You Need to Use This Top 10 Guide to Holiness
Everyone has at least one mentor or guide in learning and practicing the Catholic faith. I can think of past spiritual directors, confessors, and the examples of many as making a big difference in my life as a Catholic. Out of those guides, there are some that are so important, so impacting, that I wonder what direction my life would have taken if not for them. For anyone who encountered him, Bl. Francis Xavier Seelos was that kind of spiritual guide. Once his kind, simple approach became known, Catholics traveled from neighboring towns to hear him preach and to go to confession. What made him so appealing was “a simple lifestyle and a simple manner of expressing himself. The themes of his preaching, rich in biblical content, were always heard and understood even by everyone, regardless of education, culture, or background.” In Bl. Francis, we have a great model for the New Evangelization. The foundation of his success was his own personal holiness, his willingness to be among his flock, and his ability to tune his message to their frequency without losing any substance.
Born in Bavaria in 1819, he had the desire to be a priest from the age of twelve. In reading accounts of the Redemptorist Fathers’ ministry to the German-speaking immigrants in the United States, he heard the call of the Holy Spirit. He was accepted into the Redemptorists in November 1842 and sailed for New York in April 1843. Eighteen months later, at the conclusion of his novitiate and his theological studies, Francis was ordained a priest. He served for nine years in St. Philomena Parish in Pittsburgh, PA, working with the future St. John Neumann. In addition to his parochial duties, Francis also served his order as novice master, the superior of the community in Pittsburgh, and Prefect of Students. Later parish stops included time in Maryland (1854-1862) and itinerant preaching in New England and the Midwest (1863-1866). His time in Maryland included a stop in Washington D.C. At the outbreak of the Civil War, a new law enacted in 1863 required all able-bodied men to “make themselves available for military duty.” Francis met with and persuaded President Abraham Lincoln to exempt the Redemptorist seminarians from military service. Fittingly, his life ended in service. Ministering to victims of yellow fever in New Orleans, he contracted the disease himself. Francis passed into eternal life on October 4, 1867, at the age of 48. St. John Paul II beatified Francis on April 9, 2000 and declared his feast day to be October 5.
His Top Ten List (Way Before Letterman)
I find one of the major obstacles to holiness is biting off more than I can chew. Holiness is wonderful and desirable, but the temptation is to go from zero to Padre Pio in the span of a week. When I do that, I only set myself up for failure. Sanctity is a hard-fought battle that takes serious effort, prayer, faith, and sacrifice. Bl. Francis Xavier Seelos developed a list of ten things to advance on the path to holiness, and the list bears his trademark simplicity, substance, and practical application to any state of life. These are practical, ordinary things that any person could do. It’s a reminder that God does not ask us to be professional theologians or enter a religious order to be holy. He asks for our hearts and our faithfulness. That can be accomplished with Bl. Francis’ list:
1. Go to Mass with deepest devotion.
If you stopped into a Mass said in Latin or a language not your own, could you truly attend with devotion? Or, as Vatican II put it: could you fully, actively, and consciously participate? The answer is yes! Participation in the Mass is first and foremost spiritual. Without the spiritual disposition on the part of the assembly, the sum of their participation amounts to sitting, standing, kneeling, and some verbal responses.
Yet the Eucharist is the deepest of all mysteries, from which each Catholic is meant to draw their life. “Through the liturgy, the inner man is rooted and grounded in ‘the great love with which [the Father] loved us’ in his beloved Son” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #1073). To immerse ourselves in that great love, attend Mass with deep devotion. Start by cultivating stillness of heart. If our minds and hearts are full of the noise of the world, how can we receive the Word of God? Stillness isn’t negative or passive; it frees our hearts from being weighed down by the concerns of the world. It is then that our hearts are most receptive to the great love of God.
2. Take a half hour to reflect upon your main failing & make resolutions to avoid it.
Self-awareness eludes many people, especially when it comes to faults. While some faults rise to the surface, others are buried deeper. Bl. Francis recommends half an hour so that we let the Holy Spirit settle into our hearts. With the enlightenment of the Spirit, our goal should be to recognize the faults and take concrete steps to improve on them. I’m not sure which of those two things is more difficult.
The effort is worth it, however, because Christ Himself is calling us to love as He did (John 13:34). This isn’t only for the sake of our souls; just as much, it’s for the sake of the Body of Christ. Our faults don’t just affect us—they affect the people we live with, work with, as well as anyone we might encounter. We should never underestimate the value of our actions, and how other people perceive Catholics due to us. An example is the conversion of Bl. John Henry Newman to Catholicism. Newman and his towering intellect wrestled with theology and dogma for several years as he sought the fullness of truth. The tipping point in his conversion was the simplicity and holiness of an itinerant preacher, Fr. Dominic Barberi. As the saying goes, if you stood accused of being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?
3. Do daily spiritual reading for at least 15 minutes, if a half hour is not possible.
Holistic approaches to medicine are becoming more common, and they’re onto something that Christian anthropology has advocated for centuries. The human person is a union of body, intellect, heart, and soul. All those parts of the human person need to be fed when it comes to the faith, not just the last two. Spiritual reading targets the intellect and the heart at once, with beneficial effects on the soul. The diversity of spiritual reading available renders any excuse moot.
Those inclined to a more academic read could pick up the Catechism of the Catholic Church or one of St. John Paul II’s encyclicals (like Redemptor Hominis). Landmark works of Catholic spirituality are also available online for free, from the likes of St. Augustine to St. Teresa of Avila. The writings of the Church Fathers are also available online for free. Biographies of saints are great ways to make friends in heaven and gain inspiration from their lives. There are great conversions (Paul, Augustine, John Henry Newman) and great heroes (Martin of Tours, Joan of Arc). With enough looking, there is something for everyone.
4. Say the rosary every day.
Spiritual masters and popes over the last century have exhorted the faithful to pray the rosary. In the introduction to Rosarium Virginis Mariae, St. John Paul II spoke eloquently:
“The Rosary, though clearly Marian in character, is at heart a Christocentric prayer. In the sobriety of its elements, it has all the depth of the Gospel message in its entirety, of which it can be said to be a compendium. It is an echo of the prayer of Mary, her perennial Magnificat for the work of the redemptive Incarnation which began in her virginal womb. With the Rosary, the Christian people sits at the school of Mary and is led to contemplate the beauty on the face of Christ and to experience the depths of his love. Through the Rosary the faithful receive abundant grace, as though from the very hands of the Mother of the Redeemer.”
If their testimony isn’t enough, then remember that Our Lady Herself requested this during the apparitions at Fatima. The rosary—and, by extension, the special intercession of Our Lady—has far-reaching effects. It stamps out sin in our lives, changes hearts, and opens a special door for grace. It is a weapon against evil in the world, being the sword that conquered Boko Haram in Nigeria. No matter the storms raging in the world, the rosary promises peace. Is there any good reason not to make the rosary part of our daily lives?
5. Also daily, if at all possible, visit the Blessed Sacrament; and toward evening, meditate on the Passion of Christ for a half hour.
God is present in nature, in the hearts of all of us; there is nowhere we can run from Him (see Psalm 139). Jesus is really, truly present in the Host; it is His flesh given for the life of the world (John 6:51). As He Is God, praying with the Blessed Sacrament is something special. Eucharistic adoration extends the Mass in a unique way; the Paschal Mystery that was made present at Mass is reserved for us in every tabernacle and monstrance. Visiting the Blessed Sacrament, even for a few minutes, gives God one of the most valuable things we have: our time.
We are familiar with St. Faustina and her Diary of Divine Mercy in my Soul. Contemplating the Lord’s passion goes back even further than Bl. Francis. St. Paul reflected on the subject in Romans, Colossians, 2 Corinthians, and Philippians. Meditating on the Passion of Christ should result in prayers of thanks, humility, and love. Looking at Jesus on the cross, we can better understand what He means when He said, “love one another even as I have loved you” (John 13:34).
6. Conclude the day with evening prayer & an examination of conscience over all the faults & sins of the day.
This takes its cue from the Liturgy of the Hours. Night prayer (also known as Compline) includes an examination of conscience along with the other prayers. By reviewing our sins of the day, we have the opportunity to ask God for forgiveness. St. Paul reminded the Ephesians to “not let the sun go down on your anger.” Why? To “give no opportunity to the devil” (Eph 4:26-27). With any sin, letting it take a foothold in our hearts is playing with fire (and brimstone).
7. Every month make a review of the month in confession.
Daily examinations of conscience should lead us to the practice of regular confession. The sacrament of confession has a twofold purpose. First, it reconciles us to God. Second, it loosens the hold sin has on our person. Reconciliation with God is a good thing; in fact, full reconciliation with God is the greatest thing we can ever hope to arrive at. Despite our best intentions, our fallen human nature is inclined to sin. We need help! In His mercy, Jesus gave us the sacrament of reconciliation by endowing the Church with His very authority to forgive sins (cf. John 20:21-23). It’s a tremendous gift to humanity. Anyone in need of healing from sin needs regular confession in their lives!
The exhortation to confession has a warning side to it. Left unchecked, sin will run roughshod over our soul. St. James reminds us that “each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, brings forth death” (James 1:14-15).
8. Choose a special patron every month & imitate that patron in some special virtue.
The litany of saints each month is like an art gallery. God’s masterpieces are on display in order to bring glory to Him and to bring us closer to Him. Bl. Francis has a great idea in concretizing the pursuit of virtue. Seeking to build a virtue like purity is somewhat abstract; seeing it lived out in a real person is easier to understand. St. Joan of Arc was a shining example of faith and purity; St. Isaac Jogues and St. Jean de Brebeuf were great examples of fortitude. St. Teresa of Calcutta embodied Christ’s charity; St. Vincent DePaul, St. Frances Cabrini, and many others practiced the corporal works of mercy.
Pick a saint, look up their biography, and start today. Try this calendar for saint feast days and biographies.
9. Precede every great feast with a novena, that is, nine days of devotion.
We would prepare for a feast like Christmas with shopping, parties, family get-togethers, cheesy Hallmark movies, and baking. Where is the spiritual preparation for Christmas? Here again, Bl. Francis isn’t asking us to fast on bread and water for nine days or wear sackcloth. Praying a novena entails reciting certain prayers each day for nine days. The novena prayer (or collection of prayers) can be one of your writing or an existing one. You can even sign up on a website to receive emails with novena prayers for a variety of feasts.
In times that I’ve fasted and prayed in advance of a feast, I’ve been much better attuned to what’s happening at Mass. Whatever preparation we can do ahead of a feast always enhances our spiritual participation in it.
10. Try to begin & end every activity with a “Hail Mary.”
It’s a simple prayer that everyone knows, that recalls the greatest event in the history of the world: the Incarnation. Who doesn’t have time to say a fifteen-second prayer?
Bl. Francis Xavier Seelos had a great gift of preaching, for a single purpose: helping as many souls get to heaven as possible. His teachings are still doing that, 150 years later!