Father John Gribowich on the Universal Call to Holiness

February 4, 2022
Defense of Vatican II
A great reflection on the universal call to holiness by Father John Gribowich

Today I am pleased to have back once again Father John Gribowich as a guest blogger. He reflects on the universal call to holiness.

I am still working on my next blog essay on the "Hermeneutics of Kensosis." Sorry it is taking so long, but this post required some additional research. I should have it posted by the end of this week. In the mean time I think you will enjoy Father Gribowich's essay.

The Universal Call to Holiness.

Father John Gribowich.

All the faithful of Christ are invited to strive for the holiness and perfection of their own proper state. Indeed, they have an obligation to so strive. Let all then have care that they guide aright their own deepest sentiments of soul. Let neither the use of the things of this world nor attachment to riches, which is against the spirit of evangelical poverty, hinder them in their quest for perfect love. Let them heed the admonition of the Apostle [Paul] to those who use this world; let them not come to terms with this world; for this world, as we see it, is passing away.

  • Lumen Gentium, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Vatican II)

Why can we not be content with the secret gift of the happiness that God offers us, without consulting the rest of the world?  Why do we insist, rather, on a happiness that is approved by the magazines and TV?  Perhaps because we do not believe in a happiness that is given to us for nothing.  We do not think we can be happy with a happiness that has no price tag on it.

  • Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander

I recently concluded a period of time exploring monastic life as a postulant at the Abbey of the Genesee in upstate New York.  My time at the Abbey was both personally healing and spiritually fruitful.  The experience enabled me to conclude that I am drawn both to a hidden life of contemplation as well as an opportunity to somehow interact with my family and friends, all of whom are so very much a source of blessing for me.  The balance of hidden solitude and social interaction is a delicate one, yet I am confident that I am being led to a place, both spiritually and physically,  that will help me facilitate that balance.  That being the case, my next stop on this vocational journey will be with the Camaldolese hermits in Big Sur, California.  We’ll see what God reveals to me there.

As interesting as this journey has been, the purpose of this reflection is not on my personal vocation, but more on the universality of vocation.  Each and every person has a vocation in this world.  Those of us who are cradle Catholics and have heard that word flung around since the time we can reason might have a knee jerk reaction to it.  The image of a priest or nun asking us to think about joining their ranks has in some ways limited our understanding of a “vocation in the Church.”  I would venture to think that my experience of the “vocation talk” in Catholic grade school was not that much different than it was for others.  After Father or Sister gave their talk, they would tack on that marriage and the single life are vocations as well.  Yet in all of my years in Catholic school I never had a married person or someone who is single give a vocation talk.  So what gives?  Is it simply that because there are so few priests and nuns that there is extra urgency to emphasize priest and religious vocations?  Perhaps so, yet I think there is something more fundamentally flawed going on in the midst of these recruitment efforts.

There is much talk these days about retrieving the true purpose and meaning of the Second Vatican Council, and I especially welcome the work of my good friend Larry Chapp who has been emphasizing the Council’s articulation of the “universal call to holiness.”  It seems to me that the reduction of a vocation talk to either the priesthood or religious life is a clear indication that the radicality of the Council has not taken hold.

My time with the Trappists revealed much to me.  Yet the one thing that I found so impressionable is how much the monastery was/is a microcosm of the Church.  This was most tangibly seen (perhaps surprisingly) in the commercial bakery, the industry which supports the life of the monastery.  At any given time when the bakery was in operation, you could find the abbot (the head monk), priests, brothers, and lay people working side-by-side in the production of bread and other specialty products.  At no time was the abbot given “lighter work” or special treatment.  The monks who were both priests and brothers were equals and were usually addressed without a title.  The lay persons were primarily in charge of assigning tasks to the monks and patiently gave instruction.  In short, each person in the bakery was actualizing a particular vocation within a vocation at that particular moment in time.  I write this not to overly spiritualize or glorify the work, since work is, well, work and it can be tedious, boring, and uninspiring.  Yet, there is something beautiful when the caste system seems to be non-existent.  Of course, each person respected the unique role of the other, yet what permeated was the understanding that no one is better than anyone else.  Praying in the chapel and taking out the garbage went hand in hand for the abbot to the postulant and everyone in between.  It’s hard not to think that in some way this leveling the field is an exhibition of the universal call to holiness.

Whenever I come home to Allentown, I always look forward to getting up early and running with my friend Dave, who I used to teach and coach with at Allentown Central Catholic High School.  (In fact, I’m not quite sure what motivates me more to get up at 4:30 a.m., the love of running or hanging out with Dave!)  Dave and I without exception always have spirited conversations and while he thinks that I offer him so much insight, it is clearly a two-way street.  I am always humbled by Dave’s search for the truth in every situation and for his authentic Christian witness.  He has to be one of my closest friends, even though I don’t think we have ever hung out after 5:00 PM.  Our mutual love for the music and wit of Bob Dylan is the grand neutralizer in our relationship.  I recently caught up with Dave on a run and he was telling me of his struggles with the Catholic Church—once again, something I often express to him!  In the midst of our discussion, it made me realize that the means for renewal in the Church (and ultimately in the world) boils down to the prophetic dynamite of the Second Vatican Council: the universal call to holiness.

Even those with peripheral knowledge of the Council understand that changes took place in the Church in the late 1960s.  The most obvious change was the simplification of the Mass and the liturgical language transitioning from Latin to the local language of the people.  There were now more opportunities for lay people to be involved in liturgical ministries as well.  And while there was definitely an uptick with lay people assuming ecclesial jobs and leadership positions, the universal call to holiness, for the most part, fell on deaf ears since  the “elevation of the laity” was reduced to liturgical and ecclesial ministry.  This, of course, is NOT a bad thing and the Church has been blessed with many competent lay leaders—many who are far more competent than their priest and religious counterparts.  Yet the mission of the laity does not consist of simply taking on explicitly Church-related work; it consists of living Christ in the midst of their “worldly” vocation.  And it is here where the notion of vocation needs more of a universal definition.  Lay people have vocations as husbands, wives, fathers, mothers, and single persons, but they also exercise their vocations in specific ways as doctors, lawyers, business persons, trash collectors, and fast-food servers.  Each and every situation is an opportunity to live Christ because each and every situation necessitates an encounter between persons—the living Christ encountering the living Christ.  And it is this regard that the institutional Church has dropped the ball.

People often ask me what makes Christianity unique, when the teachings of Jesus seem similar to the teachings found in the other great religions of the world.  To me it’s simple—the Incarnation.  Athanasius (c. 298–373) said it best in the pithy statement, “God became man so that man can become God.”  God entering the world as  a human being reveals that we as humans have been deemed worthy (for some strange reason!) of God’s indwelling.  Just let this sit with you for a bit.  God reveals His presence in the world in and through every single aspect of creation—nothing escapes His divine touch.  The historical entry of Jesus in the world makes this known, not solely by His teachings, but by who He is: the God-man.  Every aspect of Jesus’s earthly life reveals how much God has become involved in our mess, from the moment He was born to an unwed mother to His humiliating execution on the cross.  This isn’t a show.  God experienced real human angst, anxiety, struggle, temptation, brokenness, rejection and downright loneliness.  (It’s all there in the Gospels.)  In short, God is revealed in the mess.  The broken Body of Christ on the cross is the broken Body of Christ in the Eucharist, and, yes, the broken Body of Christ is you and me.  God has united Himself to all of humanity in and through His Son Jesus Christ.  It is for this reason that Jesus instructs us to call God with Him “Our Father.”  Each one of us through baptism has been empowered to share in the exact same relationship with God the Father that Jesus Himself has with the Father.

This takes me back to my conversation with my friend Dave.  Genuine renewal in the Church will never take place until committed, intentional Catholics allow themselves to be loved by Christ and in turn love others as He loves.  Since it is impossible to humanly love others in the way that Christ loves, we have no other option than to become who we already are—Christ’s presence in the world.  The love of Christ working in and through each person is what enables transformative encounters to take place among both friends and foes.  When the husband, wife, father, mother, doctor, lawyer, business person, trash collector, and fast-food server allow themselves to be Christ’s presence to the person in front of them, they are living out the universal call to holiness.  He or she is recognizing the living presence of Christ in the other—Christ encountering Christ.  And this dynamic is applicable in each and every situation.  Loving as Christ loves is freeing and forgoes the personal need to be in control.  It means giving a primacy to the art of deep listening and allowing a person to disappoint us.  (What does Jesus do in our relationship with Him other than let us pour out our thoughts and so many times disappoint Him?)  If I find myself judging a person or not forgiving him or her, I have simply failed as a Christian, period.  And I have failed not because I didn’t follow Jesus’s teachings, but because I was not true to myself.  I was not true to being a beloved son of God in and through Jesus His Son.  I neglected to pray, “I give up.  I cannot do this on my own.”

If there is one message that could be preached at every Mass and in every Catholic YouTube video it is this:  We are meant to be wholly ourselves, we are meant to be holy, because the God who is the source of all holiness animates our very being in the person of Jesus Christ.  We are able to live out this holiness when we radically allow ourselves to be transformed by the same presence of Jesus Christ working in the presence of the person in front of you.  All that one needs to say is, “I give up.  Your will be done.”  This IS evangelization—the fostering of the Good News.  And this can happen at every moment in every state of life!

This is why I think that the Catholic faith has become so irrelevant for so many, especially young people.  Scandal after scandal and the slew of Covid precautions that seem at times to be more important than the Gospel itself has caused many Catholics to ask themselves, “Do the people on the altar actually believe in the stuff they’re preaching?”  (Check out Protestant pastor Russell Moore’s interesting take on this here.)  In other words, the Eucharistic moment often seems so isolated from reality and executed in such a performative and perfunctory manner that it simply lacks meaning, let alone efficacy.  If everything that is Catholic is connected (and reduced) to the Sunday liturgy, and if the liturgical experience has become so unedifying, what are we to make of our faith lives Monday through Saturday?  Yet, the power of the Eucharist can exhibit itself when the hiddenness of Christ in what appears to be bread and wine translates into the hiddenness of Christ in what appears to be my brother, sister, lover, friend, enemy.  The Mass is not the place where “professional Catholics” get to emphasize their unique roles, it is where broken men and women in the pews meet broken men and women on the altar.

I say this because I know that I am a broken priest, a broken Catholic, a broken man.  And, yes, I often doubt the realness of the Gospel, the realness of God’s love for me.  Do I believe in the stuff that I’m preaching?  Fortunately, it is the laity who have the ability to re-energize my faith.  Take Dorothy Day as an example.  Dan Berrigan quipped that “she lived as though the Truth were actually true.”  And her life, although not perfect or maybe because it was not perfect, proves that statement.  Yet, it is not just from famous lay Catholics that I find inspiration.  It is from the lay workers in a monastery’s bakery and from a friend on an early morning run.  It is when a person in the confessional reveals to me the state of their soul and I find that I have been converted in the moment perhaps more than he or she has.  (I often say, if you want holy priests, go to confession and let your desire for holiness transform the man in the collar.)

Yes, evil is real and people do evil things, yet the love of Jesus working through us can empower us to discern that which we are being called to sacrifice and that which is torturous and requires us to flee.  Jesus did not endure torture for its own sake, He willingly accepted pain and suffering as a sacrifice for that which He knew was greater—the love of God which has no end and can never disappoint.

I pray that the conversations concerning liturgical renewal may always find their grounding in the universal call to holiness, otherwise they will devolve into discussions of personal taste.  I have found in my time as both a lay person (the first 35 years of my life) and a priest (the last six) that the most powerful aspect of public liturgy is being in the same room with a bunch of broken people.  It is my brokenness and the brokenness of each person in that church that is paradoxically strengthened by the brokenness of God Himself—Jesus in the Eucharist.  Brokenness meeting Brokenness.  Vulnerability meeting Vulnerability.  The wounds of Christ that are manifested on my body meeting the wounds of Christ that are manifested on the cross.  It is by His stripes that we are made whole (Isaiah 53:5).  It is by our stripes that we become holy icons of Christ to a broken world.    

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