The Great Upper Church is a monument to the Catholic faith--we not only express our Catholicity in what we believe, in how we behave, and in the prayers we offer. Our Catholicity is expressed in the architectural and artistic patrimony of the Church. The National Shrine is a notable example of this.
When a pilgrim enters the Great Upper Church, immediately above the doors is one of the world's largest marble relief sculptures, titled The Universal Call to Holiness. It prominently features a dove in the upper centre, with streams of light radiating from him towards all sorts of people: priests, couples, single people, religious, as well as famous contemporaries such as Mother Theresa of Calcutta and Pope John Paul II.
The relief sculpture, proposed by His Eminence James Cardinal Hickey, then-Archbishop of Washington, is a tribute to a teaching of the Second Vatican Council, the "universal call to holiness." The holy Council taught:
Therefore in the Church, everyone whether belonging to the hierarchy, or being cared for by it, is called to holiness, according to the saying of the Apostle: "For this is the will of God, your sanctification".(215) However, this holiness of the Church is unceasingly manifested, and must be manifested, in the fruits of grace which the Spirit produces in the faithful; it is expressed in many ways in individuals, who in their walk of life, tend toward the perfection of charity, thus causing the edification of others; in a very special way this (holiness) appears in the practice of the counsels, customarily called "evangelical."
Thus it is evident to everyone, that all the faithful of Christ of whatever rank or status, are called to the fullness of the Christian life and to the perfection of charity; by this holiness as such a more human manner of living is promoted in this earthly society. In order that the faithful may reach this perfection, they must use their strength accordingly as they have received it, as a gift from Christ. They must follow in His footsteps and conform themselves to His image seeking the will of the Father in all things. They must devote themselves with all their being to the glory of God and the service of their neighbor. In this way, the holiness of the People of God will grow into an abundant harvest of good, as is admirably shown by the life of so many saints in Church history (Lumen gentium, 39, 41).
The Church's supreme authority is abundantly clear that each person, not just those who have a parish named after them, or those who lived in former times, but each and every one of the baptised, is called to live a life of holiness, of the perfection of charity. The late and great Pope John Paul II reiterated the Church's teaching in the following terms:
The Council Fathers laid such stress on this point, not just to embellish ecclesiology with a kind of spiritual veneer, but to make the call to holiness an intrinsic and essential aspect of their teaching on the Church. The rediscovery of the Church as "mystery", or as a people "gathered together by the unity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit", was bound to bring with it a rediscovery of the Church's "holiness", understood in the basic sense of belonging to him who is in essence the Holy One, the "thrice Holy" (cf. Is 6:3). To profess the Church as holy means to point to her as the Bride of Christ, for whom he gave himself precisely in order to make her holy (cf. Eph 5:25-26). This as it were objective gift of holiness is offered to all the baptized (Novo millennio inuente, 30).
Our Lord was clear that the programme of discipleship consisted in the perfection of charity (Jn 13:34-35); St Peter instructed his readers, "As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct; since it is written, 'You shall be holy for I am holy'" (1 Pet 1:14-16). And, if we take our clue from the sacred liturgy, the fact that the gospel of the Beatitudes is proclaimed on the Solemnity of All Saints indicates to us that holy women and men are those who were obedient to the Beatitudes and that Christian holiness likewise requires obedience to the Beatitudes. Jesus taught the Beatitudes for all of His followers.
Holiness is for each and every Christian. Only when that is established can we approach the question of the particular vocation. Each figure in the relief sculpture of The Universal Call to Holiness falls into one of only four categories: (1) Holy Matrimony, (2) Holy Orders, (3) consecrated life, and (4) the single life. These four "states in life" are a particular means to holiness. In Holy Matrimony, the husband and the wife offer each other in exclusive and life-giving generosity, whose expression of love yields a growth in spousal love and parental love. In Holy Orders, the ordained man is configured to either Christ the Servant (as a deacon) or Christ the Good Shepherd (as a priest or bishop) for exercising the ministries of teaching, sanctifying, and governing the Church. Consecrated life is one of profound self-donation to the Lord by the profession of the evangelical counsels. The single life is the state in which one offers her or his virginal and celibate consecration in witness of the Age to Come, in which "none are married or given in marriage, but are like the angels in heaven" (Mt 22:30). Every baptised Christian, in addition to her or his obligation to pursue holiness in the perfection of charity, is called to one of these states in life.
What is significant, however, is how each of these four states are rooted in the mystery of Christ. Our Lord, and Our Lord alone, lived each of these states in life all at once.
Christ is given into Holy Matrimony in a nuptial bond with the Church as His spouse (Eph 5:21-33). In fact, the Magisterium teaches that the sacrament of Holy Matrimony is founded upon the mystery of Christ's union with His Church (cf. Pius XI, Casti connubii; Leo XIII, Arcanum divinae sapientiae).
Christ is our Good Shepherd (Jn 10:1-18) and is therefore our Great High Priest (cf. Letter to the Hebrews).
Christ lived, perfectly, a life of obedience, material and spiritual poverty, and chastity in his utter dedication to God the Father. In fact many scholars believe that "Jesus the Nazorean" refers His taking of the Nazirite vow of asceticism (cf. Num 6:1-21). Those who have read Prof Jaroslav Pelikan's famous tome Christ Through the Centuries may remember his chapter "The Monk Who Rules the World." Some may even recall Dom Columba Marmion's Christ the Ideal of the Monk.
Christ, of course, was unmarried, at least in the earthly sense. He had no wife and experienced perfect virginity in His complete self-donation to the Father's will and the proclamation of the Kingdom.
Each of us who is called to a particular vocation--whether married, ordained, consecrated, or single--will find in Christ the Perfection and the Ideal. In Christ we find the Exemplar of Holiness and the Exemplar of Vocations!
Finally, we cannot forget that the root of the vocation is in the family. Once, when I lived in New York, I visited the mother-house of the Sisters of Life, founded by His Eminence John Cardinal O'Connor and Mother Agnes Mary Donovan SV. At the mother-house, we were challenged with a question from one of the sisters: "Where does a vocation begin?" After each of us gave a failed answer, the sister said: "The family! It is in the family that the Lord plants the seed of a vocation."
Holy Church teaches that the Incarnate Word was born into a family and was raised in a family. Thus we have a devotion to the "Holy Family"--the original "domestic church" where the Incarnate Word began His vocation--as a nuptial, a priest, a religious, and a single Man. It is in the family, therefore, that the parents have a grave obligation, indeed, a privileged role with God to assist their children in pursuing holiness of life and in discerning a vocation to either marriage, ordination, religion, or as a single person. Even as we grow older and continue to discern, we must never forget that each of us is a member of the Holy Family--and that we can continue to invoke the prayers of St Joseph and the Mother of God to assist us in our vocation, just as they assisted Jesus Christ in His.
I invite you to make the following a regular part of your daily prayers:
bless Your Church with an abundance of holy and zealous
priests, deacons, brothers, and sisters.
Give those You have called
to the married state
and those You have chosen to live
as single persons in the world
the special graces that their lives require.
Form us all in the likeness of Your Son
so that in Him, with Him, and through Him
we may love You more deeply
and serve You more faithfully,
always and everywhere.
With Mary we ask this through Christ our Lord.
This post is a tribute to the Revd Fr P. Terrio, Director of Vocations of the Archdiocese of New York, and Mr M. Irizar, a candidate to Holy Orders in the same archdiocese.