Abundant grace—a simple lesson for RCIA teams

RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) image posted by TeamRCIAWhen I was in third grade, Sr. Matilda drew an empty milk bottle on the blackboard. She said that when we were good or when we celebrated one of the sacraments, God filled our souls with grace. Then she turned the chalk sideways and filled in the milk bottle. She went on to say that when we were bad or when we sinned, our souls were emptied of grace. She then erased all the white chalk within the bottle.

Snow blowers of grace

That was a pretty accurate, if overly simplified, view of grace in the 1950s and 60s. But in the years leading up to and including Vatican II, there was a shift in the way the church taught about grace. If Sr. Matilda were teaching the same class today, she might place a model of the universe in the center of the room. She would then ask the class to imagine the moment just before the universe was created. Then she would start a countdown to creation. 10, 9, 8, 7…, etc. At zero, giant snow blowers would fill the classroom with snow at the very moment of creation. The snow, Sister would say, represents God’s grace. End of lesson.

Well, there is still sin, of course. But sin, in post-Vatican II language, is not the absence of grace. It is the denial of grace. It is akin to someone buried in an avalanche of snow denying that snow exists.

Seeking grace

TeamRCIA Webinar: Basic Theology for the RCIA Team

with Nick Wagner and Diana Macalintal

Give your team members a basic understanding of the central theology of Catholic faith. Theology is not an esoteric discipline reserved for people who live in academic towers. It is an everyday mystagogical reflection on our relationship with the Creator.

We will be discussing:

  • Why theology is important to you, your team, and the catechumens and candidates
  • What it means to “do theology”
  • How to understand some core theological teachings
    • Trinity
    • Grace
    • Hope
    • Salvation
  • What difference a Catholic theology makes for the world
Please join us for this webinar, and be sure to tell your friends and colleagues about it.

Date: Tuesday, December 4, 2012
Time: 2:00p to 3:00p Eastern Time / 11:00a to 12:00p Pacific Time

Click here to register.

So what is grace exactly? We cannot know, exactly. Not in this life. But we can make some pretty good guesses. Whenever you have an experience that is completely beyond you, that is an experience of grace. You might be overwhelmed by love, overcome by grief, overawed by an ocean sunset, or overtaken in a moment of prayer. Any kind of experience like this causes us to ask deep questions. What does this mean? What is my purpose here? How can I be happy or joyful? Is there anything beyond this life? What is existence itself?

These kinds of questions are not things we learn from our parents or that we learn in school. These kinds of deep meaning questions are intrinsic to our creation. They are part of the “snow.” These questions are a manifestation of our longing for the infinite. God created us with that very longing so that we would seek him from the first moment of our existence.

Not “what” but “who”

God set up all of creation, then, not just to long for him, but also to reveal to us who God is. In the face of human finiteness, God draws us into relationship with God’s infinite self. Think about this for a minute. Think about how it has been revealed to you in your own life.

The infinite God of Love created finite beings and graciously invites us into intimate relationship with God. And, of course, the ultimate revelation of God’s grace is Jesus Christ. In Jesus, the finite becomes infinite, and the infinite becomes finite; the human becomes divine, and the Word becomes flesh.

For us, in our finite state, grace really cannot be understood abstractly. Grace can only be fully understood in the concrete reality of Jesus Christ. If you want to define grace, your best option is to say “Jesus.”

A life of grace

But we cannot just say “Jesus.” We also have to live “Jesus.” Grace isn’t just about my personal milk bottle getting filled up. Grace is God’s gift of love for the entire universe. And so to be infinitely gracious beings—that is, fully human—we have to live as Jesus did. That means we have a moral imperative to speak against institutions that attempt to mask God’s grace. We have an imperative to challenge those who deny God’s grace exists. And we have an imperative to answer the deep meaning questions all people have with the good news of Jesus Christ.

Where do you find grace?

Tell us your thoughts. How have you experienced grace? How would you tell the catechumens and candidates about your experience?

See also these related articles:

  1. The Trinity is not a math problem
  2. Why your RCIA process needs a theologian…and why that’s you
  3. Abundant grace—a simple lesson for RCIA teams

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  1. Hello! Just a quick note to say thanks for this imagery. I’ve been using images like the AIR all around us and essential but something we take very much for granted until we find ourselves without it. Currently, I’ve been using the imagery and experience of relationships — we have so many, and many we take for granted, but we need to appreciate and nourish those that matter to us, and care about even those that seem less important at any particular stage in life.

    Years ago the imagery of a fish in water was also popular. I too remember the milk bottle imagery — it was in the Baltimore Catechism!

    Thanks for your continuing outreach, ministry and imagination! you are a blessing to many!

  2. Hi Clare. I especially like the imagery of relationships. Because grace is ultimately entering into relationship with the Divine Trinity. Thanks for the source on the milk bottle imagery. My grade school didn’t use the Baltimore Catechism, but clearly the nuns who taught us were familiar with it!


  3. I once read an explanation of “grace” as God’s invitiation into relationship with us. I like this because, as in all relationships, it requires a response. As a child I was taught that grace was a gift, unearned and freely given – but that gift is also an invitation and the only way to strenthen and perpetuate the relationship is participate fully in it. And that is the way of discipleship.

  4. Hi Renee. You and Clare are on the same wavelength about relationship. That’s terrific! I really like your comment about grace also being an invitation. That is so important for initiation ministry. Thanks for your thoughts.


  5. I’m sorry Team RCIA but this theology is just not accurate! Firstly, the Church’s teaching on grace did not change at Vatican II. Secondly, it is very vague to say “we cannot know exactly” what grace is. The Catechism seems to think we can! In my parish in London, UK, we teach in all our catechesis (to young people and adults) that grace is “participation in the life of God” (CCC 1997) – that is a specific theological reality, not something vague and non-descript as you seem to suggest. Furthermore, the Catechism tells us that “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” (1999). Which is clearly contrary to your suggestion that the world is infused with grace at Creation. Grace is only given as part of the mystery of redemption, otherwise what is the point of being baptised?

    I really think we fail people in RCIA when we give them fuzzy, inaccurate teaching. I don’t know who writes these articles but I would hope that they have solid theological formation. It does show the importance of well-formed catechists in RCIA – these things matter!

    Finally – it is also important to distinguish between theology and doctrine. In catechesis, we teach doctrine, not theology – have a look at the GDC. Doctrine is everything that has been revealed to us by God and this is something concrete and certain – we know it truly, though not fully. The theological exploration of doctrine is a more speculative and technical discipline that has never – in the Church’s long tradition – ever been a feature of the RCIA.

    Thank you for your ideas and passion for the RCIA, but please read the Catechism first 🙂

  6. Hi Hannah,

    Thanks for your comments. If I may, I’d like to respond to a few of your points. First, there is nothing in the post that says the church’s teaching on grace changed at Vatican II. I did say that the way it is taught today has shifted from the way it was taught when I was in grade school. I think that’s pretty obvious.

    I still hold, however, that we cannot know exactly what grace is. We can quote the Catechism, which is helpful but not completely illuminating. “Paticipation in the life of God” is something I’ve experienced all my life, and it is still a joyful mystery to me. And mystery, of course, cannot be fully known or explained. I cannot find anywhere in the post where I said it was vague and nondescript. I did say that we cannot exactly describe it.

    The Catechism itself says that “grace escapes our experience and cannot be known except by faith” (2008). Faith itself is a mystery, a mystery we can share and be drawn more deeply into. But we cannot, in this life, fully explain it.

    Finally, when you say that humanity only experiences grace beginning with baptism, that just doesn’t square with church teaching. The Second Vatican Council teaches that “those also can attain to everlasting salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the gospel of Christ or His Church, yet sincerely seek God and, moved by grace, strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them by the dictates of their conscience” (Lumen Gentium, 16).

    Even athietsts participate in God’s grace:

    Nor does divine Providence deny the help necessary for salvation to those who, without blame on their part, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God, but who strive to live a good life, thanks to His grace. Whatever goodness or truth is found among them is looked upon by the church as a preparation for the gospel.” (Lumen Gentium, 16)

    I do agree that we have to teach church doctrine faithfully. Thank you for your continued efforts in that mission.


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