Hey, Father! Can one truly be holy?

The subject of holiness and being holy has confused me for many years. I am specifically asking about Mary and the saints. In Eccl 7:20 it states the following: “…yet there is no one on earth so just as to do good and never sin.” I have often read and heard of the Virgin Mary and the saints being holy. I understand, based on the Bible, which is the true Word of God, that no human is or ever was holy. No one. Being holy would mean all the saints, the Virgin Mary, and the Triune God are all holy and that’s not true! Only the triune God is holy! Would you explain this, based on what the Bible says?  I’ve been conflicted about this for a long time.

– Pat in St. Louis

Hey Pat! Your question is a good one. As with any passage of Scripture, it’s important to start with context, lest we misinterpret the Scriptures or use them as proof texts for errant theologies.

The Book of Ecclesiastes (Eccl; sometimes called Qoheleth, and not to be confused with the Book of Sirach, whose other name is, rather confusingly, Ecclesiasticus) is one of the Wisdom books of the Old Testament. Its primary thesis is essentially that all of man’s striving cannot bring about true happiness; hence, the opening line of Ecclesiastes is: “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity!”

In the subsequent chapters, the preacher speaks of his experiences seeking after happiness through various pursuits – knowledge and pleasure and riches and wisdom – but all of these fail to attain the true happiness for which we were created, which is a share in God’s own blessed life (see CCC 1).

Eccl 7:20 comes amidst the preacher’s discussion of wisdom. The Scriptures argue frequently that the truly wise man is the man who fears the Lord and therefore obeys the commandments of God. Except, per the verse you cited, “there is not a just man on earth who does [only] good and does not sin” (translation and emphasis my own). True wisdom (in the sense of “pure” wisdom) can’t be found, because none are perfectly just/righteous (the meaning of the Hebrew tsaddiq, which shouldn’t be translated “holy”). No one, at least up to the time of the preacher, had yet perfectly followed the commandments of God, and therefore, no one was “righteous” or “justified.”

St. Paul argues the same in his letter to the Romans, where in fact he references Eccl 7:20 (cf. Romans 3:10). Jew and Gentile alike, St. Paul says: “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). This is why we needed a Savior!

Enter Jesus, and with Him the Good News! In comes the Christ, and as St. Paul tells it, the righteousness of God (i.e. His righteousness and our righteousness ordered to Him) is now manifested to us through faith in Jesus Christ (see Romans 3:21-22). This means that for those of us who believe, we can now be “justified by His grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:24). Feel free to read Romans for a beautiful exposition on how this is the case! So now, true righteousness, and with it, holiness, are possible through faith in Jesus Christ and obedience to His will.

With Jesus Christ, we can now read Ecclesiastes in a different light. Although it’s still true that on our own all our efforts would be vain striving and there would seem to be no saints (because we cannot make ourselves holy), with the grace of Jesus Christ, the door to true righteousness, salvation, and therefore, holiness is now open to us!

The saints knew this well, that holiness was only afforded to them by sheer grace. It was not they who made themselves holy, but rather their cooperation with the grace of Christ Jesus. Holiness is properly, then, the work of God. In fact, it is God’s own life. But “[t]he Word became flesh to make us ‘partakers of the divine nature’” (CCC 460, quoting 2 Peter 1:4). The entire purpose of Christ’s coming, according to the Church, was to make us holy – to let us share in the life of God. Holiness is not only possible, it’s the very purpose of our existence (cf. Matthew 5:48).

So, in sum, we can’t make ourselves holy, but through Christ, we are invited to participate in the life of grace. But importantly, the saints and Mary aren’t pseudo-gods; they are partakers in God’s nature because God has willed that they be, and they accepted His invitation through the grace of Jesus Christ our Savior. While the lives of the saints were not perfect, they did model for us the receptivity needed to live a grace-filled life (Mary, however, wasperfect, but that too was a prevenient grace which was given to her through Jesus). Heaven, in fact, is only filled with saints, which comes from the same word as “holy,” although you could never tell that in English. So, think of it this way: if we want to spend eternity in heaven with God, our only option is to become holy by God’s grace or spend eternity in hell! Please Jesus, make us holy!

Father Michael A. Friedel is pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Decatur, chaplain at Millikin University, and associate vocations director for the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois