What is grace, and how exactly does grace “work”? I don’t want to suggest to anyone that I have the full answer, but over the last few years, Pope Francis’ theology has reminded the Church, in important ways, about what grace actually is and what it is not. When I say, “Pope Francis’ theology,” I am primarily referring to the way Pope Francis prioritizes Mercy, the essential, most foundational proclamation of the Christian faith. Pope Francis writes in Misericordia et misera:
Mercy cannot become a mere parenthesis in the life of the Church; it constitutes her very existence, through which the profound truths of the Gospel are made manifest and tangible.
Francis’ teachings have made clear that whatever we think about the relationship between our good actions and the work of God, God’s grace always come first. In Gaudete et Exsultate, Pope Francis insists many times that grace is indeed “first”: God “always takes the initiative.” Quoting St. John Chrysostom, he writes, “God pours into us the very source of all his gifts even before we enter into battle.” Later, he says:
The Second Synod of Orange taught with firm authority that nothing human can demand, merit or buy the gift of divine grace, and that all cooperation with it is a prior gift of that same grace: “Even the desire to be cleansed comes about in us through the outpouring and working of the Holy Spirit”.
Pope Francis often refers to a quote from Pope Benedict’s first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est. There, Benedict wrote:
Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.
In other words, grace exists prior to any “choice” or “idea.” Our faith is the result, first and foremost, of meeting the crucified Christ, discovering him, or encountering him already present in our lives. Francis also writes in Misericordia et misera, “Love is the first act whereby God makes himself known to us and comes to meet us.” Before we can even think of it or choose to accept it, God, through his abundant mercy, has given his adopted children his grace which exists in us as a “participation in the Divine Nature,” according to St. Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas does not mean this to say that we choose to participate in the Divinity, but rather our human nature participates in the divine nature, through a “certain regeneration or re-creation,” and this is grace. God chooses us, re-creates us in the image of his Son, and makes this grace efficacious in our lives.
Despite the lofty language, this has remarkably practical ramifications. If grace is a “participation in the Divine Nature,” then in important ways, everything we need to be holy is already present, if at first only in seed form. The life of holiness is not about searching out material things for a way to be happy and fulfilled, but rather turning to God in the depths of our heart in prayer. It means stripping away all that we build up in ourselves, be it our ego or pride or vanity, to find the only sure foundation, Jesus Christ. St. Paul’s formulation in Galatians 2:20 is best: “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”
In his systematic theology, Aquinas continues to discuss grace by writing, “Grace is the principle of meritorious works through the medium of virtues.” On this basis, we can say that grace makes possible a life of holiness that was not possible before. But “makes possible” is not strong enough. We might say “enables” or “empowers,” but these words are too anthropocentric. If grace is a participation in the nature of God, then it’s best to say that God is actively drawing us into the fullness of his divine life. God does so by moving us, by his grace, to love.
Another way of getting at Aquinas’ insight is asking, “Why do we do what we do?” The life of grace requires that we respond with, as John said, “We love because he first loved us.” The first of the Psalms paints a similarly beautiful image of a tree planted by running waters, whose leaves never drop and which bears fruit in season. The life of grace is like this tree which thrives on the waters of God’s love and mercy. In this analogy, the waters are the principle of the tree’s fruitful life, just as grace is the principle of our life of holiness.
Nothing that is truly loving happens outside God’s plan of redemption for his adopted children, which he is actively working to accomplish in the world. It is necessary to return to this over and over again, lest our faith get muddled by our own personal philosophies. We often get it wrong.
Pelagianism is a very common heresy today, not in the sense that Christians hold the heresy intentionally or obstinately, but many people adopt Pelagian concepts into their thinking without realizing that they are deviations from the Christian faith. Summarized plainly, Pelagianism is the belief that God’s grace does not come “first.”
Pelagianism manifests itself in various ways. There is the belief that if “one just tries hard enough,” then one can become perfect. Or, there is the belief that holiness comes only through our own personal effort, apart from God’s active help. Francis’ insights in Gaudete et Exsultate hit home. He explains that we often erroneously imagine grace as something that is added to the human will, which is itself “pure, perfect, all-powerful.” When we sin, therefore, it can seem like grace has failed or that God is distant from us, when the truth is that he is closer than ever in his mercy.
While Pelagianism might exalt the will, there are also schools of thought that de-emphasize the significance of the human will. Some have an idea that grace takes our sins and covers them up, making them appear to God as good. They seem to believe that grace is some sort of “gap-filler,” that fills the space between perpetually sinful selves and God’s perfection. There are some schools of thought such as quietism, that find no value in the human will at all. Other philosophies can tempt us to think that our goal in life is simply to try hard enough since perfection is forever beyond our reach. We might see grace as some wiggle room that God gives us, permitting us to sin and to avoid reforming our lives without losing our heavenly reward.
I think it’s helpful to understand that grace can’t be packaged into units. We can’t say, “I earn two units of grace when I pray the rosary.” It seems kind of silly to say things like this but, even in my own life, I can remember times thinking about “receiving grace” like it was an expendable power-up in a video game. In my past, I sometimes thought I didn’t need grace at the present moment, but believing that I might really need grace in the future, I would “stockpile” grace or charge my “grace batteries” through prayer or good works. In truth, the grace-filled life never ceases to turn to God. Francis writes in Gaudete et Exsultate: “[G]reatness of spirit is manifested in simple everyday realities.”
Here are some other helpful rules of thumb about grace that I have learned over the years:
Grace is not God acting in place of us. Grace does not require that we act to receive it.
Grace does not control us. Grace is not under our control.
Grace does not make us perfect all at once. Grace is not compatible with the status quo.
Grace is not a magical force without an identifiable source. Grace is not something we can fully understand.
Grace does not need our permission to be present. We cannot do anything truly good without grace.
Finally, Francis has one more insight worth mentioning. God draws each of us to himself in a unique, personal way. Francis points out that while we are each called to be a saint, every saint’s path is different. In principle, grace is one participation in the Divine life shared by all those whom God has called to be his children, but each of us experiences grace differently, according to our human nature, our limitations, our unique gifts, and our earthly needs. The result is a rich diversity of living out personal holiness. Pope Francis writes in Evangelii Gaudium,
Differences between persons and communities can sometimes prove uncomfortable, but the Holy Spirit, who is the source of that diversity, can bring forth something good from all things and turn it into an attractive means of evangelization.
In Francis’ vision, discovering or rediscovering the grace of God in our lives can be a remarkable source of joy that propels us forward. We live in holiness when we turn to God in our hearts and listen to his words, which guide our steps, encourage us, and console us. This is the grace-filled life. And yet, we often frustrate God’s grace by refusing to listen to him. Instead of turning to God and relying on his grace, we grow prideful, guaranteeing that we will fail to live as we ought. Let us pray that we continue to recall God’s gift of himself to each of us so that we may live out holy lives in gratitude for God’s boundless mercy.
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Daniel Amiri is a Catholic layman and finance professional. A graduate of theology and classics from the University of Notre Dame, his studies coincided with the papacy of Benedict XVI whose vision, particularly the framework of "encounter" with Christ Jesus, has heavily influenced his thoughts. He is a husband and a father to three beautiful children. He serves on parish council and also enjoys playing and coaching soccer.