Opening the Word: Witness of sanctity

What must you possess to be an effective witness of the Gospel? Knowledge, quick wit and learning? What qualities do we find in those who evangelize effectively and successfully? Five-point plans and keenly honed speaking skills? 

Those are undoubtedly good things. But if we are all called to witness then we also realize that some will know more, others will speak more easily and some will be more organized. Pope Paul VI, in his 1975 apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Nuntiandi, expressed it quite powerfully, writing, “for the Church, the first means of evangelization is the witness of an authentically Christian life, given over to God in a communion that nothing should destroy and at the same time given to one’s neighbor with limitless zeal.” 

He pointed out that St. Peter “expressed this well when he held up the example of a reverent and chaste life that wins over even without a word those who refuse to obey the word.” The pope then said, “It is therefore primarily by her conduct and by her life that the Church will evangelize the world, in other words, by her living witness of fidelity to the Lord Jesus — the witness of poverty and detachment, of freedom in the face of the powers of this world, in short, the witness of sanctity” (No. 41). 

“Witness of sanctity” is a perfect phrase for today’s readings, which present the interconnection of God’s call, man’s humble response and the necessity of personal holiness. When the prophet Isaiah had his vision of the throne room of heaven, he was immediately aware of his need for purification. Not only was the prophet painfully aware of his sinfulness, he was shocked he had been granted such a stunning revelation of God’s transcendent holiness. He was humbled and then transformed by God’s holiness, his mouth touched by the ember from the heavenly altar. Isaiah then was able to give himself completely to the mission of proclaiming God’s word: “Here I am! Send me!” 

The same pattern of call, humility, holiness and response is seen in St. Paul’s first letter to the Christians in Corinth. St. Paul often had to explain and defend his apostleship, as he had not spent three years with Jesus, nor encountered Christ until after the Resurrection. No, Christ had appeared to Paul “as to one born abnormally” — that is, in the wrong time. But there is no wrong time with God, nor is any one beyond God’s reach. 

“But by the grace of God I am what I am,” wrote Paul, “and his grace to me has not been ineffective.” St. Paul was a brilliant theologian and a rousing preacher, but the heart of his witness was sanctity. He expressed it quite simply in his first letter to the Thessalonians, stating, “For God has not called us for uncleanness, but in holiness” (1 Thes 4:7). 

St. Peter, like Isaiah, was overcome by the recognition of God’s presence and action. Upon seeing the great and miraculous catch of fish, the expert fisherman fell before Jesus and publicly acknowledged his unworthiness: “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” He was not merely surprised, but was aware of something he had not seen and realized before. Which is why Jesus did not say, “Do not be amazed,” but rather, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.” 

Jesus chooses us so we can choose him; he gives us freedom so we can freely follow him; he makes us holy so we can be his witnesses of sanctity. 

Carl E. Olson is the editor of Catholic World Report. 

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