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The Church's Holiness Comes from Christ

General Audience — July 23, 1988

"Abide in me and I in you..." (Jn 15:4). These words from the parable of the vine and the branches reveal what the Church's internal structure was to be according to the will of Christ. "To abide" in Christ implies a living bond with him as the source of divine life. Granted that Christ calls the Church into existence and that he endowed it with an external ministerial structure, built on the apostles, it is certain that the ministerium of the apostles and their successors, and indeed of the whole Church, must be at the service of the mystery. This is the mystery of the participation in the life of God which makes the Church a community of living people. For this reason the Church receives from Christ a sacramental structure, of which we spoke in the previous reflection. The sacraments are the signs of Christ's saving action which overcomes the power of sin and death, implanting and strengthening in people the power of grace and of life, whose fullness is in Christ.

This fullness of grace (cf. Jn 1:14) and this superabundance of life (cf. Jn 10:10) are identified with holiness. Holiness is in God, and only from God can it pass to the creature, especially to man. It is a truth that pervades the whole of the old covenant: God is holy and calls to holiness. The Mosaic Law exhorted: "You shall be holy; for I the Lord your God am holy" (Lev 19:2). "Keep my statutes, and do them; I am the Lord who sanctifies you" (Lev 20:8). Even though these citations come from Leviticus, which was like a code of worship in Israel, the holiness commanded and recommended by God is not to be understood merely in a ritual sense, but also in a moral sense. It is that which renders man, in the most essential way, like to God and worthy to approach God in worship: interior rectitude and purity.

Jesus Christ is the living incarnation of this holiness. He himself is presented as "he whom the Father consecrated and sent into the world" (Jn 10:36). The messenger of his earthly birth said to Mary about him: "He who will be born will be called holy, the Son of God" (Lk 1:35). The apostles were witnesses of this holiness, as Peter in the name of all proclaimed: "We have believed, and have come to know that you are the Holy One of God" (Jn 6:69). It is a holiness which is manifested more and more in Jesus' life, beginning with the year of his infancy, and reaching its peak in the sacrifice offered "for the brethren" according to the words of Jesus himself: "For their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be consecrated in truth" (Jn 17:19). This is in harmony with his other statement: "Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends" (Jn 15:13).

Christ's holiness must become the living patrimony of the Church. This is the purpose of Jesus' salvific work which he announced: "That they also may be consecrated in truth" (Jn 17:19). St. Paul understood this, for he writes in the Letter to the Ephesians that Christ "loved the Church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her" (Eph 5:25-26), "holy and without blemish" (Eph 5:27).

Jesus made his own the call to holiness already addressed by God to the people of the old covenant: "You shall be holy; for I the Lord your God am holy." He emphatically repeated it continually by word and by the example of his life. Especially in the Sermon on the Mount he left to the Church a code of Christian holiness. There we read that, after having said that "he had not come to abolish the law or the prophets, but to fulfill them" (cf. Mt 5:17), Jesus exhorted his followers to a perfection modeled on that of God himself: "You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Mt 5:48). Since the Son reflects most fully this perfection of the Father, Jesus can say on another occasion, "He who has seen me has seen the Father" (Jn 14:9).

In the light of this exhortation of Jesus, one can better understand why Vatican Council II desired to emphasize the universal call to holiness. It is a question to which we shall return in due course in the appropriate series of reflections on the Church. Here at present it is well to draw attention to some of its essential points, where one discerns better the link of the call to holiness with Christ's mission, and especially with his living example.

The Council said: "In the Church, everyone is called to holiness, according to the saying of the Apostle: 'For this is the will of God, your sanctification' (1 Thess 4:3; cf. Eph 1:4)" (LG 39). The apostle's words echo faithfully the teaching of Christ the Master who, according to the Council, "sent the Holy Spirit upon all men that he might move them inwardly to love God with their whole heart and their whole soul, with all their mind and all their strength and that they might love each other as Christ loves them (cf. Jn 13:34; 15:12)" (LG 40).

The call to holiness therefore is for everyone, "whether belonging to the hierarchy or being cared for by it" (LG 39). "All Christians in any state or walk of life are called to the fullness of the Christian life and to the perfection of charity" (LG 40).

The Council also notes that the holiness of Christians flows from that of the Church and manifests it. It says that holiness "is expressed in many ways by the individuals who, each in his own state of life, tend to the perfection of love, thus sanctifying others" (LG 39). In this variety "one and the same holiness is cultivated by all, who are moved by the Spirit of God...and follow the poor Christ, the humble and crossbearing Christ in order to be worthy of being sharers in his glory" (LG 41).

Those whom Jesus exhorted "to follow him," beginning with the apostles, were ready to leave everything for him, as Peter declared to him: "We have left everything and followed you" (Mt 19:27). In this case "everything" includes not only "temporal goods" ("house...land"), but also persons who are dear to one: "brothers, sisters, father, mother, children" (cf. Mt 19:29) and therefore the family. Jesus himself was the most perfect example of such renunciation. For this reason he could exhort his disciples to similar renunciations, including "celibacy for the sake of the kingdom of heaven" (cf. Mt 19:12).

Christ's program of holiness, addressed to both the men and women who followed him (cf. e.g., Lk 8:1-3) is expressed particularly in the evangelical counsels. As the Council recalls: "The evangelical counsels of chastity dedicated to God, poverty and obedience are based upon the words and example of the Lord.... The counsels are a divine gift, which the Church received from its Lord and which it always safeguards with the help of his grace" (LG 43).

However we must at once add that the vocation to holiness in its universality includes also those who are married (and likewise the widowed). It includes those who retain the possession and administration of their property, who are engaged in worldly affairs, and who follow their professions, missions and trades according to their own free disposition, following their consciences and in freedom. Jesus indicated the path to sanctity appropriate to them, for he began his messianic activity by taking part in the marriage at Cana (cf. Jn 2:1-11). Later he recalled the eternal principles of the divine law which are valid for men and women of every condition, and especially those concerning the love, unity and indissolubility of marriage (cf. Mk 10:1-2; Mt 19:1-9), and chastity (cf. Mt 5:28-30). Hence the Council also, when speaking of the universal vocation to holiness, devotes a special place to those united by the sacrament of Marriage: "Married couples and Christian parents should follow their own proper path (to holiness) by faithful love. They should sustain one another in grace throughout the entire length of their lives. They should imbue their offspring, lovingly welcomed as God's gift, with Christian doctrine and the evangelical virtues. In this manner, they offer all men the example of unwearying and generous love" (LG 41).

In all the commandments and exhortations of Jesus and of the Church the primacy of charity stands out. In the words of St. Paul, charity is "the bond of perfection" (Col 3:14). It is Jesus' will that "we love one another as he has loved us" (Jn 15:12). That means with a love like his, "unto the end" (Jn 13:1). This is the patrimony of holiness bequeathed by Jesus to his Church. We are all called to partake in it, and thus to draw on the fullness of grace and life which is in Christ. The history of Christian holiness is the proof that by living in the spirit of the evangelical Beatitudes proclaimed in the Sermon on the Mount (cf. Mt 5:3-12), Christ's exhortation in the parable of the vine and the branches is realized: "Abide in me, and I in you.... He who abides in me, and I in him, bears much fruit" (Jn 15:4, 5). These words are verified in many ways in the lives of individual Christians, thereby showing, down the centuries, the manifold riches and beauty of the holiness of the Church, the "king's daughter" robed in embroidered apparel (cf. Ps 45:14).