I have been reflecting on the holy witness of Madeleine Delbrêl for some years now. Most recently, I wrote about her in my pastoral letter, “For Greater Things You Were Born.”
So, I was very pleased to see that Pope Francis has just recognized her heroic virtues and declared her “Venerable.”
Delbrêl was a French convert from atheism who lived without much publicity among the poor in mid-20th century Paris. It is not surprising that Catholics in this country did not pay much attention to the news that she had been elevated on the road to sainthood.
But we should.
Delbrêl, like so many saints from the last century, shows us that holiness is not something for special people who are set apart from the world in monasteries or convents. She reminds us that saints are people we meet every day on the streets — people that God leaves among the crowds, to work ordinary jobs and meet the routine challenges of living the Christian life in a secular world.
“We, the ordinary people of the street,” Delbrêl used to say, “believe with all our might that this street, this world, where God has placed us, is our place of holiness.”
This is a timely reminder as we approach Ash Wednesday next week and the beginning of Lent.
We are living in times when many people have lost their “why.” They no longer know the answer to basic questions. Why do we get up in the morning? What purpose are we living for?
There is a crisis of meaning that has been spreading slowly over many years across our society. It expresses itself in many unlikely ways — from rising suicide rates to epidemics of drug addiction to the growing numbers of people who say they feel alone and isolated.
This is the sad irony that lies at the heart of our secular, technological society. People are thirsting for God even as our “thought leaders” — politicians and judges, scientists, entertainers, artists and educators — all insist that we can build a progressive and prosperous society by living as if God does not exist and as if the human soul does not desire things that transcend material entertainments.
For me, the question of “why” comes down to a question of “who.” We cannot answer why we are here or what we are living for unless we know who we are and what we are made for.
That is the one answer that our science, technology and politics — all those things in our society that substitute for religion — cannot give.
Of course, God is the great “who” and holiness is the great “why.”
We need to recover this awareness that we are created by the holy and living God and that he creates us to be holy as he is holy and to love as he loves.
And this begins with understanding that holiness is the ordinary measure of what it means to follow Jesus.
In the Trappist monk Thomas Merton’s conversion story, he tells of how when he decided to become a Catholic he told a friend, “I guess what I want to be is a good Catholic.” His friend responded, “What you should say is that you want to be a saint.”
The point is that holiness, to be a saint, is what God created us for.
This simple, beautiful fact, should be at the center of everything in the Church — our preaching, our Catholic schools and religious education, our work for justice, our sharing of the gospel with our neighbors.
This is the good news that we are called to proclaim in our times — that we are made to be saints. That is the same thing as saying we were made for love.
Delbrêl described her conversion as falling in love with the living God. “By reading and reflecting, I found God,” she said. “But by praying, I believed that God found me and that he is a living reality, and that we can love him in the same way we love a person.”
Delbrêl discovered that holiness is our mission — a message we deliver without words, that by our personal holiness we bring others to follow Jesus with us.
This is a discovery all of us need to renew, as we continue to follow Jesus, making our ordinary lives “our place of holiness.”
Pray for me this week and I will be praying for you.
And let us ask God for the grace to make real progress on our path of holiness during these 40 days of Lent.
Holiness is not our work but God’s work in us. So, this Lent, let us allow him to do his work, by opening our hearts to him through our prayer, fasting and almsgiving — asking him to create in us a new heart, and a new desire to want only what he wants.
May our Blessed Mother Mary go with us and help us to follow the living God with living faith and to know that we are called to be saints.