What is Holiness?


I think it’s safe to say that most of us admire the saints. We look to them as our role models for living the Christian life. Many people, however, misunderstand what it means to be a saint. Many think it’s about being perfect, and therefore they abandon the hope of ever living a holy life. However, does being holy mean being perfect and never sinning? This is an appropriate question for us to ponder as we prepare to celebrate the Solemnity of All Saints this Sunday.

In 2002, Cardinal Ratzinger — now Pope-emeritus Benedict — addressed this precise issue. Acknowledging that the canonization process includes an investigation into heroic virtue, he stated that this idea of heroic virtue could lead us to have a “mistaken notion of holiness.” He said, “‘It is not for me,’ we are led to think, ‘because I do not feel capable of attaining heroic virtue. It is too high a goal.’ Holiness then becomes a thing reserved for some ‘greats’ whose images we see on the altars, and who are completely different from us ordinary sinners. But this is a mistaken notion of holiness.”

So what does it mean to be a saint?

In his Catechesis on the Apostles, Pope Benedict simply states, “To be a saint is nothing other than to speak with God as a friend speaks with a friend. This is holiness.”

Imagine, for all these years many of us have thought that being a saint means undertaking harsh penances, spending hours a day in contemplation, living in a monastery or convent, and having mystical revelations. But then Pope Benedict stuns us with those simple but powerful words.

You see, what the Pope is saying is that the saints have the same weaknesses that we have. The difference is that they have an intimate friendship with God and a capacity to begin again that becomes the defining characteristic of their lives. Saints sin; saints make mistakes. The saint simply knows God’s love and God’s desire to forgive in a very deep way. The saint has an intimate friendship with the Lord.

Holiness doesn’t mean that we’re perfect. Holiness means speaking with God as a friend speaks to a friend. Holiness means possessing the habit of beginning again and again in our walk with the Lord, the habit of daily conversion. And what happens is that this habit of daily conversion eventually becomes stronger than our sinful habits. We begin to desire God more than we desire sin.

Yes, this is very encouraging indeed. For, as the Pope says, we can all learn this way of holiness. We can all learn to persevere and walk in an intimate friendship with God.

Father Michael Najim is Spiritual Director of Our Lady of Providence Seminary, Providence, as well as Catholic Chaplain at LaSalle Academy, Providence.