ‘grace’ to enjoy that ting that burns at the back of my throat whenever I swallow alcohol. I tried ‘learning’ to drink, especially when I was working in the hotel industry, but I never managed to appreciate it at all.  So, my being temperate or abstinent when it comes to alcohol intake is hardly anything that is seriously going to contribute to my striving for holiness. It is certainly to no merit of mine that I have never been inebriated.  Because I have no relationship with alcohol, I jokingly tell people that as a priest, I only drink as part of my ‘job’.  Some people get my humour, whilst others just return a vacant look.

In Church language, when one practices restraint in the intake of alcohol, one is temperate, or is practicing temperance. Of course, temperance isn’t just limited to alcohol intake.  Temperance is really the control one has over any excess in life, and one ought to be practicing temperance in one’s chastity, modesty, humility, forgiveness of one’s transgressors, and in showing mercy as well.  That is because in each of these dimensions of life, there is always some human impulse that is involved.  Our resolve to love God is shown when we make effort to control these impulses and practice self-mastery.

In these dimensions or aspects of life, there would hardly be any merit for us if our predilection for them was somehow taken away from us by God.  Asking God to take away your struggle for living a chaste life is therefore the wrong way to pray, as compared to asking God for the grace to live a chaste life and to choose chastity despite your very real temptation to sin against chastity. While the former is probably going to make your life easier, it is the latter which is meritorious to your soul.

I have been criticized by quite a few people that I only seem to have one agenda in my homilies, my writings and my talks – to get people truly interested in becoming saints through their hunger for holiness.  Like Sts Francis de Sales and Jose Maria Escriva, I want people to know that sanctity isn’t just the special preserve of monks, mystics and contemplatives alone. All of us, without exception share in this universal call to holiness.

If that is our shared goal in life, then I think it’s not all that wrong if my one singular agenda as a priest is to get as many souls as possible to set their lives and hearts for heaven as well.

No comments:

Post a Comment