The Essence of Christian Perfection

In 05 Homilies by Fr. Reid on 2016/04/15 at 12:00 AM

• That last line of the Gospel is a bit of a doozy, isn’t it? Jesus says to us: “So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Of course the question we must ask is: what does it mean to be perfect?
• If it means never to commit a sin, then we are all in trouble, aren’t we? Certainly refraining from sin is part of Christian perfection, but refraining from sin cannot be the totality of Christian perfection, for Jesus would never command the impossible of us.
• Lots of saints spoke or wrote about the meaning of Christian perfection, and the explanation that I find most satisfactory comes from St. Anthony Mary Claret.
• St. Anthony wrote that: “Christian perfection consists in three things: praying heroically, working heroically, and suffering heroically.”
• Notice that he uses the word “heroically.” What’s interesting about this is that “heroic” is the word the Church uses to define the standard of virtue a person must meet in order to be declared a saint.
• In other words living a life of Christian perfection means living a life of heroic virtue.
• In fact, the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints issues a “Decree of Heroic Virtues” when a
person who is up for sainthood has been found to have lived a life of profound union with God and
fidelity to Church teaching.
• So in calling us to perfection today in the Gospel, Jesus is calling all of us to be saints!
• Certainly we know of lots of saints who prayed heroically, like St. Teresa of Ávila who prayed so
heroically that she went into ecstasies, or St. Rita, who through her heroic prayers was able to
obtain miracles for even the most impossible of causes.
• We also know of lots of saints who worked heroically, like St. Anthony of Padua who died at the
age 36 from exhaustion, or St. Raymond of Penyafort, who lived to be 100 and worked strenuously
for almost all of those years.
• Perhaps of most interest, though, are the heroic sufferings of the saints. In this vein it’s hard to top
St. Lawrence, who was roasted to death on a gridiron but still managed to crack a wry joke to his
tormenters as they were martyring him.
• While we generally remember saints for one or two aspects of their lives, in truth all of the saints
prayed, worked, and suffered heroically in that they prayed, worked, and suffered as God willed
them to do so. This heroic union with God’s will is what made them saints.
• And the saints were able to pray, work, and suffer heroically because they loved both God and neighbor in heroic fashion. They were heroic in their charity – and so should we be.
• Our readings today remind us that we are not only called to a life of perfection, a life of holiness, but our readings also set the bar for the charity we must exercise if we hope to reach the Christian perfection of the saints.
• In particular, our readings speak of charity toward others with regard to how we must bear with those who have hurt us or who have treated us unjustly, which is probably the truest measure of one’s charity.
• Our first reading from the Old Testament Book of Leviticus commands us: “You shall not bear hatred for your brother or sister in your heart.” We are told to “take no revenge and cherish no grudge against any,” but to “love [our] neighbor as [ourself].”
• In the Gospel, which like last Sunday’s Gospel is part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, our Lord tells us that we must love even our enemies, famously calling us to turn the other cheek when struck, and to pray for those who persecute us.
• In saying all of this to us, Jesus is teaching us how to exercise heroic virtue. Christian perfection requires that we love everyone, even our enemies. He tells us that if we are able to pray for our enemies, this will make us children of God.
• Really, to understand what Jesus is asking of us, we must put ourselves on the cross with Him and remind ourselves of how Jesus looked upon those who had crucified Him during those agonizing hours atop Calvary.
• Do you remember His words? “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Even in the most terrible and agonizing moments of His suffering, Jesus was merciful to those who had crucified Him. He was merciful to all of us.
• The responsorial psalm captures this well: “Merciful and gracious is the LORD, slow to anger and abounding in kindness. Not according to our sins does He deal with us, nor does He requite us according to our crimes.”
• Thus, all of us who are serious about holiness must learn a certain detachment from ourselves, from our pride, in order to grow in heroic virtue. Instead of indulging our pride and selfish anger, we must be willing to endure suffering at the hands of others for the sake of growing in virtue.
• We must be willing to go the extra mile for others when they don’t deserve it, and to some degree, patiently overlook the bad behavior of others. Doing these things is how we love others in heroic fashion rather than merely exercising love as the pagans do!
• While I have always been fascinated by the stories of the martyrs, I’m also quite fascinated by those saints who were heroic in their love for others, especially in their forgiveness of those who wronged them.
• One beautiful example of a saint who practiced heroic forgiveness is St. Maria Goretti, who is also one of the modern martyrs of the Church.
• At the age of 12, Maria was grabbed by an 18-year old neighbor, named Alexander, who tried to rape her, and when she said that she would rather die than submit to something so offensive to God, he took her at her word and began stabbing her.
• As Maria lay dying in the hospital that same day, she forgave Alexander, who was eventually captured, convicted, and sentenced to 30 years of imprisonment.
• Unfortunately, Alexander remained unrepentant in prison, until one night he had a dream of being in a garden, and of Maria handing him a bouquet of flowers. Upon waking, Alexander was a changed man and repented immediately.
• When he was finally released from prison, Alexander went straight to Maria’s mother to beg her forgiveness. To her credit Maria’s mother said, “If my daughter can forgive you, who am I to withhold forgiveness.”
• Alexander was present at St. Peter’s Basilica in 1950 when Maria Goretti was canonized.
• As we consider today’s Gospel, we may be tempted to ask if we should ever oppose evil. Should
we not hold people accountable for their sins or at least correct them?
• Certainly we should. Justice is one of the four Cardinal virtues, and admonishing sinners is a
spiritual work of mercy. So it is a noble and good thing to seek and practice justice.
• However, we must learn to temper justice with mercy, just as Christ did on the cross. In justice
Jesus could have condemned us all, but He chooses to have mercy on us.
• If we seek only to employ justice in a strict fashion and fail to show mercy, we may find that we are
denied God’s mercy at the final judgment.
• Through the intercession of Our Lady, St. Joseph, and all the saints, may each of us learn to pray,
work, and suffer heroically in this life so that we, too, might be saints in the next!
• May we learn to balance justice and mercy as Christ did so that we may love and forgive in heroic fashion. St. Maria Goretti, pray for us!

© Reverend Timothy Reid

Fr. Reid is the pastor of St. Ann Catholic Church, Charlotte, NC

Homilies from June 17, 2012 onward have audio.
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