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Growing in Christ: An Ongoing Vocation

by Dr. Robert Fastiggi

The universal call to holiness is for all Catholics. But how do we accomplish the call?

St. Paul teaches that all of us are called to holiness: For this is the will of God, your holiness (1 Thes 4:3). The Second Vatican Council cites this passage in chapter five of its Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium [LG], a chapter entitled The Universal Call to Holiness.

The council emphasizes the primordial vocation to holiness for every state of lifethe clergy, the religious, the married, and the unmarried:

Thus it is evident to everyone, that all the faithful of Christ of whatever rank or status, are called to the fullness of the Christian life and to the perfection of charity; by this holiness as such a more human manner of living is promoted in this earthly society. In order that the faithful may reach this perfection, they must use their strength accordingly as they have received it, as a gift from Christ. They must follow in His footsteps and conform themselves to His image seeking the will of the Father in all things. They must devote themselves with all their being to the glory of God and the service of their neighbor. In this way, the holiness of the People of God will grow into an abundant harvest of good, as is admirably shown by the life of so many saints in Church history (LG, no. 40).

This passage highlights the need for us to follow in Christ's footsteps and conform ourselves to his image, seeking the will of the Father in all things. Following Christ is the key to growing in Christ, which is an ongoing vocation.

But how do we grow in Christ?

Detachment from Sin

Jesus teaches, If you love me, you will keep my commandments (Jn 14:15). We cannot grow in Christ if we continue to sin. Because of the effects of Original Sin, our human nature is weak and inclined toward sin. Baptism erases Original Sin and turns us back toward God.

Nevertheless, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church [CCC] explains, the consequences for nature, weakened and inclined to evil, persist in man and summon him to spiritual battle (CCC, no. 405).

Mystical writers since Patristic times have presented the spiritual life according to the threefold path of purgation, illumination, and union with God. The path of purgation requires detachment from sin, which is part of our ongoing spiritual battle against sensual lust, enticement for the eyes, and a pretentious life (1 Jn 2:16). Recognizing our sins requires humility, but we can never grow in Christ without repentance. We cannot overcome sin without God's grace, which is given to us by Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit.

We also must have recourse to the great gift of the Sacrament of Reconciliation. As the Council of Trent teaches, But since God, who is rich in mercy (Eph 2:4), knows our frame (Ps 103:14), he has given a remedy of life also to those who after baptism have delivered themselves up to the bondage of sin and the devil's power, namely, the sacrament of penance, whereby the benefit of Christ's death is applied to those who have fallen after baptism (Denz.-H, 1668).

The Sacrament of Penance or Reconciliation must be part of the lives of all of us who wish to grow in Christ. This Sacrament is a gift from Christ, and if we wish to grow in Christ we must make use of this Sacrament of mercy to help us be detached from sin and grow in the knowledge and love of our Savior.

Reception of the Holy Eucharist

The Second Vatican Council teaches that the Eucharistic sacrifice is the source and summit of the entire Christian life (LG, no. 11). To grow in Christ, we must be Eucharistic.

Some groups claim that the Christian life can be pursued apart from the help of the Sacraments. The Council of Trent, however, anathematized those who maintained that the Sacraments of the New Law are not necessary for salvation, but that they are superfluous (Denz.-H, 1604). Sadly, in the sixteenth century, many Christian communities broke from apostolic succession and deprived their followers of the great gift of Christ's Body and Blood in the most Holy Eucharist.

Jesus teaches that unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you (Jn 6:53). We cannot truly grow in Christ if we do not partake of his Body and Blood in the most holy Sacrament of the Eucharist. Spiritual experiences are important, but the most intimate union we can have with Christ in this life is the worthy reception of his Body, Blood, soul, and divinity in Holy Communion.

If we think we can grow in Christ apart from the Holy Eucharist, we ignore the means he has chosen to unite with us during our earthly pilgrimage.

Feeding Upon Sacred Scripture

St. Jerome teaches that ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ (CCC, no. 133). If we wish to grow in Christ, we must receive nourishment from the books of Sacred Scripture.

The Second Vatican Council teaches:

For in the sacred books, the Father who is in heaven meets His children with great love and speaks with them; and the force and power in the word of God is so great that it stands as the support and energy of the Church, the strength of faith for her sons, the food of the soul, the pure and everlasting source of spiritual life. Consequently these words are perfectly applicable to Sacred Scripture: For the word of God is living and active (Heb. 4:12) and it has power to build you up and give you your heritage among all those who are sanctified (Acts 20:32; see 1 Thess. 2:13). (Dei Verbum, no. 21)

The monastic tradition of the Church has given us the great practice of lectio divina, which refers to the prayerful reading of Scriptures as God's Word. Although the Word of God is proclaimed in the scriptural readings at Mass, growing in Christ should also include the devout reading of the Bible, especially the Gospels.

We feed on Christ's Body and Blood in the Holy Eucharist, but we should also draw nourishment from God's Word found in Sacred Scripture.

Growing in Faith, Hope, and Charity

St. Paul points us to faith, hope, and charity as the more excellent way of the Christian life (1 Cor 12:31). Whatever gifts we might receive from the Holy Spirit are without benefit if they are not animated by love or charity.

On this St. Paul is quite clear: If I speak in human and angelic tongues, but do not have love, I am a resounding gong or a clashing symbol. And if I have the gift of prophecy, and comprehend all mysteries and all knowledge; if I have faith so as to move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing (1 Cor 13:12). Charity can be defined as the theological virtue by which we love God above all things for his own sake, and our neighbor as ourselves for the love of God (CCC, no. 1822).

Growing in the theological virtue—faith, hope, and charityis a lifelong task. This growth cannot be done on our own. We must rely on the grace of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit. We must cling to Christ because he is the vine and we are the branches and without him we can do nothing (Jn 15:1-5).

Growth in charity is accomplished in a preeminent way by the practice of the spiritual and corporal works of mercy. Charity begins at home, and we must strive to be charitable toward our family and friends first.

Growth in all three theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity requires the nourishment of prayer, which is the raising of one's mind and heart to God or the requesting of good things from God (CCC, no. 2559). If we have trouble praying, we should ask the Holy Spirit to help us. As we grow in our prayer life, we will find ourselves not only praying to the Holy Spirit but also in the Holy Spirit because the Spirit dwells in us.

Help from the Mystical Body

The Church is understood as the mystical Body of Christ. The Second Vatican Council provides this vivid description:

The Head of this Body is Christ. He is the image of the invisible God and in Him all things came into being. He is before all creatures and in Him all things hold together. He is the head of the Body which is the Church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in all things He might have the first place (60). By the greatness of His power He rules the things in heaven and the things on earth, and with His all-surpassing perfection and way of acting He fills the whole body with the riches of His glory.

All the members ought to be molded in the likeness of Him, until Christ be formed in them. For this reason we, who have been made to conform with Him, who have died with Him and risen with Him, are taken up into the mysteries of His life, until we will reign together with Him. On earth, still as pilgrims in a strange land, tracing in trial and in oppression the paths He trod, we are made one with His sufferings like the body is one with the Head, suffering with Him, that with Him we may be glorified (LG, no. 7).

During this life we are pilgrims, and we seek to be molded into the likeness of Christ, who is the head of the Mystical Body, the Church. As members of the Church on earth, however, we have a spiritual bond with the souls in purgatory and the saints in heaven (cf. CCC, no. 954).

Because the Church is a mystical communion, we must recognize our solidarity with the angels and saints, especially the all-holy Virgin Mary, who is the Mother of the Church. The Christian life is not individual but communal. We grow into Christ as members of his Mystical Body.

The Second Vatican Council underlines this mystical communion we have with the souls in purgatory and the saints in heaven:

Fully conscious of this communion of the whole Mystical Body of Jesus Christ, the pilgrim Church from the very first ages of the Christian religion has cultivated with great piety the memory of the dead, and because it is a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead that they may be loosed from their sins (2 Macc 12:46) also offers suffrages for them. The Church has always believed that the apostles and Christ's martyrs who had given the supreme witness of faith and charity by the shedding of their blood, are closely joined with us in Christ, and she has always venerated them with special devotion, together with the Blessed Virgin Mary and the holy angels. The Church has piously implored the aid of their intercession. To these were soon added also those who had more closely imitated Christ's virginity and poverty, and finally others whom the outstanding practice of the Christian virtues and the divine charisms recommended to the pious devotion and imitation of the faithful. (LG, no. 50)

We should grow in Christ by drawing on our communion with all the members of the Church: those suffering persecution on earth; those undergoing post-mortem

purification in Purgatory; and those who are in the glory of heaven.

This solidarity is expressed in a special way by offering prayers and sacrifices for the conversion of sinners, which is one of the main messages of the Marian apparitions of Fatima, whose one hundredth anniversary is being celebrated in 2017. The saints are not only models for us to follow but spiritual friends who pray for us and help us to grow in Christ. The angels also intercede for us, and we must remember that each of us has a guardian angel who serves as our protector and shepherd during our earthly pilgrimage (CCC, no. 336).

We must also remember that Christ gave us his Mother as our spiritual Mother when he was dying on the cross (Jn 19: 2627). The beloved disciple represents all of us who try to follow Christ, and Jesus wants us to take his Mother into the home of our hearts.

The Second Vatican Council reminds us that Mary is our Mother in the order of grace who cooperates in a singular way with her divine Son in giving back supernatural life to souls (LG, no. 61). The more we contemplate Mary, the more we enter into the great mystery of the Incarnation (no. 65). The Second Vatican Council teaches that Mary, as God's Mother, is placed by grace next to her Son, and exalted above all angels and men (no. 66). The Council also teaches that the more we honor Mary, the more her divine Son is rightly known, loved, and glorified (no. 66).

Called to Divinization

Growing in Christ is growing in holiness, which is our ultimate vocation. Although we are poor sinners, we are called to share in the divine nature (2 Pt 1:4).

This process of divinization takes place through many means. Some of the most important are detachment from sin; reception of the Holy Eucharist; reading Sacred Scripture, growth in charity; growth in prayer; and drawing upon the help of Mary, the angels, and the saints.

Dr. Robert Fastiggi

Dr. Robert Fastiggi is professor of systematic theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary.

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Sacred Heart Major Seminary

Sacred Heart Major Seminary prepares candidates for the Roman Catholic priesthood for the Archdiocese of Detroit and for dioceses nationally and internationally. We are a leading center of the New Evangelization forming priest, deacons and lay ministers who are prepared to bring the truth of the Gospel to an increasingly secularized world.