One of the themes of the Protestant Reformation, whose fifth centenary we sadly recalled this past year, was the centrality of grace – sola gratia (grace alone). For some strange reason, Luther and his colleagues thought they had discovered a new insight in the Christian dispensation. The reality and necessity of grace was a teaching of the Church from time immemorial and the Church at the Council of Trent restated that teaching in the clearest manner possible.
Grace, however, seems to have fallen on hard times in our own day and age. Two extremes in its regard are in competition – and both are wrong and damaging to the living of the Christian life. The first suggests that grace is not needed because we are good enough and strong enough to do everything well on our own; this is a resurgence of the heresy of Pelagius, the fourth-century monk against whom St. Augustine fought mightily. The second suggests that the demands of the Gospel are out of reach for us mortals and, yes, even grace can’t supply for that defect. In other words, God has placed burdens on us that are unsustainable – or else that He doesn’t really expect us to live up to His commands. This would seem to be the tack of Cardinal Walter Kasper.
So, let’s examine what the Church has to tell us about grace.
Theologically speaking, grace is both a power and a relationship. As a power, grace gives us the capacity to do and to be beyond our normal human capacities. Grace is not simply a higher octane of what we possess at a natural level; it is an infusion of the power of the Holy Spirit, first given to us in Baptism and increased in every worthy reception of the sacraments. In this way, it is also a relationship – a relationship with the Triune God. As in any natural power or relationship, growth is possible as well as loss. Every virtuous act we perform is a result of God’s grace, which moves us to act in a positive manner, accompanies our action, and brings it to a happy conclusion. The accomplishment of the virtuous act then deepens our relationship with Almighty God. Each positive response to the impulse of divine grace positions us for future positive responses. Conversely, failure to respond to the movements of God’s grace brings about a diminished relationship with our God.
Those of you old enough and fortunate enough to have learned your Catholic Faith from the Baltimore Catechism will remember that there are two types of grace: sanctifying and actual. I should note that the current Catechism of the Catholic Church (which I hope you own, have read and re-read regularly) teaches the same. And so, paragraphs 2023 and 2024 teach us:
Sanctifying grace is the gratuitous gift of his life that God makes to us; it is infused by the Holy Spirit into the soul to heal it of sin and to sanctify it. Sanctifying grace makes us ‘pleasing to God.’
Actual grace, on the other hand, is a special, holy “nudging” of the Holy Spirit urging us to do the good or to avoid the evil at hand. Once more, we see that a positive response makes us grow in sanctifying grace, making us more pleasing to God and thus closer to Him. God’s grace is never lacking to us; it is always available to us, even before we ask for it or even before we know that we need it. Grace in Latin means “gift,” and it is a constant sign of the generosity of the Blessed Trinity, which places the divine power at our disposal. It is important to note, however, that as a gift it is never forced upon us; because of God’s immense love for us and His respect for our human dignity, He also gives us through free will the capacity to reject the gift of His grace, which is always an overture of His love. Because Saint Paul heard the Lord say, “My grace is sufficient for you” (2 Cor 12:9), he could face temptations and trials with the confidence embodied in a line like, “I can do all things in him who strengthens me” (Ph 4:13).
The Fathers of the Church were fond of asserting that “God became Man that men may become gods” (see CCC 460). At Holy Mass, as the priest mingles the water and wine, he prays, “May we come to share in the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity.” These are bold statements, to be sure, but do not misunderstand what is being said here. This is not “New Agism” or Shirley MacLaine gone wild. In truth, the whole point of the Incarnation was to deify the human race, enabling us to share in the divine nature. As close and intimate as was the relationship between our first parents and their Creator, it was nonetheless an external relationship. Through the mystery of the Incarnation continually present in the Church, our relationship in grace is one which is interior and thus more profound. While Adam and Eve shared God’s friendship, we share in His very life. Through Christ’s Paschal Mystery (that is, His Passion, Death and Resurrection), we are made filii in Filio (sons in the Son).
This process of divine filiation and deification occurs primarily through the sacraments, so that what we might call a “subset” of sanctifying grace is sacramental grace. In Baptism, the Lord makes that first overture of love. The astonishing nature of this undeserved grace is underscored in a most dramatic way as infants are baptized: Long before we are bright or beautiful, indeed while we are still in the state of original sin, God approaches us and introduces us to His very life. Confirmation empowers us to be strong and faithful witnesses to Christ, His Gospel and His Church, in the midst of an unbelieving and often hostile world. In the Holy Eucharist, the Sacrament of all sacraments, we are nourished with the Body and Blood of the God-Man and, in a marvelous reversal of nature, that Heavenly Food doesn’t become us, we become It!
In the Sacrament of Penance, when in a state of either partial or total alienation from God, God once more reaches out to us in pitying and merciful love. In the Sacrament of Holy Order, men are configured to Christ the High Priest, receiving the power of the Holy Spirit to sanctify others in His Name and Person. The Sacrament of Matrimony makes a man and woman capable of being mirror images of the love the Divine Bridegroom has for His Bride, the Church. When we are physically debilitated, the Holy Spirit strengthens us through the Sacrament of the Sick. As you should be able to see clearly, the grace of God surrounds us at every moment of our earthly pilgrimage to eternity. How fortunate we Catholics are to have what so many others do not have and often long to have. How grateful we need to be for such ready access to divine power, and the best way to demonstrate that gratitude is to have frequent recourse to these avenues of grace.
A fundamental principle of theology holds: Lex orandi, lex credendi (the law of prayer is the law of belief). In other words, what we believe is found in our liturgical prayers which, in turn, teach us the Faith and reinforce it with regularity as those prayers are recited year after year.
Just a cursory review of the “propers” of the Mass for late Lent and the Easter Octave reveals the Church’s understanding of the indispensable nature of grace.
The Collect for Saturday of the Fourth Week of Lent declares, “without your grace we cannot find favor in your sight.” The Prayer over the People for Friday of the Fifth Week of Lent asks that we “who seek the grace of your protection may be free from every evil.” The Collect for Saturday of the same week begs for “the grace to will and to do what you command.” The Prayer after Communion for Monday of the Easter Octave asks that “the grace of this paschal Sacrament. . . [might] make [us] worthy of your gifts.” The Prayer after Communion for Easter Tuesday refers to “the perfect grace of Baptism,” while the Collect for that Saturday speaks of “the abundance of your grace.” And then, on Divine Mercy Sunday, the Church waxes truly poetic: “Increase, we pray, the grace you have bestowed, that all may grasp and rightly understand in what font they been washed, by whose Spirit they have been reborn, by whose Blood they have been redeemed.”
Notice how these prayers highlight the role of grace in making us God’s children in Christ and in keeping us faithful disciples of Christ in the pursuit of Christian virtue.
Finally, a quick word about actual grace. God is always willing to assist us to do good and avoid evil, however, we must be attuned to the presence of His grace. A famous story is told of British journalist Malcolm Muggeridge, the biographer of Mother Teresa, who became quite enamored of the Catholic Church and all things Catholic, although an Anglican himself. This phenomenon caused a reporter to ask him one day: “With all the lovely things you say about the Catholic Church, why haven’t you become a Catholic?” Muggeridge’s pithy reply: “No grace.” Many years later in the final years of his life, Muggeridge and his wife entered the Catholic Church. Another reporter queried: “Why now?” His even pithier reply: “Grace!”
I would suggest that God’s grace was really there from the start but that the venerable gentleman didn’t perceive its presence. The Hound of Heaven, however, never ceases to pursue those He loves with offers of His grace, which is both His power and His life. That realization made Georges Bernanos have his protagonist in Diary of a Country Priest utter as the last words of that powerful novel: “All is grace!” Grace is the first word that is spoken on our behalf, and it will be the last. Isn’t this what Saint John taught in the Prologue to his Gospel: “From his fulness have we all received, grace upon grace” (Jn 1:16)?
I hope Pelagius learned and accepted the necessity for divine grace before he faced the Judge of all. I likewise hope that Cardinal Kasper would come to appreciate the power of God’s grace to transform our weak, human efforts into divine strength.
When confronted with your own sinful proclivities, claim the grace of Christ – available on demand. When assisting others who falter in their Christian pilgrimage, don’t tell them it’s a matter of grit and determination or, worse yet, useless; introduce them to the means of grace which enable us, even now, to share in the divine life.