Theological Reflection - Fr. Robert Hater

Catechetical Sunday 2016 PosterEmbracing Our Universal Call to Holiness

by Rev. Robert J. Hater, PhD


Jesus' death on the Cross happened because of the boundless love of God. We see the extent of this love while Jesus suffered and died. Soldiers mocked him, crowds jeered him, and Mary, his mother, cringed in agony. On the day of his Resurrection, his confused, terrified disciples began to see that something new was happening. Then, the Holy Spirit descended upon them at Pentecost and they became the holy Church of God: his mystical body on earth. They were terrified no more, for the risen Lord remained with them. 

From this time on, speaking to God "face to face" was not reserved to holy men, like Moses and the prophets. The gift of holy intimacy with God is given to those who profess their faith in Jesus as Lord, are baptized, and live as he taught them (Catechism of the Catholic Church [CCC], no. 2777). Every baptized person receives a universal call to holiness. We are all called to be saints. 

The beautiful frieze in the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, DC pictures this universal call to holiness in its depiction of people of different times and places: young and old, rich and poor, men and women, known and unknown. They are with Jesus, Mary, and the saints. This holy contingent of the Communion of Saints invites each viewer to look into his or her personal call to holiness.

We will address the universal call to holiness in three parts. Part One uses a simple story to introduce the universal call to holiness. This story is akin to human experiences that often pass us by without us giving much thought to them. When looking deeper, though, we discover God's invitation to holiness in the ordinariness of life. Part Two relates our call to holiness to the holiness of God, Jesus, and the Church. Holiness is always a response to God's gift of grace. God extends this invitation and we respond. In saying "yes," we learn how prayer leads us to God and enhances our personal holiness. Part Three invites us to embrace our personal call to holiness through prayer, worship, and the actions of our lives. 

Part 1 - The Graduation Dress and the Old Store: Witness to Holiness

The dark hall of a retirement home revealed the solitary figure of an elderly woman walking towards us. As she passed by, the person who had invited me there for dinner said, "Emma, this is Father Hater." The elderly woman smiled and her enthusiasm grew while replying, "I used to shop at Hater's Dry Goods Store in the West End of Cincinnati, but that was more than seventy years ago." I replied, "That was my family's store. I worked there until I was ordained in 1959. A short time later, it closed, as Interstate 75 took the property for an on-off ramp." After a few more words, Emma left and we went to the dining room to eat our dinner.

When we were almost finished, Emma walked slowly toward our table. She said, "Do you have a minute? I'd like to tell you a Hater's Dry Goods Store story." Interested, because I rarely meet someone who remembers our old store, I answered, "Sure." Emma began, "When I was a child, our family lived on Poplar Street near your store. We went to St. Edward Church. There were twelve children in our family and we had a hard time surviving, especially during the Great Depression." 

"One year, my sister Alice was to graduate from the eighth grade. When the day arrived, we didn't have enough money to buy her a graduation dress. We told Mrs. Frank, a neighbor and a seamstress. She said, 'Every girl should have a new dress for graduation. How much money do you have?' We came up with one dollar. 'That's okay,' Mrs. Frank said, 'Let's go to the Dry Goods Store, and see if Mr. Hater will sell us enough cloth and a pattern to make Alice a dress for a dollar.'" Emma continued, "In a short time, we returned, overjoyed at Mr. Hater's kindness and generosity. He gave us what we needed for our one dollar. That afternoon, Mrs. Frank made the dress, and Alice was very proud, as she graduated in her new dress."

Responding to our universal call to holiness isn't complicated. As Emma told the story, I pictured what had happened, for I knew the neighborhood and those living there: Catholic families, like Emma's, Alice's, and Mrs. Frank's. They were simple, faith-filled people. They prayed with their children, went to Confession regularly, never missed Sunday Mass, and were active parishioners. They taught their children right from wrong and stressed being kind to one another. They were holy people.All Christians in any state or walk of life are called to the fullness of the Christian life and to the perfection of love, and by this holiness a more humane manner of life is fostered also in earthly society. (Lumen Gentium, no. 40)

As to our old store, I knew what would happen if someone was short of money. My Dad always gave needy customers a discount on the price of merchandise, or gave them what they needed for the money they had. Dad often sat for hours listening to troubled customers. He taught me to treat everyone coming into the store as a "guest, not a customer." During Christmastime and Holy Week, he'd leave the store to go to church services or Confession at St. Augustine Parish. This store climate honed and deepened my faith, as the family climate did in the lives of Emma, Alice, and Mrs. Frank. 

Family members and customers alike instinctively learned in a Catholic environment the meaning of their universal call to holiness from experiences like making a dress for a girl's graduation, or making it possible to purchase materials for almost nothing in an old dry goods store. Ordinary Catholics before Vatican II never used sophisticated theological language like "the universal call to holiness" to describe acts of kindness and love. Nonetheless, they lived their call to holiness in ordinary life experiences. They responded to the graces God gave them to be happy, faith-filled families, workers, and store owners. 

Times and circumstances have changed, but God's call to holiness remains the same for a busy father with two jobs, a computer technician, a student, a nurse, a teacher, a parish minister, or a retired sales person. What more can we say, then, about this wonderful gift of God?

Part 2 - Theological Perspectives: Call to Holiness

The call to holiness is rooted in Scripture. It is reflected in the teachings of St. Augustine, St. Francis de Sales (Introduction to the Devout Life), and other great saints and scholars throughout the ages. St. John Paul II speaks of it in Christifidelis Laici, as does the Catechism of the Catholic Church

Appreciation of holiness begins in our understanding of the mystery of God, first revealed in the Old Testament. We begin with the biblical perspective.


Every state of life leads to holiness, God's gift . . . . .  [It] is not the prerogative of only a few: holiness is a gift that is offered to all, without exception, so that it constitutes the distinctive character of every Christian. . . . . . everyone is called to holiness in their own state of life. . . . . . it is by living with love and offering Christian witness in our daily tasks that we are called to be saints. (Pope Francis, General Audience to Pilgrims, November 2014) 

Our universal call to holiness is rooted in the all-holy God. In Isaiah, the Seraphim cry out, "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts. The whole earth is full of his glory" (Is 6:1, 3). John speaks of the heavenly beings repeating day and night, "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts, who was, who is and who is to come." (Rev 4:1, 8) The Catechism of the Catholic Church says, "The holiness of God is the inaccessible center of his eternal mystery" (CCC, no. 2809).

In Hebrew, the word for "holy" is "kadosh." Its root meaning is to cut off, separate, or set apart. In the Bible, God's holiness refers to the separateness or distinctiveness of God, compared to humans and the rest of creation. God is unique, different from, distinct, and awesome (Neh 1:5). When the Seraphim and heavenly beings repeat, "kadosh, kadosh, kadosh" (holy, holy, and holy), they emphasize something extremely significant. Nowhere in the Bible do we hear God referred to as "love, love, love," or "truth, truth, truth." The Bible reserves this three-fold repetition for God's holiness, thus stressing the chief attribute of God. For a Jew, God's kadosh is opposite to the profane. 

But there is more. The term kadosh is more than an attribute of God among other attributes, like goodness, kindness, mercy, or love. Kadosh is God's very essence and existence. Kadosh is who God is. The Seraphim in Isaiah proclaim that God is totally other, unique, special, and worthy of worship. Nothing is like him; he created all things. In Leviticus, God describes himself by saying, "I the Lord your God am holy" (Lv 19:1). He transcends all that is and is utterly different from created beings. No human words can adequately describe God, the "wholly Other." No one else but God is holy as God is holy. God's holiness never changes; it is the same today as it was before creation. It is utterly unique. Since it is impossible to describe the all-holy One, God illustrated his unique nature figuratively, as when telling Moses, "Take off your shoes from your feet, for the place where you stand is holy ground" (Ex 3:5). 

Each Person of the Trinity shares completely in the holiness of the all-holy God, for holiness is God's divine nature. The Father as Creator is holy. The Son as Redeemer is holy. After his suffering and death on the Cross, Jesus was raised and exalted at the right hand of the Father (Acts 2:26, 13:33-35). The Holy Spirit, as Sanctifier, is holy. St. Basil the Great says that the Holy Spirit is the essence of divine holiness. (Basil of Caesarea, On the Holy Spirit  42-43  81-83) The Third Eucharistic Prayer tells us, "By the power and working of the Holy Spirit, you give life to all things and make them holy." 

Sin is opposed to the nature of the all-holy God. Because of Adam's sin and our personal sins, and out of love for his people, the all-holy God redeemed the human race through Christ's saving death on the Cross and his rising from the dead.


The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy. (Lev 19:1-3)

When God first revealed his holiness to the people of Israel, he called them to be holy as he is holy –to share in his own holiness. Thus, no human possesses the full holiness that kadosh describes, for human holiness is always derived holiness. Why? Because even though we are made in the image of God and share God's nature, we are not God. God alone is kadosh. Such derived holiness is more different from than similar to the kadosh of God.

Not belonging to God's nature, the derived holiness that humans possess is a pure gift from God. Jews, Christians, Muslims, and all people of good will are made in God's image and share in their own ways in God's holiness. For our purposes, we concentrate on the holiness of Christians.

Rooted in God, the community of believers from earliest times professed faith in Jesus as Lord and in the holiness of his Church. As the Nicene Creed says, the Church is "one, holy, catholic, and apostolic." In addition, Lumen Gentium (LG) speaks of the Church as "unfailingly holy." It says, "This is because Christ, the Son of God, who with the Father and the Spirit is hailed as 'alone holy,' loved the Church as his Bride, giving himself up for her so as to sanctify her (Eph 5:25-26); he joined her to himself as his body and endowed her with the gift of the Holy Spirit for the glory of God. Therefore, all in the Church, whether they belong to the hierarchy or are cared for by it, are called to holiness." (LG, no. 39)

The holiness of the Church comes from her founder, not from the spiritual worthiness of her members. Jesus, as Head of the Church, endows her with the Sacraments and the power of his Word to make her holy. Hence, the Body of Christ, saints and sinners alike, share in the holiness of her Founder. As St. Paul says, "Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her, in order to make her holy by cleansing her with the washing of water by the word, so as to present the Church to himself in splendor, without a spot or wrinkle or anything of the kind—yes, so that she may be holy and without blemish." (Eph 5:25-27)

Our holiness comes through the Church, the universal sacrament of salvation (LG, 48). The holiness of the Church and the universal holiness of all Christians are central teachings of Vatican II. They are the foundation for the spirituality of the entire Church, as coming from Baptism. We become holy by responding to and living in God's grace, praying, worshipping, and doing good works, especially works of justice and mercy.


We do not possess the divine nature of God or have his essential attributes. Nonetheless, made in God's image, we are called to be holy—saints and sinners alike—in imitation of Christ (1 Pt 1:15), as we pray, worship, love, show compassion, forgive, accept our crosses, and unite them to the Cross of Christ.

In Baptism, we are freed from sin, made holy by the grace of God, and endowed with the graces necessary to bring our holiness to fruition by living a life of faith, hope, and charity. Through Baptism, we become holy, sharers in the divine life. In the Eucharist, our holiness is deepened, as we become one with the source or fount of holiness, our Lord Jesus Christ. Confirmation strengthens us, and Reconciliation offers us God's forgiveness if we have strayed from the holiness given us in Baptism. The Sacrament of the Sick consoles us in our weakness. Orders and Matrimony give us the grace to sustain ourselves as we serve others in the states of ordained ministry and marriage. All the sacraments assist us on our way as we strive to live a holy life.  

We begin on our path to holiness at Baptism. Even the smallest act of kindness, done out of love for our brothers and sisters, is a step toward growth in holiness (cf. CCC, no. 2813). As Pope Francis says, "Holiness is a gift that is offered to all, without exception, so that it constitutes the distinctive character of every Christian. . . . . Everyone is called to holiness in their own state of life . . .  .. it is by living with love and offering Christian witness in our daily tasks that we are called to become saints. . . . . Always and everywhere you can become a saint, that is, by being receptive to the grace that is working in us and leads to holiness." (General Address to Pilgrims in Rome, Vatican Radio, 11/19/2014)

In the same General Address as quoted above, Pope Francis goes on to say:

  • "Holiness is a gift of the Lord Jesus, making us like him. We cannot obtain it by ourselves."

  • "Every Christian is called to holiness, namely to become a saint. It can occur always and everywhere. This is to be part of our lifestyle in our ordinary daily tasks, not only when we separate ourselves from the world and devote ourselves to prayer. Living a life of holiness can happen in marriage or the single life. It can occur with a worker in a factory or an accountant by being honest, competent, or serving others. It can happen by being a good parent or grandparent who is patient and teaches a child about Jesus and God's love. It can occur when giving to a needy person. This can be the moving force of our lives at home, in the streets, or at Church. God gives us the grace to travel along ordinary paths toward holiness and sainthood."

  • "When striving for holiness, we are to examine our lives to see how well we have responded to our call to holiness. Have we been a gossip, avoided taking time with our children because we were too tired, or neglected prayer? We need to remember the importance of prayer as a step to holiness. Every small step we take is a step toward holiness." 
Pope Francis' words stress that God extends the invitation to holiness to every person: clergy, religious, and lay. His teaching reflects the words of Pope Benedict XVI at the opening Mass for the Synod of Bishops on the New Evangelization. He said:

"Holiness is not confined by cultural, social, political or religious barriers. Its language, that of love and truth, is understandable to all people of good will and it draws them to Jesus Christ, the inexhaustible source of new life." (Homily, St. Peter's Square, Sunday, October 7, 2012, Libreria Editrice Vaticana)

Part 3 - Embracing Our personal call to holiness: prayer, worship, and action

"You are indeed Holy, O Lord, the fount of all holiness."
(Second Eucharistic Prayer)

Holiness is at the heart of being a Christian. It is God's gift and can be summed up in the Great Commandment to love God and our neighbors as ourselves. Progress in holiness strives toward ever deepening union with Christ, achieved by taking up our cross as Jesus did. In the words of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, "Spiritual progress entails the ascesis [i.e. self-discipline] and mortification that gradually lead to living in the peace and joy of the Beatitudes" (no. 2015). 

In reflecting on the story of Emma, which began this article, three elements, necessary for spiritual progress, manifest themselves and mirror our universal call to holiness. These are prayer, worship, and action.


To achieve holiness, prayer is essential. It is the communication channel between God and us. In the prayer that Jesus taught us, we ask that God's name be made holy. The Our Father draws us into God's loving plan of kindness, "'according to his purpose which he set forth in Christ,' that we might 'be holy and blameless before him in love'" (CCC, no. 2807). 

Emma's family and mine rooted our lives in prayer. Our growth in prayer was progressive. It involved a communal effort in our families. This included morning and evening prayer, prayers before and after meals, prayers invoking the intercession of Mary and the saints, and the rosary. A crucifix hanging on the wall, prayer books, statues, and a bible told family members and visitors alike that prayer was essential to us as families. 

Our life of prayer extended beyond our homes and included visits to church, prayers in school, and personal prayer while walking or playing. We learned that God is everywhere and that we needed to stay in contact with him through formal and informal prayers, in order to avoid temptations that came our way. 

Today, patterns of prayer need to be introduced into modern family life if they are missing. A rhythm of prayer provides great assistance to avoid negative images around us and that come our way through television, the Internet, cell phones, and undesirable characters in our neighborhoods, schools, and workplaces. As the channel that connects the all-good God with us, prayer helps us grow in holiness while we reach out in charity, especially to the poor and neglected.


I remember my father, leaving the store to go to St. Augustine Catholic Church for Mass, Confession, or a Holy Week service. Emma and her siblings learned from the example of their parents and their entire family attending church. For them, St. Edward Church was a vital part of their lives. 

In those days, Jesus' real presence in the Eucharist made a tremendous difference for Catholics. Often, we went into church for a visit, and bowed our heads when we passed in front of a Catholic church. Even more important, however, was the time we spent worshipping our all-holy God at Mass. Rarely, if ever, would a Catholic miss Sunday Mass, for we needed God, whom we loved, to enter our hearts and keep us pure, good, and holy. 

Regular worship, complemented by frequent Confession, played a vital part in our growth in holiness. So did the other sacraments. We believed that at these special times God came to us in unique ways, such as at Confirmation, Marriage, Ordination, and the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick. And, of course, the Baptism of a child was so important that parents rarely put it off more than two weeks.

How different today! Many Catholics, while better educated in the faith, often fail to appreciate the vital necessity of frequently receiving the grace of the sacraments to keep us on the path of holiness. In these days, we need the sacraments, especially Mass and Confession, more than ever. Paradoxically, though, it's precisely at the time we need them most that the practice of frequent Mass attendance and reception of the sacraments has waned or stopped completely. The road along which we respond to the universal call to holiness runs through the sacraments. It is vital today that Catholics better appreciate their value in living a holy life.


When Emma's neighbor made her sister the graduation dress and my father sold them the material and pattern for a very small amount of money, they took two small steps in living out their universal call to holiness. This road to holiness often occurs in such small steps, each one reinforcing personal holiness and giving good example to others. 

Emma's neighbor and my father's lifelong commitment to the Lord and faithful following of him helped them see that the actions they took were the Christian thing to do. They did not consciously allude to this, but "just did it," as the proper way to live. Pope Francis stresses the response to our universal call to holiness though daily actions in the words, "Let us go forth, then, let us go forth to offer everyone the life of Jesus Christ" (Evangelii Gaudium, no. 49). 

Parents and teachers need to instill in their children and in those they form in the faith the need to recognize daily actions as rich fonts for sharing God's love. Great sensitivity exists among the younger generation, today, for reaching out and helping the poor and needy. This instinct is a wonderful opportunity to join the natural propensity of young people for acts of kindness and charity to the gospel message of the universal call to holiness. Such actions leading to holiness of life reach beyond the family to the neighborhood, workplace, and parish. Faith formation can take the desire to serve the needy, implicit in the hearts of young and old alike, and make it explicit by linking actions for justice with Jesus' invitation to follow him along the path of holiness. In the final analysis, how we relate to Jesus affects our holiness of life.


"Holiness, a message that convinces without the need for words,
is the living reflection of the face of Christ."
(Novo Millennio Ineunte, no. 7)

Jesus came in human form to show us the way to the Father. As his disciples, we continue on the path he established. In our prayer and worship, we call upon the Father, ask the help of the Holy Spirit, and follow the path of the Lord. More than anything else, our example of holiness leads others to Christ, as we use our God-given gifts to reflect God's holiness in our families, among friends, and at work. When doing so, we reflect the holy face of Christ.

Copyright © 2016, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Washington, DC. All rights reserved. Permission is hereby granted to duplicate this work without adaptation for non-commercial use.

Scripture excerpts used in this work are taken from the New American Bible, rev. ed.© 2010, 1991, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Inc., Washington, DC. All rights reserved. No part of this work may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the copyright owner.

Excerpts from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, second edition, copyright © 2000, Libreria Editrice Vaticana–United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Washington, DC. Used with permission. All rights reserved.

Excerpts from Pope John Paul II, Christifideles Laici, copyright © 2000, Libreria Editrice Vaticana (LEV), Vatican City; Novo Millennio Ineunte, copyright © 2001, LEV; Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, copyright © 2013, LEV; Pope Paul VI, Lumen Gentium, copyright © 1964, LEV. Used with permission. All rights reserved.