Escriva believed we all can be saints
Was Leonard Cheshire just a remarkable man, or could he be numbered among the saints in heaven? A reviewer of a recently-published biography answered his own question by opting for the "remarkable man" category.
Cheshire, second World War hero, Victoria Cross recipient, convert to Catholicism, founder of the Cheshire Homes, of which there are now hundreds throughout the world, was indeed a "remarkable man". But the arguments for not including him among the saints were strange indeed.
He was married with two children, led a normal, happy and fulfilling family life, shared a home, albeit in one of his Homes, and seemed to be happiest in the company of his wife, the equally remarkable Sue Ryder.
The argument against his being a saint went something like this: saints renounce everything for God, not only comfort and personal choice but also family and companionship; if real saints are happy, it is only in God's company. So Leonard Cheshire would not qualify.
Such a perception of sanctity is very much at odds with Vatican II's Constitution On The Church: "All Christians in any state or walk of life are called to the fullness of Christian life and to the perfection of love". This idea that, independently of circumstances, everyone is called to holiness, was central to the legacy of Blessed Josemara Escriva, founder of Opus Dei, who died 25 years ago today.
He summed up his message: "God is asking everyone to become a saint, that is, to live the Gospel in its entirety. I know the word `saint' scares you, because it has become too closely linked to extraordinary people and extraordinary enterprises which always seem beyond our reach. But this cannot be right.
"Christ asks each Christian to become perfect, and this perfection, with his grace, ought to be possible for all. If not, why ask it of us? Why would the Gospels quote Jesus as saying to everyone: `Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect'?"
This view is now familiar, but 60 years ago it constituted a seismic shift. The idea that the butcher, baker and candlestick-maker are each called to canonisable holiness was revolutionary. In some quarters it was seen as heretical, an irresponsible innovation. In Barcelona in 1940 Escriva was condemned from the pulpit and his book The Way was burned in public.
Undeterred, Escriva not only practised and preached this high ideal, but found ways to help thousands upon thousands of people all over the world to try to live up to it. For all these men and women the rough and tumble of everyday life, the responsibilities of job and family, the joys and stresses of high-tech living, are not to be seen as obstacles to seeking holiness. On the contrary, they are the very stuff of sanctity.
For Escriva the theology was clear. Work is not a curse, or a punishment. The command in Genesis to "till the garden and keep it", the command to work, came before the Fall. Work can be both sanctifiable and sanctifying.
A lot depends on the heart and mind of the doer. For Escriva even the apparently humblest of tasks can become an act of service to God and to neighbour, an act of love with eternal value. In this way the "morning offering" of traditional piety gets new dynamism and depth. No longer is holiness reserved for the privileged few.
Was this teaching new? Escriva would say it was as old as the Gospel but that, like the Gospel, it was also new. In an interview with Time magazine, he explained that "the easiest way to understand Opus Dei is to consider the life of the early Christians: they lived their Christian vocation seriously, seeking earnestly the holiness to which they had been called by Baptism".
But the old mindset lives on. To rule a Leonard Cheshire out of the sanctity stakes is to rule out most lay men and women. Twenty-five years after Escriva's death and 35 years after Vatican II, the idea that all are called to the heights of holiness, and can get there in and through ordinary life, amounts to a revolution that has only just begun.
Michael Kirke is a freelance writer
The founder of Opus Dei, Blessed Josemaria Escriva: his book was publicly burned in Barcelona