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The Road to Holiness

An address by Fr John Slater

02 November 2003 11:00 | Fr John Slater

Today we celebrate the saints, known and unknown, famous and obscure, great and small. Perhaps we too easily think of saints belonging to the past, to the heroic ages of the early centuries when the Church faced persecution in the Roman Empire. But there were far more Christian martyrs in the many persecutions of the twentieth century. Saints and martyrs belong to our age as well as to the distant past. Last week I visited a lovely medieval church dedicated to St Thomas Becket. When it was built there would be many people alive who had known Thomas Becket, so for them saints were not people of the remote past but of the present.

In French, of course, Saint George simply means holy George, and that is the essential mark of the saints - they are all, in one way or another, holy. They may be bishops or nuns, soldiers or hermits, scholars or mystics or humble men and women, but they are all in their different ways marked by holiness.

If you think about a portrayal of the saints in a medieval manuscript or painting or stained glass, they surround the throne of God in exactly the same way that an earthly king of the time was surrounded by his court. The saints were seen as being close to God and therefore able to ask favours on behalf of those who prayed to them - again reflecting the political order of the day. But such images are less helpful in the changed social and political order of today. In our democratic age I think we see the saints rather as having a solidarity with us - yet somehow bridging the gap which separates us from God because by their holiness they are also close to him.

Some of you will have seen the new statues which now adorn the main porch of Westminster Abbey - all saints of the twentieth century. I can’t remember them all but I know that they include the martyred archbishops, Romero of San Salvador and Janani Luwum of Uganda, and also Dietrich Bonhoeffer who was executed by the Nazis in the last days of the Second World War. It is easier for us to identify with these figures of our own time and the political crises they faced. When both the catholic and the Protestant churches of Germany came to an accommodation with National Socialism, Bonhoeffer formed the uncompromising Confessing Church. To join it required great courage since many of its members were put to death. It was a school of holiness in which love for God and for his people came before all other priorities.

Another figure I think of as a modern saint is the former Secretary-General of the United Nations, Dag Hammarskjold. If you can get hold of it, you might read his wonderful book simply called Markings, in which he says very significantly, In our age, the road to holiness necessarily passes through the world of action. That is an important reminder to us in case we thought holiness could only be found by monks or nuns or hermits who withdraw from the demands of the secular world. Many of the saints remembered in the Church’s calendar lived lives of quiet contemplation and prayer but others were deeply involved in the world of action.

We may sometimes feel that we are so busy with work or family and other responsibilities that we have no time to seek the way to holiness. But in that case we must seek holiness through our work, through our family and through our responsibilities, and find there a sense of solidarity with the saints and so with God.

At different times in its history, the Church has been enriched by men and women of real holiness. There have been times when holiness called them to martyrdom, or to missionary work, to the life of prayer and solitude, or to theological study. And what does our age require? Perhaps the best model of holiness today is found in Mother Theresa, beatified just two weeks ago. Her selfless dedication to the poor, the sick and the dying reminds us all that God calls us to holy and sacrificial living - to living not for self but for others. Holiness is not just for some Christians but for all of us.
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