In almost every Mel Gibson movie, there is a recurring theme about the inevitability of violence. Take the film Blood Father, for instance: Gibson plays an ex-convict trying to leave a troubled past behind, but when his daughter gets caught in the brutal machinations of the cartel, situations play out that force his hand time and again to resort to violence in order to escape. Similar themes play out during Braveheart, The Patriot, even Hacksaw Ridge – and the main character is a pacifist in that film.
This idea about the inevitability of violence isn’t limited to Mel Gibson movies. Take your pick from television’s vast array: John Wick, Taken, The Walking Dead, every Marvel film ever … There is a deep and abiding sense that the world is the way it is, and no matter how hard you try and escape a self-destructive life of corruption and violence, in the end the spilling of blood is inevitable.
This script we are accustomed to seeing played out on the big screen raises an interesting question to do with the nature of sanctity and the call to holiness: Is it possible to become a saint right now?
There is a deep cynicism about this question that has affected modern culture. It is reflected in George Orwell’s famous aphorism, ‘Saints should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent.’
Some people, perhaps, might think that holiness requires a heroism that is not possible for ordinary Christians. We have our saints in the Catholic Church, and they put before us an ideal of how we should be living, but surely there’s no expectation to actually live up to that ideal given that the world is the way it is. The world is messy, it’s complex, there are so many forces that push against us as Christians – sometimes it feels like those forces are slowly eroding our strength until we hit the point of exhaustion. We find ourselves caught in vicious cycles we desperately want freedom from.
It’s important to ask this question: Is it possible to become a saint right now? Is it humanly possible?
For Pope John Paul II, what was considered humanly possible was determined by what Christ achieved in the redemption. In his encyclical Veritatis Splendor, he argued passionately that it was wrong to see Christianity as simply an “ideal” that ordinary people could not live up to. If we do that, we cast into doubt the reality and efficacy of Christ’s saving work – which is the Church’s very reason for being:
But what are the “concrete possibilities of man”? And of which man are we speaking? Of man dominated by lust or of man redeemed by Christ? This is what is at stake: the reality of Christ's redemption. Christ has redeemed us! This means that he has given us the possibility of realizing the entire truth of our being; he has set our freedom free from the domination of concupiscence (§103).
This faith in the reality of Christ’s redemption is the foundation for what the Church has called ‘the universal call to holiness’ – the idea that holiness is not reserved for a select and heroic few; it is instead a call on every single person baptised into Christ’s death and resurrection.
This is one of the "bombshells" of the Second Vatican Council’s document Lumen Gentium. The Council made clear that the call Jesus places on us is one of holiness: ‘You must therefore be perfect just as your heavenly Father is perfect’ (Matthew 5:48). This holiness, however, is not defined in terms of a rigid moralism or ‘holier than thou’ elitism. Instead, Lumen Gentium says, ‘[Jesus] Himself stands as the author and consummator of this holiness of life’ (§40). Jesus Christ, in other words, is the beginning and end of our own holiness. To be holy is to participate in the life he makes available.
From the same paragraph:
The followers of Christ are called by God, not because of their works, but according to His own purpose and grace. They are justified in the Lord Jesus, because in the baptism of faith they truly become sons of God and sharers in the divine nature. In this way they are really made holy. Then too, by God's gift, they must hold on to and complete in their lives this holiness they have received.
A thoroughly Catholic understanding of holiness does not see holiness consisting in the fulfilment of commandments and prescriptions; holiness is first of all given to us through the grace of baptism, and from that new being in Christ comes a life that accords with Christ. When Meister Eckhart said, ‘Do not think to base holiness on actions; holiness should be based on being,’ this is what he was talking about. We are first of all made holy by Christ and then our life of faith, by grace, brings that holiness to completion as we seek to live in communion with Christ, abiding in his love, especially through the living of a sacramental life.
Lumen Gentium goes on:
The classes and duties of life are many, but holiness is one … Therefore, all the faithful of Christ are invited to strive for the holiness and perfection of their own proper state. Indeed, they have an obligation to so strive … Let neither the use of the things of this world nor attachment to riches, which is against the spirit of evangelical poverty, hinder them in their quest for perfect love. Let them heed the admonition of the Apostle to those who use this world; let them not come to terms with this world; for this world, as we see it, is passing away’ (§41-42).
There is always heroism involved in holiness because it always involves laying down one’s life, in whatever capacity, for the sake of another. It always involves heroism because it requires us to live differently from the world around us, to live prophetically and counter-culturally, to rise above mediocrity and lethargy in order to let Christ transform us from the inside out. But this heroism is for everybody.
In his homily for All Saints Day in 2006, Pope Benedict XVI said, ‘Holiness demands a constant effort, but it is possible for everyone because, rather than a human effort, it is first and foremost a gift of God … the more we imitate Jesus and remain united to him the more we enter into the mystery of his divine holiness.’
In this homily, he thinks along the lines of St Thérèse of Lisieux, whose revelation was that holiness does not consist in the doing of great deeds, but instead following the path of love no matter what our state of life is. You can almost hear St Thérèse in these passages from Lumen Gentium, too, which talk about holiness as ‘the quest for perfect love.’ This language of the quest is not something we should shy away from; we should embrace it and resolve to embark on the quest.
Precisely because holiness has been given to us by Christ, it is possible. Our culture is saturated in narratives that try to convince us that holiness in a broken world is impossible, that no matter how long we try and leave behind former ways, to be sinful is to be human. It is a deeply cynical view of the human person, unmoored from the belief that Christ actually accomplished something new and daring through his death and resurrection. At the end of the day, Christ alone is the metric for what it means to be human, and to share in his life is to lead a holy life. No matter how small and hidden our sharing is, it is nevertheless a quest worthy of the name heroic.
Feature image: Joan of Arc in Battle (Central Part of The Life of Joan of Arc Triptych) by Hermann Stilke
The Catholic Church celebrates the Solemnity of All Saints on 1 November.
Christian Bergmann26 February 2024
Melbourne Catholic13 February 2024