We are taught that the 'universal call to holiness' was one of the great gifts and insights of Vatican II, and it's quite true. But like all good doctrines, it wasn't new at all but something that the Church had always taught, as they say. It's just that at certain moments it seems good to the Holy Spirit to highlight certain truths anew or to give them a new expression so that they may be more joyfully and confidently received by the Churches.
I was thinking about this today, namely the doctrine of the universal call to holiness winding its way through the last couple of generations before Vatican II. For us Capuchins today is the feast of Blessed Andrea Giacinto Longhin, who was a a Capuchin spiritual director, seminary reformer, and bishop of Treviso from 1904 until his death in 1936. He also suffered imprisonment during the First World War. Here's the selection we are given from his writings for the Office of Readings:
The holiness of a Christian and religious life obliges all of us. Our ignorance and acedia makes us believe that holiness isn't possible for us, because we imagine ecstasies, as if to be saint it were necessary to have the gift of raptures or visions or prophecies or miracles; we imagine 'crosses,' as if it were necessary to do great fasts, austerities, penances with bloody discipline, with cilices, etc.
It is a deceit. Holiness consists in more simple things that are available to everyone. To no one it is said, 'Whip yourself, fast, go into ecstasies...', no, no one asks this. It is only said, 'Love God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength; love your neighbor as yourself.' In this all the perfection of the Christian life and true holiness are found. Who in the world can say that he can't love the Lord? To always please him, doing his will as it is made known to us in the commandments of the Decalogue, of the holy Church and of our legitimate superiors?
Who can say, 'I'm not able to avoid deliberate venial sins, failures in charity, humility, and obedience'? St. Thomas Aquinas, to a sister who asked him how she could become a saint, said, "If you want! Have you understood, my dear Mary? If you want to become a saint, it is easily done. Grace is not lacking, and with grace we are all-powerful."
Praying over this text this morning, of course I was reminded of a conversation, one more generation closer to Vatican II, recorded by Thomas Merton in The Seven Storey Mountain:
"I don't know; I guess what I want is to be a good Catholic."
"What do you mean, you want to be a good Catholic?"
The explanation I gave was lame enough, and expressed my confusion, and betrayed how little I had really thought about it at all.
Lax did not accept it.
"What you should say" — he told me — "what you should say is that you want to be a saint."
A saint! The thought struck me as a little weird. I said:
"How do you expect me to become a saint?"
"By wanting to," said Lax, simply.
"I can't be a saint," I said, "I can't be a saint." And my mind darkened with a confusion of realities and unrealities: the knowledge of my own sins, and the false humility which makes men say that they cannot do the things that they must do, cannot reach the level that they must reach: the cowardice that says: "I am satisfied to save my soul, to keep out of mortal sin," but which means, by those words: "I do not want to give up my sins and my attachments."
But Lax said: "No. All that is necessary to be a saint is to want to be one. Don't you believe that God will make you what He created you to be, if you will consent to let Him do it? All you have to do is desire it."
A long time ago, St. Thomas Aquinas had said the same thing — and it is something that is obvious to everybody who ever understood the Gospels. After Lax was gone, I thought about it, and it became obvious to me.