Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Two Surest Signs of Holiness

(Thirtieth Sunday of the Year (C): This homily was given on October 24, 2010 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Luke 18: 9-14.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Thirtieth Sunday 2010]

What are the surest signs of holiness? What, in other words, are the most reliable indicators that you are in the presence of a truly saintly person?

This is something every Catholic should know, since Jesus explicitly commands us in the gospels to be holy! But if we’re going to be holy, we need to know what holiness is. That is to say, we need to know how to recognize genuine holiness when we see it, so that we can follow the example in our own lives.

Let me share with you now Matthew Kelly’s insight on this matter, which can be found on page 66 of his book, Rediscovering Catholicism. Matthew Kelly—for the benefit those who might not recognize his name—is a young and very popular Catholic writer. His books appeal to people of all ages—and that includes teenagers. In fact, I used a story from this book a few weeks ago in our youth group, and the teens loved it.

First think of how you would respond to that question: What are the surest signs of holiness?

Here now is how Matthew Kelly would answer it:

“The surest signs of holiness are not how often a person goes to church, or how many hours a person spends in prayer, or what good spiritual books a person has read, or even the number of good works a person performs. The surest signs of holiness are an insatiable desire to improve oneself and an unquenchable concern for unholy people.”

Which pretty much explains why the Pharisee that we heard about in today’s gospel was NOT holy! Oh sure, the guy went to “church” faithfully—which for the Jews of his time meant the synagogue or the Temple; he prayed (that’s clear from the story); he fasted; and he performed acts of charity, at least to the extent of donating one-tenth of his income to worthy causes (that’s what “tithing” means).

He did all (or at least many) of the things that people normally associate with holiness, but he lacked the two most important qualities of all, according to Matthew Kelly.

I, incidentally, agree with Mr. Kelly. In fact, I think his insight here is brilliant—and brilliantly stated.

Notice the adjectives he uses here: they are very well-chosen.

The first sign of holiness, he says, is “an insatiable desire to improve oneself.”

Insatiable means “incapable of being satisfied.” Holy people—truly holy people—are never completely satisfied with their lives, spiritually or morally. In spite of the fact that they are very Christ-like, they are still very conscious of their sins—their little, nagging imperfections.

So they’re never morally complacent; they never make the mistake of thinking they’ve arrived spiritually. They are always striving to grow in their relationship with the Lord.

Now this really should not surprise us, because, if you want to excel at anything in this life, you have to maintain an “insatiable desire to improve”.

The New England Patriots have been very successful in the last decade, precisely because they have consistently maintained an “insatiable desire to improve” as a football team. And it all starts with their head coach, Bill Belichick. Can you imagine Belichick calling a news conference tonight and saying to the members of the press and to the fans, “Ladies and gentlemen, we’ve won 3 Super Bowls since the start of the new millennium—and we’re satisfied with that. We’re happy; we’re grateful—so from now on we’re gonna do things a lot differently around here. We will only practice one day per week; we will only play Tom Brady and the other starters for one quarter per game. And we won’t put any restrictions on our players from now on. They will no longer be accountable for their actions. They can come and go as they please.”?

If Belichick ever said that—and meant it—he’d be out of a job the next day. The owner, the fans and the members of the media wouldn’t stand for it. And they shouldn’t stand for it! They know that in order to win another Super Bowl trophy, both the team and the coaching staff need to maintain “an insatiable desire” to get better, and to be the best they can be!

Can you imagine a student saying to his parents at the end of the 3rd quarter of the school year, “Mom and dad, I’ve received all A’s for three straight quarters now, so I’m sure you won’t mind if I stop studying for the 4th quarter. I’ve accomplished so much this year; I’ve been the perfect student—so, quite frankly, I think I deserve a break. In fact, I think I deserve to sleep in every morning and only go to school when—and if—I feel like it.”?

Those of you who are straight A students: try that line when the 4th quarter begins this year, and see how well it “flies” with your parents.

I guarantee you that you will not be “flying” anywhere for awhile. If your parents think you’re serious, you’ll be “grounded” for a good, long time!

And yet, let’s be honest about it, my brothers and sisters, when it comes to our spiritual and moral lives we can very easily become complacent in this way, and lose the desire to improve ourselves.

Like the Pharisee in this parable.
Notice that he didn’t just lack an insatiable desire to improve himself; he had NO DESIRE AT ALL to improve himself!

Because to him there was nothing left to improve!

His big mistake here, of course, was that he compared himself with another human being, instead of comparing himself with God! He had the wrong standard!

When we compare ourselves with others, morally and spiritually, we can easily convince ourselves that we’re better than we are. When we compare ourselves with the all-perfect and all-holy Lord of the universe, however, we know we have a long way to go.

Which brings us to the second sure sign of holiness, according to Matthew Kelly: “an unquenchable concern for unholy people.”

Notice, again, the adjectives there: unquenchable and unholy. Both are extremely important.

Unquenchable is very similar to insatiable in its meaning. And notice what the object of our unquenchable concern is supposed to be: other people—but not just any old group of other people, specifically other people who are NOT holy!

It’s easy to be concerned about holy people, is it not? It’s easy to be concerned about people we like: people who are good to us; people who treat us fairly; people who treat us with respect.

Even unholy people have a genuine concern for the nice people in their lives.

But truly holy people go beyond that, and actually manifest a deep concern for the salvation and well-being of those who hate them and hurt them and treat them unfairly and disrespectfully.

And that, my dear friends—as we all know from personal experience—is not easy!

Do you think this Pharisee had any concern whatsoever in his heart for the tax collector? Well, if he did, he certainly did a great job of hiding that concern in his prayer! From all external indications, to him the tax collector was simply an object of ridicule and contempt: “Thank you, God, that I’m not like THAT guy!”

“The surest signs of holiness are an insatiable desire to improve oneself and an unquenchable concern for unholy people.”

Dear Lord, help us, by the power of your grace which we receive at this Mass (and especially in and through the Holy Eucharist)—help us to manifest these two essential qualities more completely in our daily lives, so that we will truly be holy people. Amen.