At Mass today, we hear from the closing of St. Peter’s First Epistle, which mentions a man whom Peter calls “Mark, my son.” It can be easy for those of us in the pews to forget that these holy saints, the human authors of the New Testament, knew each other and worked together in spreading the Gospel. For example, St. Mark and St. Luke, who wrote about Jesus’ life, would likely have learned from and grown in holiness with the Apostles who knew Jesus better than anyone else (besides Mary, of course). The point is this: Peter, James, John, Mary Magdalene, Mark, Priscilla, Aquila, Lois, Eunice, Stephen, Nicanor, Paul—and the list goes on—these men and women living in those years during and immediately after the earthy life of Jesus worked together as married couples, mothers, sons, priests, deacons, and bishops to spread the Gospel and grow in holiness together. What can be even easier to forget is that we are called to be the St. Peters and St. Marks of the 21st century. We are called to grow in holiness together in our own local churches.
Earlier this month, Pope Francis released his third apostolic exhortation, Gaudete et Exultate. His message concerns a teaching of the Church that goes back to the time of the Apostles—even, says Pope Francis, to the time of Abraham: the universal call to holiness (GE 1). Like the letter from St. Peter we read today in Mass, this newest letter from St. Peter’s 265th successor also consists of five (much longer!) chapters, each of which can easily be read in one or two sittings. They both begin by exhorting all Christians to be saints. Quoting the Torah, they emphasize God’s call: “Be holy, for I am holy” (Lev 11:44; 19:2; 1 Pet 1:16; GE 10). Peter and Francis also both end their letters in a startlingly similar way, urging us to be “vigilant” because the devil seeks to thwart our path to holiness (1 Pet 5:8; GE 158–163). The existence of the evil one, in the face of contemporary skeptical society, receives particular emphasis by our current Holy Father. Until the Last Day, we Christians will need to hear this call to holiness repeated again and again.
Pope Francis’ exhortation has its own timely value. His stated aim was to “repropose the call to holiness in a practical way for our own time, with all its risks, challenges and opportunities” (GE 2). One challenge for us contemporary Christians might be that “we grow discouraged before examples of holiness that appear unattainable” (GE 11). It is well and good to celebrate St. Mark’s feast day, but could we ever be like him? Well, actually . . . no. That is to say, not exactly like him. Pope St. John XXIII puts it this way:
“From the saints I must take the substance, not the accidents of their virtues. I am not St. Aloysius, nor must I seek holiness in his particular way, but according to the requirements of my own nature, my own character and the different conditions of my life. I must not be the dry, bloodless reproduction of a model, however perfect. God desires us to follow the examples of the saints by absorbing the vital sap of their virtues and turning it into our own life-blood, adapting it to our own individual capacities and particular circumstances” (Journal of a Soul, entry from Jan. 16, 1903).
There is a “unique plan that God wills for each of us from eternity” (GE 13). It is to that plan for holiness that we are called to be faithful. Echoing one of the most commonly repeated phrases in the Bible, and a favorite of St. John Paul II, Pope Francis urges us, “Do not be afraid!” “Do not be afraid of holiness. It will take away none of your energy, vitality or joy. On the contrary, you will become what the Father had in mind when he created you” (GE 32). As was alluded to at the beginning of this post, this journey to sainthood is not without companions. We grow in holiness communally (GE 140ff.). This community includes the saints of old, who help us along the way. All you holy men and women, pray for us to God that we may join you in heaven. Amen.
Image: Fra Angelico, St Peter Preaching in the Presence of St Mark