March 2018 Print


by Fr. Juan-Carlos Iscara, SSPX

We want to be holy, but how should be our desire for holiness to be truly efficacious?

We know that God has called us to be holy; we know that we should aspire to holiness and tend to it with our whole heart, soul, mind and forces (Mk. 12:28-30). As St. Teresa of Avila explained, our holiness consists in the perfect identification and conformity of our human will with the will of God, to be united to Him by love, to reproduce Our Lord Jesus Christ in ourselves, as St. Paul repeatedly insists.

In the midst of our weaknesses and misery, when we do what we can to approach this ideal and try to fulfill this obligation, we are in the right path. Our duty is to aspire to holiness, truly and sincerely desire it. The problem is that, far too often, we do not have a true desire for holiness. When St. Thomas Aquinas was asked what one should do to attain holiness, he simply answered: To want it!

Thus, to obtain its entire efficacy, our desire for perfection must be, first of all, supernatural—that is, it must proceed from divine grace, directed to the greater glory of God, the ultimate end of our existence. The true desire for holiness is already a great gift from God, which we should ask for with humility and perseverance, until we obtain it from His divine goodness.

It must also be humble, never relying upon our own forces, always aware of our misery before God. We must not make of our aspiration to holiness a motive of pride, a means of glorifying ourselves, but see in such desire, a most excellent means to love and glorify God with all our forces.

It must be confident. We must be convinced that, while by ourselves we can do nothing, we can do everything in Him who strengthens us (Phil. 4:13).

This desire must be predominant, that is, it cannot be one more desire among many, and it must be more intense than any other. The greatest good is the glory of God and, as a means to it, our own sanctification. Everything else must be subordinated to this supreme end—knowledge, health, honors, apostolate...everything is less valuable than holiness. Seek first the kingdom of God and His justice, and all these things shall be added unto you (Mt. 6:33).

It must be constant. All too often, after a good beginning, we get tired with the constant effort to overcome ourselves, or discouraged by the first contradictions, and little by little, our desire for holiness cools down. Sometimes we give ourselves a bit of a “vacation” in our spiritual pursuits, with the pretext of gathering our strength, but such slackness weakens the soul and to get back in the path we were following now requires an even greater effort. The pursuit of holiness must be constant and progressive, steadfast, without losing heart, without violence or excesses, but without weakness or tiredness.

Finally, it must be practical. It is not a wish that we are not really working to make come true, “I would like to be holy,” but a decisive “I want”—here and now, in practice, using all the available means to pursue this perfection. Perhaps in a moment of fervor we convince ourselves that we desire perfection, but this desire must be shown, proven with concrete actions, without delays. Otherwise, little by little, from delay to delay, our days pass without doing what is necessary, and we risk coming before God with our hands more than empty.

Do we need spiritual direction?

The object of spiritual direction is to show to souls the path to be followed in the spiritual life, towards an intimate union with God. The path must be followed by the soul, but the director traces the road, the steps to be followed in every stage of the spiritual life. The director does not push or force the soul, but gently guides it forward—firmly, without deviations or short-cuts, without jumps or imprudent precipitation; always attentive to what the soul can and cannot do at that stage, and to the graces that God has granted; always encouraging the soul to a greater perfection.

The direction should begin as soon as the soul, under the impulse of divine grace, decides to advance in the road towards holiness. At every stage of that road there will be obstacles and difficulties, which, according to the ordinary providence of God, cannot be overcome without the vigilance and help of a spiritual director.

The whole of Catholic tradition affirms that spiritual direction is morally necessary to attain perfection.

“A person who has a director by whom he allows himself to be guided, whom he obeys in all his actions, great and small, will more easily and quickly arrive at perfection than he ever could by himself, even were he gifted with an extraordinary degree of intelligence and supplied with books explaining the nature of all the virtues and the means of acquiring them….Our Lord, without Whom we can do nothing, will never bestow His grace on one, who having at his disposal a man capable of instructing and directing him, neglects this powerful means of sanctification, believing himself to be self-sufficient and that, by his own powers, he is capable of seeking and discovering the things necessary for salvation” (St. Vincent Ferrer). It is asserted not only by Sacred Scripture but also by the universal practice of the Church, even from apostolic times.

Certainly, some men and women have attained holiness without having spiritual directors, which proves that such direction is not absolutely necessary, but the general rule shown by divine Providence is that at the side of great saints is to be found a wise and prudent director who has guided them to those summits of holiness.

Usually, a priest is the spiritual director who guides a soul to perfection. It is not strictly necessary that the director should be a priest, but it is most convenient that it should be so: the general economy of salvation has reserved to the priest the role of teacher and guide; he is also the confessor of those souls, and he has special graces of state.

It is not strictly necessary, either, that the spiritual director should be also the confessor of the souls directed—they are two different functions which can be separated, and sometimes it is materially impossible. But it is most convenient that director and confessor should be the same priest, as both ministries are intimately related.

Is it always sinful to reveal a secret?

Ordinarily, yes, it is a sin. But in extraordinary circumstances, higher duties of justice or charity towards our neighbor or to the common good of society may demand its disclosure, without committing a sin.

In itself, a “secret” is something that is occult and must remain hidden. Therefore, “to keep a secret” means that, having come to the knowledge of that which is occult, one assumes the obligation of not manifesting it.

Moral theologians distinguish three kinds of secrets: (1) natural, in which the obligation to keep it occult arises from the very nature of the thing; its manifestation cannot be made without damage or reasonable displeasure of the person involved, who has a strict right not to be thus hurt without sufficient, reasonable cause; (2) promised, in which the obligation arises from the promise made after having acquired knowledge of the thing; he who makes the promise (to whom secret was confided) obliges himself to keep it faithfully—even if the thing does not oblige to secrecy from its very nature; and (3) entrusted, in which the obligation arises from the promise made before having knowledge of the thing, that is, one party obliges itself to manifest it, and the other to keep it occult, even if by its very nature it could be revealed.

The obligation to keep the secret exists per se, out of justice or fidelity. The natural secret obliges in justice, by reason of the damage that can be caused; its violation is sinful, mortally or venially, according to the gravity of what is revealed and the sadness or damages that it may cause, with the eventual obligation of making reparation. The simply promised secret obliges by a motive of fidelity, by reason of the promise made; its violation constitutes a venial sin. The entrusted secret obliges in justice, by reason of the special contract, and its violation is a sin, which, again, may be mortal or venial according to the damages and sadness that its revelation may cause.

Therefore, in general, it is illicit to seek knowledge of secrets, by listening to private conversations, or by opening letters or private papers, reading them when kept in a reserved place, etc. But there is no sin at all if such papers are read with reasonably presumed permission, or out of grave and founded suspicion of imminent, grave damage to self or to others, which can be averted by the examination of the letters (it becomes thus self-defense). Letters thrown away or voluntarily abandoned in public places may be read without injustice, as the owner is considered to have relinquished his right. But if they contain something that, if revealed, could cause damage, out of charity, the content must be kept occult. It is not licit to read torn letters, especially if in such small pieces that it is clear the owner’s intention of not allowing others to read them.

It is also illicit to manifest what another justly wants to keep secret, as its manifestation would cause damage or displeasure to the “owner” of the secret—a damage that must be avoided out of charity, fidelity or justice. Finally, it is illicit to use the secret for one’s or another’s benefit, against the reasonable opposition of the “owner,” especially if this causes him some damage.

Nonetheless, and with the exception of the case of the seal of confession, the obligation to keep a secret is not absolute, but relative and limited, in such a manner that in certain circumstances it is permissible to reveal the secret: the duty of justice and charity towards our neighbor does not oblige in every circumstance and in spite of any detriment to self or another; moreover, the demands of the common good may override the obligation to keep the secret.

Thus, it is licit to seek knowledge of a secret for reasons of public utility (for example, in a country at war, regarding secrets of the enemy, or the Church investigating the life and morals of candidates to the priesthood, or a civil magistrate investigating crimes committed, etc.). It may be also licit for reasons of private utility, as sometimes this inquiry is equivalent to self-defense against an imminent, proportionately grave damage.

A secret may—and even must—be revealed to avoid damages for the persons involved, or for a third, private person, or for the common good. In those cases, the owner of the secret can be presumed to grant permission to reveal it, or he could not be reasonably opposed to its revelation. But even if he were to oppose, higher obligations of charity or justice would permit or even demand its revelation.