Holiness in an Unholy Time
By Ralph Capone
March 6, 2020
We are called in our various duties and states of life to become holy. The Church has a central role in this spiritual journey. The ordinary means are through sanctifying grace obtained by regular prayer and frequent reception of the sacraments. Holiness proceeds, according to many saints and mystics, through purgation of sinfulness and selfishness, into illumination or knowledge of God, and ends in unification with God.
The Second Vatican Council exhorts the faithful to this “universal call to holiness” (Lumen Gentium, Chapter V) and recalls the beatitudes as the model for these endeavors. Those seeking sanctification who are poor in spirit (humble) and pure of heart (just, chaste) will inherit the kingdom of heaven and see God’s face. Jesus instructs us to become perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect and to become saints.
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There a crisis of holiness in our time. The malevolent spirits of this age, those of rebellion, pride, and immoderate sensuality muffle this call. The will to personal holiness is ebbing as the tide of secularism flows higher and washes over the world and, sadly, over the Church. Holiness is a divine gift that entails man’s cooperation (a good heart) and faithful adherence to doctrine along with good teaching. The Church is, therefore, essential for holiness to flourish. Without holy and orthodox clergy teaching the faith and correcting errors, the laity has become inured to the evils present in the culture and more tolerant of sin.
The Catechism acknowledges (no. 2015) that “there is no holiness without renunciation and spiritual battle.” The conflict pits the mendacities of the culture against the eternal truths of the Catholic faith. Man’s unchanging nature, good but fallen, is under constant attack by the three-fold temptations of sensuality and pride – the lust of the eyes, the flesh and the pride of life. This struggle is, as Saint Paul writes, the spirit against the flesh, the world and the devil (Galatians 5:16-18). Our nature unaided by sanctifying grace is powerless to resist these forces. Hearts that are good and open to the sublime gift of grace are needed. The font of grace flows through prayer, especially the Mass and the devout reception of the sacraments. It courses through God’s people, most especially a good and holy clergy.
Today the ongoing battle for souls has the forces of secularism and modernism lined up fiercely against faith and religion. Pride and inordinate sensuality incites disbelief in God and rejection of religion. In his great conceptual work, “Revolution and Counter-Revolution”, the great orthodox Catholic Brazilian philosopher, Plinio Correa de Oliveira, argues that all revolts against the divine order are rooted, in various ways and by differing degrees, in pride and sensuality. (p. 31)
The Church throughout history has been steadfast and courageous in defending the Spirit of Truth against those forces of darkness seeking to challenge divine authority. At least this was the pattern until the present time. Witness her past responses, the ‘counter-revolution’, to the heresies of the Protestant revolt, the French revolution and the Marxist revolution. These heresies have contributed to the scourge besetting the Church today, modernism, called the synthesis of all heresies (Pope Pius X). In this revolution, the Church is fighting at greater disadvantage because the smoke of Satan has entered her to divide and enfeeble her.
Out of the Darkness
Bishop Athanasius Schneider writes in “Christus Vincit: Christ’s Triumph Over the Darkness of the Age” “(t)he Church in many of her members and especially in her hierarchy is weak, she has no energy, (i)nstead, she engages in frenetic external activities, as for instance synods, crisis and emergency meetings, addressing issues on climate change and migration, etc.” (p. 156) He continues “…that the deepest root of the(se) problems and the crisis in the Church is the weakening of the supernatural, and in some cases the loss of it .” (p. 107) The focus upon secular works disregards the only real purpose of the Church, that is, to sanctify and save souls for eternal life. This is the work proper to the bishops and their priests.
To restore the Church, to renew her strength, the faithful must respond to the call to holiness. To this end, openness to the gifts of the Holy Spirit is essential. These seven gifts contain graces to counter the revolutionary spirit of pride and disobedience. Fear of the Lord, piety and wisdom, among them, are especially necessary for this time. Fear of the Lord is widely misunderstood as servile or tyrannical fear, not as filial fear. Righteous fear is simply the creature’s awe standing before God who made everything that exists, himself included, ex nihilo, and yet who knows and loves him uniquely. Filial fear motivates in man the will to please God who calls him unceasingly to Himself.
Today, fear of the Lord has largely vanished together with the will to live as creatures subject to God’s authority. The gift of wisdom would recall Saint Augustine’s deeply earnest plea and prayer – ‘noscam te, noscam me’ – “which is nothing else but a true knowledge of God and of oneself. To confess that God is what He is, the Omnipotent, ‘Great is the Lord, and exceedingly to be praised’ and to declare that we are nothingness before Him: ‘My substance is as nothing before Thee. (T)his is to be humble.” (“Humility of Heart” p. 7) Another of the Spirit’s gifts, piety, is related to filial fear and humility. It is rooted in justice and in man’s duty to give God his due, that is, to worship Him and to obey his precepts. But, piety, also is greatly misunderstood. To be labeled pious is often an unkind remark. One striving for true humility and holiness may be called pietistic or at worse, a hypocrite. The spirit of pride attempts to shame many good hearts in order to disabuse them of true piety and fear of the Lord. By doing this, the homage due to God is undermined and religion is subverted. Finally, pride and unbridled sensuality, moored to man’s fallen nature and unenlightened by grace and supernatural gifts, have short-circuited his reason and unconstrained his passions.
There are many obstacles in the pursuit of holiness in these dark times. Yet doing so is the only way forward for those of good will. To overcome these malevolent spirits, a resurgence of the gifts of the Holy Spirit has the power to revitalize the Church by an increase in sanctity among her faithful. Our humble prayer is for our weaknesses to be fortified by the Spirit who “prepares men and goes out to them with his grace, in order to draw them into Christ.” (Catechism 737) This is the Church’s mission and for this our savior became incarnate.
In Mark’s gospel our Lord “going out saw a great multitude: and he had compassion on them, because they were as sheep not having a shepherd, (author’s italics) and he began to teach them many things.” The Church needs good shepherds to return the flock to the sheepfold of the Church. The lay faithful have a right to orthodox instruction, just governance and encouragement and sanctification.
Bishops and priests must renew their personal commitment to holiness and to saving souls. Earthly utopias, worldly cares and approbation are not the proper concerns of the Church. The clergy and especially the hierarchy must reject these false idols and return, instead, with greater zeal to the wisdom of the scriptures and to the eternal Word of God. Filled with the Spirit’s gifts and graces may the Church, once more, become the counter-revolution that will “renew the face of the earth”. (Psalm 103:30)