April 21, 2009

Secret Holiness

Today is the feast of Capuchin brother St. Conrad of Parzham, who spent his religious life as porter of our friary in Altötting, receiving folks who came to the door.

The Capuchin reform of the Franciscan Order, though not even five hundred years old, has produced a lot of saints, including many martyrs and even a doctor of the Church. A significant number of our saints have had this ministry of porter, or brother in charge of the door, or questor, a brother who would go out to beg.

Did these ministries make these brothers holier than the others? I doubt it. I think that many got to be saints because their holiness was available to the public; it was on display, as it were. The ministries of porter and questor put certain friars in regular contact with a lot of different people who noticed their holiness and kept its memory alive after their bodily deaths. Others who were equally saintly did not come to be canonized because their holiness was more secret.

The same point goes across religious orders. Why are their so many more canonized Franciscans than there are canonized Trappists or Carthusians? Because Franciscans are more holy? No way. It's just that their holiness gets to be more public, and those with heroic virtue are more likely to end up with a public cultus that leads to veneration, beatification, or canonization. I have no doubt that, proportionally speaking, there are just as many Trappists and Carthusians in heaven as there are Franciscans, but since their saintliness is more secret, it doesn't arrive at public veneration here in the Church Militant as we make our pilgrimage through this life.

In fact, I think that most of the holiness present in the individual members of the Church is secret. This is one of the things I've learned from the ministry of the confessional. There are saints out there, folks who have arrived at a level of response to grace and ascetical struggle against their sins that I can only speak to based on things that I've read in books. Where they are is far beyond what I can speak to from my own experience of the spiritual journey.

The really amazing thing is that often God seems to hide sanctity from the saints themselves. They don't know that they are so holy. This is partly because the closer we come to God, so much more do our faults seem glaring and our sins seem tragic in the intensity of God's goodness. That's why the saints are always so conscious of themselves as sinners. But I also think that it is the mercy of God that keeps people ignorant of their own sanctity. It saves them from temptations to vanity and ambition and frees them from an awkward self-consciouness that accompanies those who get caught in the trap of desiring holiness as a kind of commodity, rather than simply desiring God.


Matt G. said...

"This is partly because the closer we come to God, so much more do our faults seem glaring and our sins seem tragic in the intensity of God's goodness."

Ain't that the truth!

Jeanne said...

Your post immediately reminded me of Mother Bernadette de Lourdes Belz, O.P, from Long Island New York. She was one of the holiest people I have ever known. She radiated joy and peace. Missionary, teacher, president of a Catholic college, and head of her convent at one point, she had a smile, a kind word, and a funny or witty saying for everyone. When she died in 1984, so many people from all walks of life grieved for this tiny nun with the big heart.

She'll probably never be officially on the path to sainthood, but like so many who exemplify secret holiness, her holiness radiated to others in the joy and warmth of her personality.

Jennifer @ Conversion Diary said...

Wow, so much good food for thought here. Thank you for this post.

LM said...

I agree with Matt G.
Thanks for bringing out the inspiration.