Browse Our Articles & Podcasts

What Holiness Means to a Catholic, and to the World

Holiness is a topic about which ignorance abounds and concerning which not much Catholic ink is spilled. It’s also one of the most critical to understand if we’re to have a clear idea of what it means to be Christian.

Holiness is typically taken as a synonym for moral goodness. However, this is only one sense of the word.

Holiness may be understood in three sharply distinct senses: the ontological, the moral, and the ritual. The one definition that is critical to all three is this: holiness is the clear distinction of one from many. To be holy is to be unique, to be set apart from what is common, imperfect, or wicked.

Ontological holiness is firstly God in Himself. God is essentially holy. His nature is the basis upon which holiness rests. All definitions of the holy depend on God as their reference point. Ontological holiness is also that state of being of being a partaker in the Trinitarian life and indelibly marked as a Christian or a priest. This holiness is imparted in baptism, confirmation, and sacred ordination. It cannot be blotted out by anything whatever, and it constitutes a Christian as definitively set apart forever.

Ontological holiness is fortified by the other sacraments – namely, confession, unction, and matrimony, and the Holy Eucharist is He Who is its end. The sacraments are the sine qua non of participation in that holiness without which no one will see the Lord. This is one of the central elements of the authentic gospel, and it is the sure foundation of the virtue of hope for those of us who believe.

Moral holiness is goodness in human acts and is a result of ontological holiness. It is the conformance of our behavior and our character to God, resulting in us being a new and different sort of people. The heart of moral holiness is the virtue of charity. God is charity, a charity that is firstly Trinitarian and secondly Christological, for God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that we might burn with the charity of the Holy Ghost.

Moral holiness is the witness we give to the reality of the change effected by God in baptism. To the extent that it is present, sin has no place. Moral holiness also urges us to do not only what is right, but what is respectful, prudent, and honorable, discerning what is perfect in all circumstances.

Like ontological holiness, moral holiness is central to the proclamation of the gospel. To it Christians are called so as to be made ever more perfectly the members of Christ.

Finally, there is ritual holiness, which is the consecration of people, places, and things exclusively to God. Consecration imparts an invisible character and signifies that character by physical means.

In baptism, all three senses of holiness are present: the catechumen is ontologically changed; he is infused with the charity whereby moral holiness arises; and, importantly, he is consecrated in the sight of all as the temple of the Holy Ghost.

In every sacramental or liturgical act, the Church segregates certain things from among common elements. The host and the chalice are consecrated as holy to the Lord from the moment they are placed on the altar. The altar is the throne of God and the place of sacrifice; it is no longer just a table. The sanctuary is where God dwells and is the image of Heaven on Earth. It is no longer a mere portion of a large room. The nave is for the use of Christians in the worship of God; for no one else and to nothing else is it so reserved. The narthex is that point at which the world is transformed into the church.

Ritual holiness is neither new nor superfluous. It has been the defining identifier of the Church since Abraham, who by his singular journey to the land of promise signified his call to be God’s own. It is also the defining characteristic of the Mosaic covenant, which with its elaborate rites not only foreshadowed the blood that speaks better things than Abel’s, but also consecrated Israel as holy to the Lord.

Ritual holiness creates hierarchy and exclusivity. It says, “This far, and no farther.” It does not respect all equally. It creates divisions. It implies moral absolutes. It is therefore at enmity with the modern mentality, just as surely as it is at the heart of Catholicism.

These are foundational principles from which many implications can and ought to be drawn. The Church is constituted in, called to, and consecrated in holiness. Holiness is the reason she exists; it is her origin and destination. It is the light with which she lightens the world, the salt whereby she seasons it, and the bait whereby she catches souls. It is Christ, living and moving in His mystical Body. May we all come to realize just how essential holiness is to all of us individually, and especially to the life of the Church.

35 thoughts on “What Holiness Means to a Catholic, and to the World”

  1. Great article!

    I believe “moral” holiness starts first with a desire to KNOW God and seeking to be closer to Him every day. It entails being more concerned with what He thinks than of what our friends think….so much so that our lives become a witness to His presence within us. Even in the small things — and maybe more importantly in the small things — “who” we are can become evident without our ever needing to “preach the Gospel.”

    Holiness starts there….IMHO, of course.

  2. First of all, for a soul to be holy it must be in a state of grace. Recently I heard a ‘homily’ from a deacon at a novus ordo Mass who gave examples of kindnesses and called those examples of holiness. Maybe. But an immoral person not in a state of grace can still be kind. I think, in general, even Catholics have no idea of what it means to be holy. We are only basically told that we are all just fine and we are all going to heaven.

    • Some years ago, I sought a priest for Confession at our then, Novus Ordo parish.
      He was rather young, and had a strong character about him.
      In Confession, once, as I was somehow trying to ‘explain’ my sin of jealousy of another’s intelligence , he stopped me in my tracks and told me, ” You are not called to be intelligent, but to be holy.”

      I shall never forget that holy priest and his stern, but loving words to me.

      Thank you for this article.

  3. Holiness in the ontological sense—“…you are standing on holy ground”—seems to be interchangeable with the word “sacred,” i.e. the sanctuary is a sacred space. The same with ritual holiness; we speak of both Holy Mass and the Sacred Liturgy.

    I’ve always understood moral holiness to be the result of having achieved a degree of heroic virtue. But it strikes me that while we call the Saints “holy,” we don’t refer to them as “sacred.”

    • I see “holiness” as a path with the ultimate goal being so closely tied to Our Lord that we achieve sainthood. It’s the little things that can trip us up — the dumb things we overlook — which catch us unaware yet hurt our relationship with God. Things like taking office supplies home from the office or gossip or even really small things like putting the shopping cart away in the cart corral rather than leaving it precariously skewed near the front of your car. (That was a biggie for me!)

      If we can submit and discipline ourselves to honor God in the little things, I believe the bigger things become so much more difficult to succumb to. In that way, we exercise our spiritual muscles, pushing back at our self-will in order to become more holy.

      At least that’s how I see it — in the simplest form. There is SO much more, but this is just the basic “first step” in my own life. (Of course, it goes without saying that regular Confession so that we remain in a state of Grace as well as regular — even daily — reception of the Holy Eucharist are also paramount “first steps.”)

      • Let me tell you a story. Once upon a time there was a very devout monk who daily grew in holiness. Finally he died and found himself at heaven’s door. He knocked and a voice from inside asked, “Who is it?”

        The monk answered, “it’s ne, Lord. Let me in.”

        The voice replies, “Go away! There isn’t room for two of us in here.”

        So, drjected, the monk returns to earth and continues to grow in holiness. After many years he again dies, goes up to heaven and knicks.

  4. This is a great, timely article. We have heared that vague call to ‘holiness’ from JPII and others, but it really must be more than vague. “Be ye perfect as your Father in Heaven is perfect’ kinda sums it up. We are set aside in Baptism – I really like that…so we are to be separate from others? You bet! That sounds so intolerant, eh? I pray for those who have no Faith, but I have to say I truly JOY in God’s gift to ME and I feel I should be on my knees always in thanksgiving for this blessing.

    Deserved? Hardly. Grateful? Totally. We also MUST want this gift, this joy, for all peoples – Francis is right in his desire that all be saved, that all ‘come to the Lord’ etc. Where he goes horribly awry is in his complete misunderstanding of The Church and her Mission, of the necessity for dogma and doctrine given our fallen nature – and so much more.

  5. I hope the author reads comments. I wish I could thank him in person

    This was an amazing read. Simple and concise. Funny, holiness is always simple. We are called to be simple. Not as in stupidity simple. Our world has even hijacked the beautiful word simple, which all saints strives to be. God is pure being. This short and simple piece quieted my morning passions and directed them to Holiness.

    I benefited from every single word, but especially enjoyed the understanding that holiness creates hierarchy. For Catholics, these distinctions set us free to seek our personal holiness in our state of life, which is the path to sainthood.

    For me, this is more proof of the poisonous murky water we have been dipped in since Vll in which vague and ambiguous has been a steady diet.

    After reading this, which contains truth and holy simplicity, I feel like I took a spiritual bath

  6. Cariveau’s article is well stated since personal holiness as he says is “the Sine qua non” in the Christian life. However we are living in exceptional times demanding exceptional response. Many good Catholics are somewhat Laissez Faire regarding the current crisis of faith manufactured at the Vatican and say “We should leave things in God’s hands and just pray”. An outstanding Catholic Leader has a starkly different view:

    “Bishop Athanasius Schneider, auxiliary bishop of Astana in Kazakhstan, said in an interview with Michael Matt of The Remnant newspaper that ‘the true friends of the Pope’ are those cardinals bishops and laymen ‘who express their public concern about these very important issues, about the state of confusion in the Church. They are really the friends of the Pope.’ He called the concerns and calls for clarity, ‘an act of charity towards the Pope.’ He added that he was convinced that when the Pope faces his judgment before God, ‘he will be thankful to those’ cardinals, bishops and lay people who called on him to offer clarity. Archbishop Schneider said that those who perform ‘adulation of the Pope’ and ‘deny the evidence’ that ambiguity in the Pope’s teachings is causing confusion are not helping the Pope nor themselves when they will face their final judgment’. Regarding those who tell the Pope, ‘It’s all okay,’ despite the ‘disastrous situation,’ the archbishop warned that at their judgment God will ask them ‘what have you done when there was confusion, why have you not raised your voice to defend the truth?’”(LifeSiteNews).

    • Yes, I agree. Will add that many Catholics, like me, get to caught up in the diabolical disorientation and become bitter, exhausted even scandalized. I am called to be faithful to my state in life. I, like many good Catholics can’t do a thing about the state of affairs as far as action and admonition. I am using my time in knowing my faith, discernment of reliable sources and prayer/penance. Although, this may seem to be worthless, I believe my desire, prayer and penance can be used by God for those priests, bishops and lay people who have to put their livelihood on the line and actually do those things you speak of.

      St. Therese of the Little Flower (I’m a 3rd order Carmelite) desires with her whole neing to be in the mission field. Turns out, she is patron of the missions though prayer and being an oblation of Love to God. Some of us…and there are many, wish we could be a bishop. I would die to defend the faith. It appears to me the lay people are chomping at the nit to raise voices, admonition and anything to defend Holy Mother Church.

      To me, it is the clergy who are in need of your thoughts.

      • I understand what you’re saying Lynn. True it’s the clergy that carry the major responsibility of addressing the issues harming the faith. Although Laity are not homogeneous and some are in a position to better address the issues. In your circumstances and others who live under constraints of family and other commitments prayer and sacrifice deepening knowledge and practice of the faith I assure you is not worthless. God places greater value on the degree of effort and sacrifice we make than visible outcome. You’re doing quite well. Remember me on occasion in your prayers.

        • Father, I too am a lowly foot soldier who relies on my prayers and sacrifices on behalf of my beloved Church and Priests to be efficacious weapons in our fight against the evil which has penetrated like wisps of smoke. For quite a while I have offered my Thursday Mass and prayers for priests. Recently I doubled down. Now I devote Thursdays to fasting on behalf of priests and the Church, as well as make a “pilgrimage” of sorts down to the Archbishop’s Cathedral in order to celebrate daily Mass at the seat of the Church in my area and then offer an hour in the Adoration chapel. Those hours are all spent in concentrated and specific prayer — most particularly for the conversion of our Pope and the steadfast belief that God will rise up holy clergy of all stripes who will raise the standard and lead us safely out of these turbulent waters.

          I wish I could do more.

          • Thank you for sharing! I’m so isolated and believe sometimes I am alone I’m actually praying. People say a lot but many just talk. May God bless you!

          • Lynn, never downplay the role of prayer in this Spiritual Battle, which is exactly what we are experiencing. It is the FIRST LINE OF DEFENSE!

            What does Mary say to each of the visionaries over the centuries? “Pray, Pray, Pray!” She always says it three times. That’s how important it is.

          • Thank you, Father. I visualize my prayers being poured out by Our Lady and Blessed Savior as a balm for those front-line warriors who need reinforcement! Helps keep my prayer wheels turning!

        • Thank you and I will most certainly recommend you in prayer, most especially to Our Blessed Mother’s Immaculate Heart. Re reading my comment to you was an occasion of humiliation lol. I sent it before proof reading it. Thank you for the encouragement.


Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Popular on OnePeterFive

Share to...