What Does Holiness Have To Do With It?

What Does Holiness Have to Do with It?

Just a few weeks ago, Pope Francis issued a major papal document about holiness entitled “Gaudete et Exsultate” or “Rejoice and be Glad.” I highly recommend taking the opportunity to read it if you get the chance. We’ve made a URL for you to find the document at https://tinyurl.com/PopeFrancisHoliness. At Saint Andrew, we’ll be exploring how we can unpack the wisdom of the letter in the weeks and months ahead.

In the meantime, I’ve got a one-page article to give a teaser about its importance and impact to us as followers of Jesus Christ.
In the document, the pope didn’t exactly address the etymology of the word “holiness” per se. My take on it this omission is that he was trying to do something else. He skipped over the definition and moved right on to the results. Not a bad strategy, but as a religious educator, I find it helpful to give a minute’s attention to the definition.

Mostly because it is that the way that one defines “holiness” that will determine a great deal in regards to faith and religion. In our multi-cultural linguistic landscape there are different perspectives from different linguistic traditions that confound the meaning of the word “holiness.” For example, the word holiness from the Hebrew/Jewish roots is “qodesh” and translates to being “set-apart.” Inherently, it denotes a sense of privilege and uniqueness. But the other understanding comes from our European and Celtic origins. The word for “holy” in romance languages is “santo” which is similar in origin to the word “sano,” the word for “healthy.” The connection to be made is that to be “holy” means to be healthy, whole, complete in body, mind, and soul. In fact, our English use of the word “holy” stems most closely from the Celtic word “hale” of which several derivative words emerged, namely “holy,” “healthy,” “whole,” “holistic,” etc.

The European and Celtic linguistic roots of the word do not carry with them a sense of any social caste. There isn’t an “us” and “them” mentality within the words and I personally find that refreshing. This sense of the word implies a sense of possessing integrity, completeness, and personal and communal integration.

Most probably, the Hebrew/Jewish concept of holiness was an expression of the same reality, it just came out awkwardly when translated. In the harsh environment of the Israelites, foods and materials that were set apart and kept clean were inherently more healthy and fostered greater flourishing. Unfortunately, the shadow side of being “set apart” is the notion that there is an “us” and a “them.” Where this has gone tragically wrong over the centuries is when, in our church, we have a notion of holiness that it only belongs to “them,” meaning the saints, the priests, the nuns, etc, but not everyone else.

The Second Vatican Council corrected this in the Dogmatic Constitution of the Church, Lumen Gentium, which promulgated the notion of a “Universal Call to Holiness.” In brief, it taught that all people are called to be holy, not just folks who made their way into statues and stain glass windows.

Since that time, there have been a lot of conversation about what a “universal call to holiness” means, but nothing has been published as clear and poignant as what Pope Francis issued last week. The examples he uses plainly critique any notion that holiness is about forming a separate class of people who bear some sort of superiority, but rather he insists that holiness belongs to “the parents who raise their children with immense love, in those men and women who work hard to support their families, in the sick, and the elderly who never lose their smile I see holiness in the Church militant. Very often it is a holiness found in our next door neighbors, those who, living in our midst reflect God’s presence.” Pope Francis p.7 Gaudete et Exsultate

This quote, combined with numerous other quotes within the letter, demonstrate a deep appreciation of holiness that does not infer class stratification between those who are “good” and those who are not. Pope Francis’ instruction seems to point engender a pursuit of deeper integration and wholeness within ourselves and our relationship to the world. When we are most truly ourselves as created us to be, that is when we are the healthiest. That is when we are holy.

-David Heimann, Pastoral Associate

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