At the start of the Church’s year, Bishop Mark Davies of the Diocese of Shrewsbury, England, is calling for 2019 to become a “Year of Holiness.” Speaking exclusively to the Register via email, Bishop Davies, 59, explained what exactly he means by this and how the faithful can make this call to holiness a living reality.
Register correspondent K.V. Turley asked Bishop Davies to speak about his hopes for this upcoming year and about how the light of Christ — and the reflections of the saints — can serve as guides for the faithful through the coming days and months.
Why have you called for a “Year of Holiness” In 2019?
At a time when, for many of our contemporaries, dark shadows of scandal have obscured the light of Christ shining in the Church, this is a moment to recall the universal call to strive for holiness, the central goal of the whole Christian life.
As a young bishop, Pope St. John Paul II was faced with significant problems or decisions. Whenever he did, he would ask this question: “What is the truth of faith that sheds light on this problem?” It seems to me that this universal call to holiness is the truth of faith we need to recall at this moment in history. I believe the same could be said as truly at any time in the long story of the Church. Yet we cannot fail to place this call to holiness at the forefront of our response to the challenges we face today.
No lengthy discussions between us, no restructuring or new programs can ever be a substitute for the striving for holiness. I was also struck to see Pope Francis remind us of this same call in his exhortation Gaudete et Exsultate. Written in March 2018, he presented this letter to the whole Church as an invitation to “Re-propose the call to holiness in a practical way for our time.”
Where would you suggest we start?
Holiness is certainly the greatest and the ultimate goal of our lives. In his recent apostolic exhortation, Pope Francis quotes the words of Leon Bloy, “The only great tragedy in life is not to become a saint.” This is something we must always reflect upon.
A saint is someone who has entered heaven, reached the goal of our lives in complete and everlasting happiness: This is the one thing necessary for us all. St. John Paul II reminded us that we strive for this goal by seeking the high standard of ordinary Christian living.
On his apostolic visit to Britain (Sept. 16-19, 2010), Pope Benedict XVI spoke to young people of how God never wants any of us to aspire for second best in our lives. God wants the very best for us, he insisted, and the best is holiness. It is important for us to remember that our striving for holiness doesn’t consist in doing something strange or eccentric. Holiness is to be found within the context of our ordinary lives and amid our daily work and duties.
It is in our ordinary lives that God gives us the grace to become the saint we have been called to be. This is equally true whether we are a student, a busy parent, a banker, a factory worker or are living the frailty of our last days. In Pope Francis’ words, we need to be convinced that in the Church that is holy yet made up of sinners, “we find everything we need to grow towards holiness.”
Throughout the year ahead, I want to stress how it is in daily prayer and frequenting the sacraments of penance and the Holy Eucharist that we will find the divine means to holiness.
Is holiness the answer to all our problems?
It is certainly an indispensable part of the answer. Amid the great crises of 20th century, it is not without significance that the central message of the Second Vatican Council was this universal call to holiness. The Council chose to remind us in Lumen Gentium, “All Christians, in any state or walk of life, are called to the fullness of the Christian life and to the perfection of love …” In other words, each one us is called to become a saint.
It is significant that Pope St. Pius X proposed this same universal call to holiness in the greatest liturgical reform of 20th century: the frequent reception of Holy Communion. Anticipating the crises ahead, he foresaw how Christians could no longer settle for any form of mediocrity and need to come more frequently and fervently to Holy Communion: the very source of grace, Christ himself.
The neglect of the Holy Eucharist and the grace offered to us in the sacrament of penance surely accounts for a large part of the problems we face.
How does holiness relate to the current woes of the Church?
A great saint of the 20th century, St. Josemaría Escrivá, spoke of world crises being always crises of saints. He did not specify the nature of the crises in the Church or the world. However, he points to a universal truth: The Church and all of humanity is only ever in crisis because of the lack of striving for holiness; they stand in need of saints in every time and walk of life.
The history of the Church teaches this lesson in showing repeatedly that it is the saints who reveal the true face of the Church; who alone prove able to resolve the great crises; and who have invariably been the greatest evangelizers.
History records how saints “shine out” in humanity’s darkest moments. Pope Francis quotes the words of St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein), who wrote, “The greatest figures of prophecy and sanctity step forth out of the darkest night. … The most decisive turning points in world history are substantially co-determined by souls whom no history book ever mentions.”
In our current woes, we must never doubt the same will be true for us; and the greatest priority will always be for every one of us to strive for such holiness. This is surely what Pope St. John Paul II meant when he used the words of St. Catherine of Sienna at the memorable World Youth Day of 2000 to exhort new generations in this new millennium: “If you are what you should be, you will set the world ablaze.”
Should we be surprised at how things appear in the Church presently?
We should always be surprised and, indeed, astonished by the unfailing grace and mercy of God in the face of all human failure. It is a dogmatic truth of the faith that the Church is unfailingly holy; being united to Christ, she is always sanctified by him. Yet there will be a struggle in every one of her members for holiness because the Church is at once holy and constantly in need of purification. This struggle should not surprise us, and the Lord’s patience must be a source of wonder.
Which saints inspire you?
Every saint inspires me.
In my own country, which is blessed with a long Christian inheritance, I am still discovering new saints who have been part of the life of the Church in every time and place. However, it is the saints God chose to raise up for these times, the times that have been specifically entrusted to you and me, which are a source of special inspiration for me.
I was certainly blessed for most of my priestly life to have one the great saints of all times as our Holy Father: St. John Paul II. As a pastor, I came to know men and women of outstanding holiness in every parish. And like every one of the faithful, I have always been accompanied by Our Lady, whom Pope Francis has called “the saint among saints.”
Are there any specific writings by or about the saints that you would recommend to our readers?
The Soul of the Apostolate by Jean-Baptiste Chautard draws on the wisdom of the saints to give a clear and inspiring supernatural perspective for us in our striving for holiness.
I would especially recommend constantly reading the lives of the saints; we have so much to learn from them! We find encouragement in their words, which are often simple and profound; and (if we are) attentive to their lives, we can draw some of the greatest lessons. The Letter to the Hebrews reminds us how they have all run the race before us, and now, as “a great cloud of witnesses” they encourage us to run with perseverance.
There are many books today that have the title of “spirituality,” but I would encourage people not to waste time or even risk reading books that might prove misleading or damaging. It is sure guides we are looking for, and we will find them in the saints!
What is to the key to sanctity?
The key to sanctity lies in realizing it is not to be sought in some other place in some other lifetime.
We can never postpone the call to holiness; it is now and to be sought in our ordinary, everyday lives. Pope Francis quotes Cardinal Nguyễn Văn Thuận, who spoke of never wasting a moment during his long imprisonment in Vietnam. The cardinal chose not to wait for another time to serve God, but, rather, “… to live the present moment, filling it to the brim with love.”
In this way, we, too, can recognize how sanctity consists in wanting what God wants for us in every moment of our lives. We need to remember, too, that the high goal of sanctity is never possible by our unaided efforts. This is what is expressed perfectly at the end of every confession when, in the Act of Contrition, we declare that that sanctity is possible for you and for me only with the help of God’s grace.
Have you met many saints during your life?
Looking back, I am sure that I have been privileged to walk most of my life in the company of saints! I have responded to their example all too inadequately.
However, in so many priests and laypeople, I have met those whom Pope Francis likes to describe as “the saints next door.” They may not appear in history books, yet these are surely the men and women who, by their daily striving for holiness, leave the greatest and most enduring mark on the world. They have a supernatural perspective on life and fill the ordinary moments, and even the most difficult and bitter, with great love.
Pope Francis expresses the conviction that there can be no holiness without prayer. Invariably these ordinary men and women are souls of prayer. Convinced of being far from perfect and entertaining no complacency, they go frequently to confession to reset the goal of their lives toward God and holiness. They manifest a profound love for the Holy Eucharist. Such is the making of saints, and in these same ways, we can all recognize them!
What counsel would you give the faithful in the midst of the many waves buffeting them aboard the Barque of Peter?
A very simple answer: Think of the saints!
The Lord certainly promised us waves and storms! In times often considerably more difficult than our own, the saints knew that the Barque of Peter can never sink. I think of St. John Fisher and St. Thomas More. We can never become fainthearted because the Lord promised he would never abandon his Church. It is the promise made to St. Peter and his successors, and the promise seen in the single flame of a lamp in every Catholic church on earth, pointing to Christ’s Real Presence amongst us.
In a beautiful image, Pope emeritus Benedict encouraged us to turn to the saints, and especially to the Holy Mother of God. In Spes Salvi, he says in memorable words, “Jesus Christ is the true light, the sun that has risen above all the shadows of history. But to reach him we also need lights close by — people who shine with his light and so guide us along our way. Who more than Mary could be a star of hope for us?”