Aparecida on Christian Holiness

brazil-popeThe central second part of the Aparecida document is on “The Life of Jesus Christ in Missionary Disciples.” Its practical goal is really its last chapter, on “the formative itinerary”: how do we form ourselves, and those entrusted to us, to be real Christians?

But we cannot rightly understand that formation, cannot approach our Christian life correctly, without understanding what it is we are trying to do. Thus there are three chapters leading up to that “formative itinerary.”

The first, as we saw last week, is on joy and the good news. We need to see that Jesus is the bringer of joy – a truth that points in two directions: both that our natural desires are meant to be fulfilled, and that the only way they can truly be fulfilled is in Jesus.

The next two chapters consider “The Vocation of Missionary Disciples to Holiness” (our topic for this week) and “The Communion of the Missionary Disciples in the Church.” We could summarize these as love of God and love of neighbor, or union with Christ and with his Church. We will see next week that true union with Christ cannot happen apart from his body the Church.


But first, and most centrally, we must see that our vocation is to holiness, nothing more and nothing less. We cannot be real missionaries, or disciples, without being holy – nor can we be truly holy without thereby becoming missionary disciples. Real mission is entirely about our transformation in Christ.

Aparecida is insistently Christian, and Christo-centric, in its understanding of holiness:

4. The Vocation of Missionary Disciples to Holiness

     a. Called to Follow Jesus Christ

     b.  Configured to the Master

     c. Sent to Announce the Gospel of the Kingdom of Life

     d. Enlivened by the Holy Spirit

The first section simply underlines that holiness is about Jesus, and Jesus is about holiness. Holiness is not something we do on our own, not some sort of spiritual gymnastics. Holiness is nothing more nor less than union with Christ.

Again, this formulation points in two directions. On the one hand, it undercuts all Pelagianism, all sense that we are the source of our own holiness. Asceticism, for example, has an important place in the Christian life – but unless it is entirely understood in terms of union with Christ, it becomes a path to self-destruction. True asceticism is only about following Christ.

On the other hand, emphasizing that holiness is inseparable from the call to follow Jesus also undercuts a kind of Protestantism, or extrinsicism, that pretends that Jesus saves us without transforming us. The only way to know Jesus is to follow Jesus, to become holy as he is holy. We are called not to let him do it for us, but to follow in his footsteps: through the Cross to the ascent into heaven.


The next section delves deeper by saying we are “Configured to the Master.” The word “master” can convey (especially in the older languages) the idea of Jesus as teacher, as well as the rich Biblical picture of him as our king.

But it is not enough to say Jesus is our master, our teacher, or our king. We don’t understand what these words really mean unless we realize that he transforms us, from the inside out, to become what he is: sons and daughters as he is son, divine as he is divine, holy as he is holy.

“Imitation of Christ” is an important idea – but only if we understand that we are like Christ because Christ himself configures us to himself, transforms us, changes us from the inside out, to be what he is.


We are then “Sent to Announce the Gospel of the Kingdom of Life.” The key word, really, is “sent.”

This is, of course, the central theme of the Aparecida document, with its emphasis on mission.

This is the internal core of mission: the idea that we are so configured to Christ, so profoundly follow him, that we do what he does. We live entirely to spread his message, to love what he loves, to be his friends. And we are so enlivened with his holiness that we ourselves speak his word. A disciple who is not active is no disciple at all.


Finally, we are “Enlivened by the Holy Spirit.” There’s an unhealthy tendency to oppose devotion to the Holy Spirit against devotion to Christ. But in real Catholic theology, they are inseparable. Holiness is to to be transformed by the Spirit of Christ, enlivened by his life. This is the real good news: that Jesus gives us the Holy Spirit, the giver of true divine life.

Where do you find yourself separating holiness from union with Christ?

Click here for the entire series on the Aparecida document.


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