I’ve noticed that “growing in holiness” is usually presented by popular Catholic media as something like “We just gotta pray more and try harder, then the Lord will make us holier.” As if becoming holy will take a lot of work, but God makes it possible. Similarly, we often speak of grace as sort of a spiritual vitamin or, as one book I recently saw put it, “The Eucharist gives me the energy to pursue holiness.”
That is, we speak of grace as something added to our efforts that makes them holy or fruitful. We presume that we are the primary actor in our own sanctification.
This is precisely what the pope describes as the new Pelagianism. That is, we “speak warmly of God’s grace” but really we believe that “all things are possible by the human will, as if it were something pure, perfect, all-powerful, to which grace is then added” (Gaudete et Exsultate 49).
Grace isn’t a spiritual energy boost, it’s the very life of God within us, transforming us into God. As the Catechism says, “Grace is a participation in the life of God. It introduces us into the intimacy of Trinitarian life….The grace of Christ is the gratuitous gift that God makes to us of his own life, infused by the Holy Spirit into our soul to heal it of sin and to sanctify it” (CCC 1997, 1999).
With that in mind, growing in holiness is grace making us like Jesus, divinizing us. The Holy Spirit is the first and primary actor, we simply cooperate with each step He is calling us to in our daily life.When Pope Francis talks about holiness he starts with and emphasizes grace. In a general audience back in 2014, he said:
“First of all, we must bear clearly in mind that sanctity is not something we can procure for ourselves, that we can obtain by our own qualities and abilities. Sanctity is a gift, it is a gift granted to us by the Lord Jesus, when He takes us to Himself and clothes us in Himself, He makes us like Him…
All this makes us understand that, in order to be saints, there is no need to be bishops, priests or religious: no, we are all called to be saints! So, many times we are tempted to think that sainthood is reserved only to those who have the opportunity to break away from daily affairs in order to dedicate themselves exclusively to prayer.
…Always, in every place, one can become a saint, that is, one can open oneself up to this grace, which works inside us and leads us to holiness….This is it: every state of life leads to holiness, always! In your home, on the street, at work, at church, in that moment and in your state of life, the path to sainthood has been opened. Don’t be discouraged to pursue this path. It is God alone who gives us the grace. The Lord asks only this: that we be in communion with Him and at the service of our brothers and sisters.”
The difference between the Pelagian vision of growing in holiness and the Catholic position is deceptively subtle because we do have a role in our own growth in holiness. Our active cooperation in prayer and overcoming sin is essential, but we need to ask ourselves, “Who is the primary actor in this pursuit of holiness, me or God?” For “everything ‘depends not on human will or exertion, but on God…” (Gaudete et Exsultate 48).
In Gaudete et Exsultate, the pope describes our role in our own sanctification using receptive language like: “depend on God,” “allow yourself to be loved by God,” and “let yourself be guided by the Holy Spirit.” These are not passive actions, but they also aren’t the language of “we become holy simply by trying harder.”
The truth is, we can’t even muster up the desire to pray by our own effort for “prayer is both a gift of grace and a determined response on our part” (CCC 2725). Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, the Papal Preacher, recently said:
“Between prayer and the gift of the Spirit, there is the same circularity and permeation that exists between grace and freedom. We need to receive the Holy Spirit to be able to pray, and we need to pray in order to receive the Holy Spirit. The gift of grace comes first, but then we need to pray for this gift to be preserved and increased.”
Similarly, we easily forget that, as the pope says, the desire to cooperate with grace is itself a gift from God:
“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'” (Gaudete et Exsultate 53).
Holiness is not simply about trying harder or praying more, it’s about being docile before God. Our Blessed Mother is the model of what our disposition towards God ought to be. She is the timeless antidote to our contemporary Pelagianism simply because her wholehearted receptiveness to the Spirit prevented her from thinking that she had any power apart from God. May the Lord free us of this subtle pride and make our hearts like Mary’s heart. May He free us from the idea that we can do anything on our own.
Paul Fahey is a husband, father of four, parish director of religious education, and co-founder of Where Peter Is. He can be found at his website, Rejoice and be Glad: Catholicism in the Pope Francis Generation.