Holiness in the world, and the holiness of ordinary work


The Church’s teaching that there is a Universal Call (vocation, mission) to Holiness has a long, long history, and like anything with a long, long history, this teaching needs some reflection and time to grasp it. Here are some points to keep in mind…

If we briefly review the Church’s teaching on the Universal Call to Holiness  we find that it is central to the teachings of the Master himself. Jesus called his followers, whomever they might be and whatever they might be doing, “to be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). Rather than a watered-down version of morality or mere rule-following, Jesus called his followers (and us) to complete holiness. This encouragement to holiness in the middle of the world continued for some centuries, especially as the Roman Empire began to decline. During the period of Monasticism people began to leave the world for what was thought to be a higher connection with God, usually in solitary (hermetic) life, and for centuries the notion of a universal call to holiness was somewhat “out on a back spiritual burner”.

However, it is fascinating to me that God’s command that human persons work holds throughout history. In other words, God calls Adam and Eve to work in the Garden (Gen 2:15), still commands them to work after the Fall (Gen 3:17), and still calls you and me to work in this time after the Redemption of Jesus, awaiting his Parousia (see Luke 12:37). The Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church makes this clear in point 513:

  • “Work is both a duty and a right through which human beings collaborate with God the Creator. Indeed, by working with commitment and competence we fulfil the potential inscribed in our nature, honor the Creator’s gifts and the talents received from him, provide for ourselves and for our families, and serve the human community. Furthermore, by the grace of God, work can be a means of sanctification and collaboration with Christ for the salvation of others.”

St. Josemaria Escriva, the Founder of Opus Dei dedicated himself to promoting holiness for laypeople in and through their ordinary work. He summarized this teaching as we are called to “sanctify work, sanctify ourselves in our work, and sanctify others through our work”. He considered this a mission guided by the Holy Spirit in service to the Gospel message, a teaching “as old as the Gospel, and like the Gospel, new.” It is up to each of us in freedom to decide what profession will best suit our talents as well as the possibilities for a spirit of service to the Gospel and the world. In 1967, St. Josemaria gave a moving homily at the University of Navarre, now titled “Passionately loving the world”. About halfway through it he remarked:

  • “I often said to the university students and workers who were with me in the thirties that they had to know how to “materialize” their spiritual life. I wanted to keep them from the temptation, so common then and now, of living a kind of double life. On one side, an interior life, a life of relation with God; and on the other, a separate and distinct professional, social and family life, full of small earthly realities.

    No! We cannot lead a double life if we want to be Christians. There is just one life, made of flesh and spirit. And it is this life which has to become, in both soul and body, holy and filled with God. We discover the invisible God in the most visible and material things. There is no other way. Either we learn to find our Lord in ordinary, everyday life, or else we shall never find Him. That is why I can tell you that our age needs to give back to matter and to the most trivial occurrences and situations their noble and original meaning. It needs to restore them to the service of the Kingdom of God, to spiritualize them, turning them into a means and an occasion for a continuous meeting with Jesus Christ.”

The recent outbreak of Ebola in West Africa, and in other parts of the world, is a reminder that a spirit of service should guide our professional life, and that, at times, we may even need to alter professional goals and patterns in order to serve the real needs of others better. Below are some amazing interviews of some men in Monrovia, Liberia, who have felt called to change occupations, at least temporarily, in order to help with the emergency care of Ebola victims and their families there. While our professional lives might not be as dramatic as theirs at this time, we can still foster a real spirit of service, and holiness, in our ordinary work.

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