Whenever I used to ask my high school Juniors at the beginning of the semester, What is your purpose in life?, the answer I usually received was “To be happy.” Not bad, but what does that mean? When I dug further, nearly every answer boiled down to the simple formula of: Pass high school and college to get a good enough job to make enough money to do the things they want. People of all ages can relate to this formula and have used it to live both good and bad lives. We can call this formula the ‘Money Ladder.’
I was unsatisfied so I pushed back. But what about God? You all are good Catholic School kids. You know that God must be part of your life to be happy right? They usually answered in the affirmative and introduced the ‘Money Ladder’ in its second phase: Pass high school and college to get a good job to make enough money to do the things you want. During this process, maybe pray before meals and at night, go to mass on Sundays (or when it doesn’t interfere with work or hobbies), and ask God for the things we want or for help when things are hard. While I figured that only about a quarter of the class actually had the intention to attempt to be faithful to that plan and even fewer would actually be able to implement a faith life, the plan still was flawed and fell short of the purpose of life.
The purpose of life is to live a life that accepts the will of God which leads us to Heaven where we will be in full loving communion with God eternally. This seems complicated, but it is actually quite simple. We just have to figure out God’s will for our lives and do it. What is the will of God? That we all be saints, every one of us. Regardless of ethnicity, race, religion, etc., everyone is called to be a saint. Many people (even some who went to Catholic School) tend to think that only the people canonized by the Church are saints. Yet, sainthood encompasses all people who have made it to heaven, whether or not they have been officially proclaimed a saint by the Catholic Church. The Church has canonized thousands of saints over its history, yet we know from Revelation 7:9 that “a great multitude, which no one could count, from every nation, race, people, and tongue” is present in Heaven. So there is hope, and there is challenge! We must strive to be saints, because that is the only way into Heaven. But how do we become saints? Do we have to do all of the fantastic works of Mother Teresa, St. Francis, or one of the early Church’s martyrs? Yes, but it is a simpler formula than we think.
The simple formula comes from the Baltimore Catechism. Sainthood requires us “to know, love, and serve God,” While this statement is true and simple, in western culture, we often fall victim to losing the meaning of our faith in cliches. When we hear, “know, love, and serve,” we rarely think about what that practically entails. Consequently, we can think the random application of these words checks a box that gets us a heaven prize or builds up our resume that will be handed to St. Peter at the pearly gates. We can be tempted to think that if I do my best to never miss mass, stack up my service hours, and am generally a kind person to those who are kind to me, we will fit into God’s grading system. Sometimes we even think, ‘I’m in the top 50% of good people so God will let me into heaven.’ Or we can set lowest bar of ‘Well at least I am not a murderer.’
Why do we accept these low standards when Jesus explicitly challenges us to take up our cross and follow Him (Matt 16:24) as the road to sainthood? Usually it is because we are trying to climb the ‘money ladder,’ or we are busy with some other vain pursuit. We buy into the lie that we can pursue both God and our desires as long as we fit God into our plan. The problem with this mindset is that it is not truly focused on God. Jesus instructs us in His sermon on the mount in Matthew 6:33, “Seek first the kingdom [of God] and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you.” Many Catholics/Christians have heard this verse many times, but do we take it seriously? Do we use it as an honest self examination? Do we practically know what it means? What many homilies/Catholic education courses fail to explain is that total abandon to the will of God is more than living a virtuous life. It is more than following the precepts of the Catholic Church. It is more than fitting God into the plan for my life. It is putting everything in our lives at the service of knowing, loving, and serving God, and if there is something in our life that hinders me (even if it is not a sin) from doing so it must be eliminated from our lives.
This takes courage and strength beyond our ability, and can only be achieved through God’s grace. But is also the foundation of a wonderful adventure that is the life of a saint. Yes, it will be full of trials and struggles, but also peace, joy, and the hope for our heavenly reward. So if we rid ourselves of the control of the ‘money ladder’ or our personal dreams and entertainment, we will be free to live the saintly life God has planned for us. The secret of sainthood is that if we live a life focused on a heavenly afterlife, we will end up finding heaven on Earth.