Shining lights in our call to holiness

Clarion Herald Guest Column

As Father Kurt Young indicated in a worthy reflection last year on the feast of All Souls (, we must be careful about eulogizing the recently deceased, such as during funeral services, lest we neglect to pray for them among the poor souls in purgatory. However, there is also another side to that coin; namely the need and the opportunity to recognize examples of genuine holiness in our midst, lest we cultivate skepticism regarding the possibility of such holiness.

Specifically, I am thinking about two dear uncles – one on each side of my family – who recently passed through death’s door. My mother’s younger brother, Walter J. Barial, was a surgeon who long maintained a practice in an area where violence often brought his surgical skills into play on behalf of people whose lives hung in the balance after they’d been stabbed or shot, as well as those with less dramatic medical needs. He always proceeded on the basis of “operate first, verify payment capacity later.” As a result, he sometimes received no compensation for the vital services he had rendered – a circumstance that he never allowed to upset his emotional or spiritual equilibrium.

Not coincidentally, he was also a staunch, lifelong Catholic whose presence in a pew and reception of Communion were (pardon the pun) religiously observed on every Sunday and Holy Day. I’m also fairly certain that he regularly made his way to the sacrament of reconciliation. I can’t recall ever hearing him utter a profanity – an event that would have completely shocked anyone who knew him. He was also unstintingly kind to others, and a man about whom I literally never heard anyone say a negative word.

With the exception of occupation, a similar description would apply to my late father’s youngest and longest-surviving brother, Warren F. Bonam. A painter by trade, Uncle Warren and his wife Sammie not only did an exemplary job of raising the 10 biological children with whom the Lord blessed them, but they also took in and raised as their own two other young children who found themselves in unfortunate circumstances. Like my mother’s brother, for Uncle Warren to have so much as uttered a profanity would have caused all jaws within earshot to drop. He, too, was a gentle, soft-spoken man, truly beloved not only by his family but also by all who were blessed to know him, and a devout Catholic to the end of his days.

I share this, not simply to laud two wonderful men who happened to be my relatives, but rather to highlight the need to acknowledge genuine sanctity when we see it. Our failure to do so might contribute to our and others’ thinking that authentic holiness can belong only to people long dead and/or those upon whom the church has accorded the official designation “saint.” I believe the officially canonized constitute only a small percentage of heaven’s population. At least I hope so, because if not, that population is disconcertingly small – as are our prospects of joining it.

I believe we are called to tread a middle path between, on the one hand, appreciating the difficulty of true sanctity, and on the other, failing to recognize it in the lives of those around us who truly exemplify it. Otherwise, we could easily abandon our personal pursuit of holiness as a quixotic quest for something utterly unattainable.

I don’t doubt that my beloved uncles had their small faults and failings, as do we all, but I am equally sure that they were and are suitable models of holiness for all those who were blessed to encounter them. 

I also believe we would all do well to look carefully at our families and our wider circle of acquaintances in search of those to whom the description, “saintly” might reasonably be applied. And then (the crux!), while we are at it, we need to scrutinize ourselves in the mirror to see whether or to what extent that same word might aptly be used to describe us, and then set diligently about correcting any failings that might render it inappropriate.

To believe that holiness is a goal beyond our reach would make liars out of the Holy Father, the Second Vatican Council and the “Catechism of the Catholic Church,” all of which refer to the universal call to holiness – a call that admits no exceptions or exemptions. Therefore, we owe it to ourselves – and to our families, our friends, our students, our neighbors and all those we meet – to model such holiness while also looking for examples of it among those we are blessed to encounter along the way.

Thus, we maximize the likelihood that we and they will be in that number “when the saints go marchin’ in.”

Walter Bonam is an associate director of evangelization and the catechumenate for the archdiocesan Office of Religious Education. He can be reached at

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