Following presentations of the Church’s purpose, life, hierarchy and laity, Lumen Gentium1 turns to the call to holiness that Jesus addresses to “each and everyone of His disciples of every condition” by inviting them to “be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). This holiness “is expressed in many ways in individuals, who in their walk of life, tend toward the perfection of charity, thus causing the edification of others.”
While holiness is a grace - a gift from God - that Christians receive in baptism, they need to “hold on to and complete [it] in their lives” - again thanks to grace - by having a “heart of mercy, kindness, humility, meekness, patience” (Colossians 3:12). The result then is not something restricted to Christians, but instead is the promotion of “a more human manner of living […] in this earthly society.” More specifically, the instructions to Christians are the following:
“They must follow in His footsteps and conform themselves to His image seeking the will of the Father in all things. They must devote themselves with all their being to the glory of God and the service of their neighbor. In this way, the holiness of the People of God will grow into an abundant harvest of good, as is admirably shown by the life of so many saints in Church history.”Holiness thus is an imitation of Jesus, a seeking to do the Father’s will (as Jesus did) and a service to all of humanity, as demonstrated by the saints. Holiness is to “follow the poor Christ, the humble and cross-bearing Christ in order to be worthy of being sharers in His glory.”
Bishops, by the sacramental grace they have received, “are given the courage necessary to lay down their lives for their sheep, and the ability of promoting greater holiness in the Church by their daily example.” Priests, are called to “the holiness of humble and hidden service” and “should grow daily in their love of God and their neighbor by the exercise of their office through Christ.” Deacons are called to “stand before men as personifications of goodness and friends of God.” The path to holiness for married couples and parents is “by faithful love” through which they “sustain one another in grace throughout the entire length of their lives” and lead their children to the practice of the evangelical virtues (poverty, chastity, obedience). Work too is a path to holiness by which the Christian “should raise all of society, and even creation itself, to a better mode of existence.” “Poverty, infirmity and sickness” as well as “hardships or […] suffer[ing] persecution for justice sake” also result in being “united with the suffering Christ.” A shared prerequisite for all is “to receive all things with faith from the hand of their heavenly Father and […] cooperate with the divine will.”
While it might seem from the above that those in different circumstances and positions in the Church have different paths to holiness, Lumen Gentium emphasizes both that “holiness is one” and that “God is love, and he who abides in love, abides in God and God in Him” (1 John 4:16). This primacy of love, which is a gift from the Holy Spirit, is the means “by which we love God above all things and our neighbor because of God.” This gift of love is nourished by listening to the Word of God, accepting His Will, participating in the Eucharist and the Liturgy, “prayer, self-abnegation, lively fraternal service and the constant exercise of all the virtues.” It is love again that “rules over all the means of attaining holiness and gives life to these same means.” In summary, “[i]t is the love of God and the love of one’s neighbor which points out the true disciple of Christ.”
Given the above view of love, which is a gift from God, nourished by the sacraments, and which is then directed back at God, also through one’s neighbor, the supreme manifestation of love is “lay[ing] down [ones] life for Christ and His brothers” - martyrdom.
“By martyrdom a disciple is transformed into an image of his Master by freely accepting death for the salvation of the world—as well as his conformity to Christ in the shedding of his blood. Though few are presented such an opportunity, nevertheless all must be prepared to confess Christ before men. They must be prepared to make this profession of faith even in the midst of persecutions, which will never be lacking to the Church, in following the way of the cross.”Next, celibacy is singled out, which is a “grace given by the Father to certain souls, whereby they may devote themselves to God alone the more easily, due to an undivided heart.” The free choice of poverty and obedience are also praised as means for attaining holiness. “Th[ese are] beyond the measure of the commandments, but are done in order to become more fully like the [poor and] obedient Christ.” Finally, the following exhortation is made to aid all in their seeking of holiness, which is not only an invitation but an obligation for every Christian:
“Let neither the use of the things of this world nor attachment to riches, which is against the spirit of evangelical poverty, hinder them in their quest for perfect love. Let them heed the admonition of the Apostle [Paul - cf. 1 Corinthians 7:31] to those who use this world; let them not come to terms with this world; for this world, as we see it, is passing away.”The key takeaways for me from this short chapter in Lumen Gentium are the underlining of the oneness and universality of holiness, the obligation for all Christians to seek it and its synonymity with love. A love that is directed at God through one’s neighbors, that leads to God through the selfless giving of oneself to others. There are details here about different aspects to emphasis for different roles within the Church and different means that the Church offers its members in aid of holiness, but the core point here is that holiness is about imitating Jesus, who loved us so much that he even gave his life for us. Holiness is a path that leads from every ordinary moment to the extraordinary, total giving of oneself out of love.
1 If you are not a Catholic, you might like to read the caveat in paragraph two of this post, where I propose a way for you to approach this post in which I attempt to summarize what I understand the Catholic Church as addressing to its members.