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?”
Much more where that came from. Read the whole thing.
I’m currently working on “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead” for my book on the creed. What sticks out for me as I write is that on the occasions where somebody comes to Jesus and asks him to judge somebody, they always mean “condemn” and he never complies with their demand. He does indeed judge. But his judgment is either mercy or something like, “Are you serious, dude?”
So with the woman taken in adultery, he offers judgment alright. But that judgment is mercy for the women–and self-condemnation for her judges.
Likewise,when the Sons of Thunder helpfully suggest he call down fire on the Samaritans who rejected him, the judgment he offers is a rebuke–to the Sons of Thunder.
And when some guy shows up to demand he arbitrate some stupid inheritance quarrel with his brother, he just cocks an eyebrow and says, startlingly, “Who made me judge over you?” That’s a startling thing for the man who claims he is judge over all mankind to say. Apparently judgement is not what we think it is.
Fr. Michael Sweeney, OP, taught me (following JPII) that God’s judgment is not the opposite of his mercy. Rather, his judgment is his mercy. That’s not to say I am a universalist. I take very seriously Christ’s warnings about the danger of hell for each of us. But I think hell (assuming anybody goes there) is nothing more or other than the experience of the love of God for somebody who hates the love of God. My hope is that nobody, in the end, makes that choice. But I am not at all confident that nobody can ever make that choice.
Meanwhile, what the gospel shows me is that God wills, always, to give mercy. Even his punishments are his mercies and ordered always to our redemption and final happiness.