All people are invited to examine themselves to know what is at the heart of their own choice
1. The Sources of Christian Holiness
Along with its universal call to holiness, Vatican II also gave specific instruction about what holiness means and in what it consists. In Lumen Gentium we read,
The Lord Jesus, the divine Teacher and Model of all perfection, preached holiness of life to each and every one of His disciples of every condition. He Himself stands as the author and consumator of this holiness of life: “Be you therefore perfect, even as your heavenly Father is perfect” [Mt 5:48]. Indeed He 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 [see Mk 12:30] and that they might love each other as Christ loves them [see Jn 13:34, 15:12]. 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. (LG 20)
This is all summarized in the formula, “perfect holiness” is “perfect union with Christ” (LG 50). This vision reflects the Council’s general concern to turn to the biblical and patristic sources, going beyond the scholastic formulation that was dominant for centuries in this area as well. It is now a question of becoming aware of this renewed vision of holiness and applying it to the Church’s practices in preaching, in catechesis, in the spiritual formation of candidates to the priesthood and religious life, and—why not?—in the theological vision which inspires the praxis of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints as well.
One of the major differences between the biblical vision of holiness and the scholastic vision is that virtues are based not so much on “right reason” (Aristotle’s recta ratio) as on the kerygma. To be holy does not mean following reason (it often leads to the opposite!), it means following Christ. Christian holiness is essentially christological: it consists in the imitation of Christ and, at its height, in “perfect union with Christ,” as the Council says.
The most complete and most compact biblical synthesis of holiness based on the kerygma is the one outlined by St Paul in the exhortation section of the Letter to the Romans (chapters 12-15). At its beginning the apostle lays out a comprehensive vision of the path for the believer’s sanctification—its essential content and its goal:
I appeal to you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Rom 12:1-2)
We meditated last time on these verses. In the forthcoming meditations, we will start with what follows in the Pauline text and fill it out with what the Apostle says elsewhere on the same topic. In so doing, we will try to highlight the salient characteristics of holiness, which are called “Christian virtues” today and which the New Testament defines as “fruits of the Spirit,” or the “works of light,” or “the mind which was in Christ Jesus” (see Phil 2:5).
Starting in chapter 12 of the Letter to the Romans, all the main Christian virtues, or fruits of the Spirit, are listed: service, charity, humility, obedience, purity. These are not virtues to cultivate for their own sake but are the necessary effects of the work of Christ and baptism. The section begins with a conjunction that is itself worthy of a treatise: “I appeal to you therefore. . . .” The apostle’s “therefore” indicates that everything he will say from this moment on is only the consequence of what he has written in the preceding chapters on faith in Christ and on the work of the Holy Spirit. Let us reflect on four of these virtues: charity, humility, obedience, and purity.
2. Genuine Love
Agape, or Christian charity, is not one of the virtues, it is the foremost virtue; it is the form of all the virtues, the one on which “all the law and the prophets depend” (see Mt 22:40; Rom 13:10). Among the fruits of the Spirit that the apostle lists in Galatians 5:22, we find love listed first: “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace. . . .” Consistent with that, he also begins his parenesis on the virtues in the Letter to the Romans with love. All of the twelfth chapter is a series of exhortations to charity:
Let love be genuine. . . .
love one another with brotherly affection;
outdo one another in showing honor. (Romans 12:9-10)
To grasp the spirit that unifies all these instructions, the fundamental idea underlying them, or better, the “feeling” that Paul has for charity, we need to start with his first exhortation: “Let love be genuine!” This is not one of many exhortations but the matrix from which all the others derive. It contains the secret of charity.
The original word used by Paul that is translated as “genuine” is anhypokritos, and it means “without hypocrisy.” This terminology is a kind of indicator light. It is in fact a rare word used almost exclusively in the New Testament to define Christian love. The expression “genuine love” (anhypokritos) appears again in 2 Corinthians 6:6 and in 1 Peter 1:22. Peter’s text allows us to understand, with complete certainty, the meaning of the word in question because he explains it with a circumlocution: genuine love, he says, consists in loving each other deeply “from the heart.”
St. Paul, then, with his simple statement of “let love be genuine,” brings the discussion to the very root of charity, which is the heart. What is required of love is that it is true, authentic, and not feigned. The apostle is also here faithfully echoing Jesus’ thinking: Jesus had, in fact, repeatedly and emphatically pointed to the heart as the “place” which determines the value of what a person does.” (see Mt 15:19).
We can speak of a Pauline insight with regard to charity: it consists in revealing, behind the visible and external universe of charity consisting of works and words, another universe that is wholly interior and that, compared to that other universe, is what the soul is to the body. We find this insight again in his great text on charity, 1 Corinthians 13. Everything St. Paul says there, if we study it closely, refers to interior charity, to the dispositions and feelings of charity: charity is patient and kind, it is not envious or resentful; it bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things. . . . None of this directly concerns doing good or the works of charity per se, but everything instead leads back to the root of desiring the good. Benevolence comes before beneficence.
The apostle himself is the one who makes explicit the difference between the two kinds of charity. He says that the greatest act of external charity (distributing all of one’s goods to the poor) would not amount to anything without interior charity (see 1 Cor 13:3). It would be the opposite of “genuine” charity. Insincere charity is in fact precisely doing good without desiring the good; it is demonstrating externally something that does not correspond to the heart. In this case a person has an appearance of charity that can, at worst, conceal egotism, the search for oneself, the manipulation of another, or even a simple remorse of conscience.
It would be a fatal mistake to set the charity of heart in opposition to the charity of works or to take refuge in interior charity to find a kind of alibi for a lack of actively doing charity. We know how forcefully Jesus (see Mt 25:16ff), St. James (see 2:16ff), and St. John (see 1 Jn 3:18) urge people to do charitable work. We know the importance that St. Paul himself gave to collections for the poor in Jerusalem.
Moreover, to say, “It does me no good,” to give all to the poor if I do it without charity does not mean saying that it does not do anyone any good and is useless. It means instead that it may not benefit “me,” but it can benefit the poor who receive it. It is not a question, then, of minimizing the importance of charitable works but of ensuring a secure foundation for them against self-centeredness and its infinite cunning. St. Paul wants Christians to be “rooted and grounded in love” (Eph 3:17) in such a way that charity is the root and the basis of everything.
When we love “from the heart,” it is the very love of God that is “poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit” (Rom 5:5) that flows through us. For a human being to act this way is truly deifying. To “become partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet 1:4) means in fact to become participants in divine action, the divine action of loving since God is love!
We love human beings not only because God loves them or because he wants us to love them, but also because in giving us his Spirit he has put his very love for them into our hearts. This explains why the apostle states soon after, “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law” (Rom 13:8).
We can ask ourselves, why do we “owe” any love to others? Because we have received an infinite measure of love to distribute in turn to our fellow servants (see Lk 12:42; Mt 24:45ff). If we do not do that, we defraud our brother and sister of what we owe them. A brother comes to your door and perhaps asks for something you are not able to give him, but if you cannot give him what he asks for, be careful not to send him away without what you do owe him, which is love.
3. Charity for Those outside the Community
After having explained what genuine Christian love is, the apostle goes on, after his exhortations, to demonstrate how this “genuine love” needs to be translated into action in community situations. The apostle focuses on two situations: the first concerns the relationships ad extra of the community, that is, with those outside of it; the second concerns the relationships ad intra among the members of the same community. Let us listen to some of his recommendations that apply to the first set of relationships, those with the outside world:
. . .
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. . . . Take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends upon you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God. . . . If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him drink. . . . Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Rom 12:14-21)
Never does the morality of the gospel appear so original and different from every other ethical model as it does on this point, and never do his apostolic exhortations appear more faithful and in continuity with that of the gospel. What makes all of this particularly relevant for us is the situation and the context in which this exhortation is addressed to believers. The Christian community in Rome is a foreign body in an organism that—to the extent to which it is aware of its presence—rejects it. It is a minuscule island in the hostile sea of a pagan society. In circumstances like these, we know how strong the temptation is to close in on ourselves, to develop an elitist and grim mentality of an enclave of the saved in a world of the damned. The Essene community of Qumran was living with precisely this attitude at this historical moment.
The situation of the community in Rome described by Paul represents in miniature the current situation of the whole Church. I am not speaking of the persecution of martyrdom to which our brothers and sisters in faith are exposed in so many parts of the world. I am speaking of the hostility, the rejection, and the often deep disdain with which not only Christians but all believers in God are regarded by broad sectors of society, in general the sectors that are the most influential and that determine normal mainstream thinking. Christians are considered precisely to be foreign bodies in the midst of this evolved and emancipated society.
Paul’s exhortation does not allow us to lose even an instant in bitter recriminations and in fruitless arguments. This does not of course exclude giving reason for the hope that is in us “with gentleness and reverence,” as St. Peter recommends (1 Pet 3:15-16). This is an issue of understanding what attitude of heart needs to be fostered in facing a humanity that, as whole, rejects Christ and lives in darkness rather than in the light (see Jn 3:19). It should be an attitude of deep compassion and spiritual sadness, of loving these people and suffering for them, of taking responsibility for them before God—just as Jesus took responsibility for all of us before the Father—and of not ceasing to weep and pray for the world.
This attitude is one of the most beautiful characteristics of holiness in some Orthodox monks. I am thinking of St. Silvanus of Mount Athos. He said,
There are some people who wish destruction and the torments of the fires of damnation on their enemies and the enemies of the Church. They think that way because they have not been instructed about the love of God by the Holy Spirit. The one who has truly been taught instead sheds tears for the whole world. You say, “He is evil, so let him burn in the fires of hell.” But I ask you, “If God gave you a nice place in Paradise and from there you saw somebody you had wanted to be tormented actually thrown into the fire of hell, perhaps then you would be grieved for him, whoever he was, even if he were an enemy of the Church.
At the time this holy monk was living, the enemies were primarily the Bolsheviks who were persecuting the Church in his beloved homeland of Russia. Today that front has been expanded, and there is no longer an “Iron Curtain” in this regard. To the extent to which a Christian discovers the infinite beauty, love, and humility of Christ, he or she can do nothing less than feel a deep compassion and suffering for those who willingly deprive themselves of the greatest good in life. Love becomes stronger than any animosity in that person. In a similar situation, Paul ends up saying he is ready to have himself be “accursed and cut off from Christ” if that would serve to have Christ be accepted by those of his people who have still remained outside (Rom 9:3).
4. Charity ad intra
The second great sphere in which to exercise charity, as we said, is in relationships within the community, in particular, in handling conflicting opinions that emerge among its various members. The apostle dedicates all of chapter 14 of Romans to this topic.
The conflict taking place in the community in Rome at that time was between those whom the apostle calls “the weak” and “the strong,” placing himself as part of the second group (“We who are strong . . .”) (Rom 15:1). The first group felt themselves morally bound to observe some of the proscriptions inherited from the Law or from prior pagan beliefs—for example, not eating meat (insofar as it was suspected of having been offered to idols ) and distinguishing between auspicious and inauspicious days. The second group, the strong, were those who, in the name of the freedom of the Gospel, had overcome these taboos and did not distinguish between different types of food and different kinds of days. The conclusion of the discussion (see Rom 15:7-12) makes clear that fundamentally it concerns the ongoing problem of the relationship between Jewish believers and Gentile believers.
The requirements of charity that the apostle is inculcating in this case are of great interest to us because they are the same that occur in every kind of intra-ecclesial conflict, including those that we are experiencing today, whether on the level of the universal Church or the particular community in which we live.
The apostle suggests three criteria to resolve the conflict. The first is for people to follow their conscience. If people are convinced, according their conscience, that they should not do a certain thing, then they should not do it. The apostle writes, “Whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (Rom 14:23), “faith” meaning here “good faith”, that is conscience. The second criterion is to respect the conscience of others and to refrain from judging a brother or a sister:
Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? . . . Then let us no more pass judgment on one another, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother. (Rom 14:10, 13)
The third criteria primarily concerns “the strong” and why they should avoid giving scandal. The apostle goes on to say,
I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but it is unclean for any one who thinks it unclean. If your brother is being injured by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. Do not let what you eat cause the ruin of one for whom Christ died. . . . Let us then pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding. (Rom 14:14-19)
All these criteria are specific and relative, however, with respect to another criterion that is instead universal and absolute, that of the Lordship of Christ. Let us listen to how the apostle formulates that concept:
He who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. He also who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God; while he who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God. None of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living. (Rom 14:6-9)
All people are invited to examine themselves to know what is at the heart of their own choice: to see if it is the Lordship of Christ, his glory, and his interests, or if it is instead, in a more or less disguised way, self-affirmation, one’s ego, and one’s own power; to see if it is truly spiritual and evangelical, or if instead it depends on one’s psychological preference, or worse, one’s political opinion. This applies in either case, whether to the so-called strong or the so-called weak. Today we could ask whether the choice is between whoever is on the side of freedom and innovation of the Spirit or whoever is on the side of continuity and tradition.
There is one thing we need to take into account to avoid seeing in Paul’s attitude on this issue a certain inconsistency with his previous teaching. In the Letter to the Galatians he seems much less open to compromise and even shows traits of anger. (If he had to undergo the process of canonization today, it would be hard for Paul to become a saint: it would be difficult to demonstrate the that his patience was “heroic”! At times he “explodes.” However, he was able to say, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me”[Gal 2:20], and, as we have seen, this is the essence of Christian holiness.)
In the Letter to the Galatians Paul reproves Peter for what he seems to be recommending to everyone, that is, abstaining from displaying one’s own conviction to avoid giving scandal to the simple. Peter, in fact, at Antioch was persuaded that eating with Gentiles did not contaminate a Jew. (He had already been in Cornelius’s house!) But he refrains from doing so now to avoid giving scandal to the Jews there (see Gal 2:11-14). Paul himself, in other circumstances, will act the same way (see Acts 16:3; 1 Cor 8:13).
The explanation is of course not just in Paul’s temperament. Above all, what was at stake in Antioch was much more clearly linked to the essence of faith and the freedom of the gospel than what seemed to be the case in Rome. Secondly—and this is the main reason—Paul speaks to the Galatians as the founder of the Church there, with the authority and responsibility of a pastor. On the other hand, he speaks to the Romans as a teacher and a brother in the faith in order to contribute, he says, to being “mutually encouraged by each other’s faith” (Rom 1:11-12).
Here we see the difference between the role of a pastor to whom obedience is due and the role of a teacher to whom only respect and listening are due. This makes us understand that we need to add another criterion to the criteria for discernment already mentioned, the criterion of authority and obedience. The apostle will speak to us about obedience in one of the successive meditations through his well-known words: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore he who resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment” (Rom 13:1-2).
In the meantime, let us listen to the concluding exhortation the apostle addresses to the Roman community of his day as though it is addressed to us today in any community in which we live: “Welcome one another, therefore, as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God” (Rom 15:7).
English Translation by Marsha Daigle Williamson
1.Cf. Le cause dei santi. Sussidio per lo Studium, a cura della Congregazione delle Cause dei Santi, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 3a ed. 2014, pp. 13-81.
2.See Archimidrite Sofrony, The Undistorted Image: Starez Silouan: 1866-1938, n, trans. Rosemary Edmonds (London: Faith Press, 1958), p. 38.