“Quoniam tu solus [es] Sanctus,” “for you alone are Holy:” from time immemorial, the Church has praised the Lord with these words on Sundays and solemnities in the Gloria hymn-prayer. We would do well to sing these words today, on the feast of all the saints! As we do so, we may ask why it is that we should call any person “holy” if, in this hymn, we proclaim God alone to be holy. (The English word “saint” comes from the Latin “sanctus,” which means “holy.”) Are we making men and women into idols alongside God, as some Protestants accuse us of doing?
In fact, the holiness of a saint is not something that stands alongside and in competition with the holiness of God, because the saint has no holiness except God’s. Anyone—Catholic or not—who imagines that a person can forge her own path of virtue apart from God woefully misunderstands the Christian message. There is no abstract ideal of sanctity, no model of holiness that I can construct or achieve.
The foundation of Christian holiness is the free love of God given to us in the person of Jesus Christ. While it is true that God is free and can act however he wishes, what is more interesting is that God freely chooses to act in precisely the way that he does and no other. In so doing, God reveals to us who he is and what love really is. This love alone is holy, and nothing else, even if it should presume to go by the name of love. And it is this love that is given to us, not only so that we might receive it, but also so that we might live it. And when we live—by grace—from this love alone, then our love is truly God’s love. When we are so transformed by the Word that the words that we speak are the Word that we receive, we become a Word of God spoken to the world in the unique Word that is Jesus Christ. We see this in the saints. Where they are holy, it is the holiness of God that shines through them. God speaks his life—the life of Jesus Christ—into the world anew through their lives, and people who encounter them can sometimes sense that they have encountered not merely the earthen vessel but even more God’s own life which he shares with the world through it. This is our calling: to be holy as God is holy (1 Pt 1:16). “See what love the Father has bestowed on us that we may be called the children of God. Yet so we are… Everyone who has this hope based on him makes himself pure, as he is pure” (1 Jn 3:1,3).