MAY 10, 2004




In His Light

by Bishop Allen H. Vigneron

Our vocation is to strive to become saints

Dear Sisters and Brothers:
On April 29 our Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, met with the second group of U.S. bishops in Rome this year for our quinquennial visit “ad limina Apostolorum” (to the houses of the Apostles). The Pope’s message to those bishops, from the ecclesiastical provinces of Baltimore and Washington, appears on page 10.

His topic was the holiness of the Church and each bishop’s duty to assist her members to grow in holiness.
The Holy Father’s words are an eloquent witness to the belief we profess in the Creed each Sunday: that the Church is holy. She has been made holy by the gracious gift of Jesus, her Spouse and Savior. And because she is holy, we, her children, must strive each day to become saints, to become perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect.

One of the most challenging points to take away from our reading of the Pope’s address comes as a consequence of his affirmation that “the life of every Christian and all the structures of the Church must be clearly ordered to the pursuit of holiness” (n. 2).

Here the Pope underlines the clearest possible benchmark for all the activities of our parishes and other institutions. The measure for all our plans and projects is whether they will help us become saints.

This sort of benchmark is in lots of ways counter-cultural. We are generally, by temperament, fairly pragmatic folk. We like to focus on doable tasks and put all of our collective energies into getting them done. Now, the Pope’s message is not calling into question the worth of having parish or diocesan projects.

However, he is calling us to view these projects within a more profound context and to evaluate them by a higher criterion – the criterion of their effectiveness in helping us become holy.

The point of having parish and diocesan pastoral councils, the point of faith formation programs, of our schools, of building churches, of the YLI and the ICF, the point of offices and staffs and every sort of program – whether in the parish or in the diocese – is to strengthen the holiness of the Church. Striving for that aim is what gives life to all that we do in our faith communities.

At least half of the Holy Father’s remarks are about the need for us bishops to strive for holiness in our own personal lives if we are going to be effective in helping our priests and people grow in holiness: “The pursuit of personal holiness must be central to the life and identity of every Bishop. He is to recognize his own need to be sanctified as he engages in the sanctification of others” (n. 3).

This principle calls to my mind a very powerful sermon of Cardinal Newman: “Men, not Angels, the Priests of the Gospel” (Discourses to Mixed Congregations, n. 3). There Newman, with his usual rhetorical power, helps to explain the significance of the Holy Father’s point:

“The priests of the New Law are men, in order that they may ‘condole with those who are in ignorance and error, because they too are compassed with infirmity’.

“Had Angels been your Priests, my brethren, they could not have condoled with you, sympathised with you, have had compassion on you, felt tenderly for you, and made allowances for you, as we can; they could not have been your patterns and guides, and have led you on from your old selves into a new life, as they can who come from the midst of you, who have been led on themselves as you are to be led, who know well your difficulties, who have had experience, at least of your temptations, who know the strength of the flesh and the wiles of the devil, even though they have baffled them, who are already disposed to take your part, and be indulgent towards you, and can advise you most practically, and warn you most seasonably and prudently.”

Because the chief and overriding work of priests and bishops is to be guides to holiness in Christ, it is God’s plan that the pastors be engaged in that same great struggle of conversion in which they direct their flock. A recovering sinner is the best guide for the recovery of others.

If I, as a bishop, did not make the deepening of my friendship with Christ the highest practical priority in my day-to-day life, I would not take growth in holiness as the final measure for all the activities to which I and my brother priests give leadership.

The Pope’s message contains some very practical advice about how to become a saint: daily extended periods of personal prayer, especially before our Eucharistic Lord in the tabernacle, daily Mass, frequent confession, daily faithful recitation of the Liturgy of the Hours – and in all our duties making every action an expression of true pastoral charity, the very love of Christ for the flock, of which we have become the sacramental presencing.

The Holy Father gives particular emphasis on the need of us bishops to live lives of evangelical simplicity – a great challenge for us who are surrounded by so many of the good things of this world.

I ask, particularly, that you pray for me on this score: ask the Lord Jesus to give me a new share in His Holy Spirit, so that I may ever more clearly discern how he wants me to imitate His poverty and then, that I will have the will to respond.

Let me draw my remarks to a close by sharing with you one of my “prayerful daydreams.”

About 75 years from now, when I am with the Lord – as I hope that I shall be by his gracious mercy – I will look down to St. Peter’s Square one Sunday and see the ninth Bishop of Oakland. He’s there to join the Pope for the canonization of one of the members of our diocese – a man or woman that I confirmed during my ministry. He’s there to witness the Church’s affirmation that this Oaklander became a saint because of how she or he lived out the Christian vocation in the local Church that I pastored.

And on that day, among all the things for which I will praise God as I stand before His throne, I will thank Him that, unworthy though I was, He permitted me to be some help to this new saint in coming to perfection in Christ.


Official newspaper of the Roman Catholic
Diocese of Oakland, California encompassing all of
Alameda &
Contra Costa counties.