This sentence, “Today, we make saints ‘accidentally’” or ‘randomly’” touches on something at the same time extremely important for the Church and very sad and tragic.
Going back to the Second Vatican Council, in Lumen Gentium, Chapter 5, we find that we are reminded of a fundamental truth in the Gospel: we are all called to Holiness.
Strangely enough, theoretically, that is, faith wise, we all agree on this truth. But we are not aware of the tragic reality behind such a statement. We, as the Church, are not strong and clear enough when it comes to the practical implementation of the said Chapter 5. We leave the realisation of the Call to Holiness to the freedom of the People of God, to personal and private choices, and to all the different spiritual families and schools in the Church. We think we have given enough indications and that there is enough material and means to reach Holiness. But we are just deceiving ourselves. We think we are “rich…and have no need of anything” but instead we are “poor, blind and naked” (see Revelation 3:17).
The distance between the agreement made in the light of Faith on the universal call to holiness and the practical disagreement and blurred vision on how to implement it is huge, more than one can imagine.
One would think that the contents of Chapter 5 of Lumen Gentium would be enough to guide us toward holiness, or one would think that there is a document exclusively dedicated to this sacred cause and pursuit. But no. Not only does the text of Chapter 5 leave much unsaid, but also there is no document that enlarges on the teaching of this chapter. Why? The reason is very simple but very few point it out. The reason is that Chapter 5 is born from the point of view of Ecclesiology and not from the point of view of Spiritual Theology.
Ecclesiology, the theological science about the Church, says, among many things that the Church has four notes, or characteristics, namely, that it is: one, holy, catholic (universal) and apostolic. Since this important document is totally dedicated to the Church, as in a way the entire Second Vatican Council was, it talks about the characteristics or notes of the Church, i.e. the fact that it is one, holy, catholic and apostolic. The duty of Lumen Gentium is to remind us that the Church is holy, amongst the other notes. Because the Church is holy, all her members are called to become holy. We are not holy by birth, we become holy through Baptism and through leading a responsible spiritual journey in our lives. We are called by Christ himself to become holy. It is not something that occurs automatically: our freedom and the acts of our entire life are involved and are needed to allow the grace of God to work in us. This is why the document had to remind us of our part in the process.
But the entire requirement of becoming holy was not the result of a fruit of our understanding of the Gospel, or of Spiritual Theology. Not at all. The thought process of the Council’s text went something like this: we are talking about the Church, we are trying to understand who she is. She is the Lord’s bride and mystical body, therefore she is Holy in God’s mind, and, as a consequence, all her members should be (in fact become) holy.
No other indications are made, no enlargements on the subject, apart from the developments that are to be found in this same chapter. At best, one can refer himself to the consecrated as is seen in Chapter 6, or visible in the document regarding them (“Perfectae Caritatis”). But not all the people of God are called to become Consecrated to God, that is, to enter religious life. In fact, Chapter 5 is very clear on this point, and in this regard, it has some originality to it, when it affirms that regardless of their state of life, all are called to become holy.
Since the theological process that led the writers of the document is an ecclesiology reasoning, the entire Church is left practically with no concrete indications, no special document on the topic of practicality on how do to become holy.
We are in constant need of such a document but the sad development, or better said, the pause in the development of Spiritual Theology that preceded Council Vatican II resulted in a lack of maturity of thought, hindering in turn the Church’s awareness of Spiritual Theology and thus the Church’s capacity to offer such a body of teaching for the Church to have such awareness and capacity to offer such a body of teaching.
From 1965 onward, freedom was not employed as carefully as it should have been, and the influence of the sciences (exegesis, psychology, etc) impacted hugely on the little that was left of Spiritual Theology after the great debate on Contemplation (1930s-1940s). Consequently, it became impossible to have any clear vision regarding “how to become a saint”, or better said “how to answer the Lord’s Call to follow Him from close up”.
Many fundamental truths were challenged during this period of time, that is after 1965, on topics such as the Priesthood, the Eucharist, the Divinity of the Lord, his knowledge of it, methods of Theology and of Philosophy… so that we did not even have enough time and energy to dedicate to such a challenging point as the offering of practical ways and clarity regarding the path that leads to union with God and the fullness of love.
It is only by the end of 1992 that the Church started to have clarity and stability regarding its main teaching when the Catechism of the Catholic Church was published.
In the meantime, the Holy Spirit had performed amazing things: the Charismatic renewal became an integral part of the Catholic Church’s life, many new movements and communities/orders were born in the Church, the discreet but new practice of Lectio Divina based on the daily readings of the Mass developed, the Scriptures became more and more central to the life of the Church, etc. Furthermore, many beatifications and canonisations were realised. But still, from 1965 until today no clear major document on Spiritual Theology itself or “on ‘spiritual’ topics per se has been published. The letter on the Most Holy Rosary of John Paul II , some passages of his letter Novo Millenio Ineunte and the letter on Holiness by Pope Francis, however, should be considered as two exemptions. But other than these hardly any mention of Contemplation or a developed explanation on prayer has been made.
The fourth part of the Catechism, which was not envisaged initially, is essentially the work of one man (Fr. Corbon) and doesn’t give guidance for the ascent to holiness. The said fourth part only offers the bare minimum of guidance for parishioners. But those who genuinely seek the Lord and who are committed to the Lord, people who have heard His Call in their hearts, still have to rely on their personal efforts in order to guess how to reach holiness.
Note 1: In the early versions of the Catechism, the Commission for its redaction (1986-1992) envisaged 3 parts only, against the traditional structure of Catechesis which included the explanation of the Our Father. In the process of its redaction and amendements by the Commission in charge of it, the Catechism had 9 versions, and it is around the middle one that it started to add a fourth part. In fact, it is from 1989, in the “Revised Project” (5th version), that an Epilogue to the three parts is added containing a Commentary on the Our Father. This Epilogue does not constitute as yet a formal Fourth Part but later, at the request of many bishops, it becomes so. However, it is still less comprehensive than the other parts. (See “Le Catéchisme de Jean Paul II, Genèse et évaluation de son commentaire du symbole des apôtres”, by Maurice Simon, Paris, 2000)
Note 2: Fr. Corbon, the initial author of the Epilogue, or future Fourth Part, did what he was asked to do. I am just describing the width or breath of the actual state of the fourth part of the Catechism and of any fourth part in the past or in the future which is about initial catchesis only. It never had or will have the ambition to go further than being the presentation and explanation of the foundations of our faith. Catechesis is Catechesis: it is meant to give us the starting point of the journey to the recently Baptised – never all the journey. Normally, after a while, after “catechesis” we have “mystagogy”, which is meant to introduce greater spiritual depth. Catechesis has some limitations due to its very nature. The spiritual side is its main limitation. In this sense the fourth part traditionally intends to explain the Our Father and not the entire Spiritual Life.
Today, furthermore, when we study the History of Spirituality, we do categorise spiritual life and spiritual theology into “schools of spirituality”. We can even say that today we have gone from the mere categorisation and periodisation that serves the purpose of teaching, to becoming a real compartmental and hermetic division in the Church between the above-mentioned schools of spirituality. This division seems ironically to be creating more harm today than being the manifestation of God’s versatility and abundance.
In fact, there is a desperate need for solid common ground in Spiritual Life (as has many of the Eastern Churches), but in reality, all we are faced with is “bits” of spirituality developed by this or that “spiritual school”. By calling them “schools of spirituality” we have given them a title of what they do not really offer! The fact of the matter is that they have developed one or more aspects of Spiritual Life or Spiritual Theology; but this doesn’t mean that they have developed the whole body of Spiritual Theology! Hence what we might call today a “charism” is in fact the development of one or more aspects of Spiritual Theology, and is not the development of the whole spiritual doctrine of the Church. For obvious reasons, few will accept this analysis today and each individual will tend to remain entrenched in his or her spirituality as if they possess something that others do not have and even sometimes are not supposed to claim to have. This is enormously weakening the depth and unity of doctrine on Spiritual Life in the Church.
In sum, what we seem to have done is to translate a “specific charism” into a “school of spirituality”, which in truth is an undue extrapolation, often not valid.
Summarising the period of time that followed the Second Vatican Council we can say, that if on one hand many good things blossomed, some right before the Council itself and many after it, on the other hand we are none the wiser regarding the ways to reach Holiness. The weakened state of Spiritual Theology is not helping us to face the challenge of the statement saying that “All are called to Holiness.”
Admittedly, we continue to “produce” saints, but it happens randomly, just by the sheer quality and perseverance of some of the faithful. But the majority, who are in great need of help, do not find it and just implement one or two things, thinking that eventually they might reach holiness. “might”… or might not! It is something that seems so unattainable, so distant that hardly anyone has the courage to face the issue. Paradoxically some even might think that it is prideful to do so.
The writings of great doctors like St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross, who are doctors of the Church specialised in Spiritual Theology, have today reached a very dangerous state of isolation because of the lack of valid commentators. Reading and studying these writings and this doctrine, and even obtaining PhDs in them can never be enough to show the way on how to implement them. Often even, degrees are not a guarantee of a correct reading of the text! Experience confirms this constantly, unfortunately. Today, because of the lack of real bridges, these great writings are under the threat of remaining in isolation, of being tightly sealed and of not being correctly understood. Unfortunately, too, many of the real masters of Spiritual Theology have died in recent years. The threat is, indeed, great today.
On a subject that is of the greatest importance – that is, being called to holiness –, we still remain, in the 21st Century, incapable of providing a clear practical journey towards holiness, of providing a proper practical and secure reading of the spiritual doctrine of the Church. The journey for the Church has still very far to go. We need a great level of maturity in the Spiritual Body of Doctrine in order to find a minimum of unanimity. Unfortunately, it might take a few centuries to attain. Meanwhile, we run the risk of spiritual lives being lost when our approach is incoherent between calling everybody to holiness and behaving in an amateurish way when it comes to the implementation of this doctrine. Surely, counting on God’s Providence only and leaving the journey, growth and discernment to random behaviour, is an insult to Catholic Tradition, as well as to the proper understanding of the role of the human being in the response to God’s Call. This Call manifests God’s need of us – we cannot just remain indolent and say that God will compensate or provide. It is our utmost sacred duty to be prepared to help the faithful who hear the Lord’s Call to follow it from a to z.
Important Note: Not only is the above the case, but we also need to have such intelligence of God’s way, as to understand why not many really hear Jesus’ Call. There are plenty of things to be done before this stage is reached. In this regard, St. Teresa of Avila’s Conversion is a teaching of utmost value and is in itself a full paradigm of this journey.
We need to seriously invest in the Church, concerning both people, money and also effort, as well as in providing time to form people capable of helping their brothers and sisters in Spiritual Formation.
Moreover, before accepting any vocation to any type of consecrated life, we need to seriously ask ourselves the following question: do we really have the proper personnel capable of helping those with a vocation, who are about to enter, to fulfil their main call: to follow Jesus till union with Him and the fullness of Love?
We need to stop receiving vocations if we feel we do not have the practical knowledge or skill to help our brothers to really grow. We need to honestly stop leaning, in a fideist way, on God’s Providence and not offer to the Church people really formed in Spiritual Life. We need to stop focusing constantly on the “charism” of each Institute, Community or Order, however ancient and venerable it may be and dedicate 99% of our effort to Spiritual Formation exclusively. This is the essential meaning of any vocation and the charism is not the essence of the vocation, despite all that being said and claimed today.
It is not either the ministry or type of apostolate that should characterise a Community or an Order in the Church. What characterises them is essentially their capacity to show the way for each candidate to search and find God, dedicating 100% of his or her energy to this quest. Otherwise, from day one we teach the candidates “apostolate” and “charisma”, and consume 90% of their energy on things that are not the essence of the Call to follow Jesus.
I know that stating the above will not be pleasing to many people today. However, paradoxically it shows how clericalized we have become, focused on “apostolate” and “charisma”, while neglecting the essential know-how/practical skills of Spiritual Formation. Is it then fair to accept a vocation when we are caught so unprepared?
Because today – and for decades to come – we are and will be in a dire state of emergency, we need to dedicate huge efforts, not to “having vocations” because we will always have vocations, but on the contrary, to making huge and exclusive efforts to help develop Spiritual Theology, the Church’s Common Spiritual Doctrine and the training of Spiritual Formators. We need vocations in this specific field, people who would dedicate all their lives to such an endeavour. The most sacred of endeavours.
Having Priests does not solve the issue. It is not the Parish Priests’ call to be in charge of such Formation. They belong to the Priestly Function of the Church, the Parish. It is the Mission of the Spiritual Masters who belong to the Prophetic Function of the Church (the Desert, not the Parish) to be in charge of Spiritual Formation in the Church.
The Theology we have today is the “city” or “university” Theology only. It has no capacity whatsoever to revive Spiritual Theology. Prophetic Theology, or as some call it “Monastic Theology,” (see Pope Benedict General Audience, 28 October 2009, on the subject), is dead today, but is the only one capable of such a revival of the Spiritual Doctrine of the Church.
As one can see, the challenges are enormous. We need an enormous investment policy in this field. We need to have a plan, a clear plan (personnel, means, time,…) and we need to implement it.
17th January, St. Anthony the Great