When I was a child in Catholic grade school, the teaching about grace was pretty clear. We mostly didn’t have it, and the goal was to participate in sacraments or sacramentals to get more of it. Once we had it, the goal was not to sin so that we wouldn’t lose it. Of course, sinning was inevitable, so we were taught to practice frequent confession to restore the grace we had lost.
I don’t think what I understood as a nine-year-old could be described as Official Church Teaching about grace, but it is how I viewed my life as a Catholic at the time. Grace was a scarce, temporary “something” that I had to be filled with when I died. If I died without grace, I would not go to heaven. If I died with a little grace, I would go to purgatory. If I died in a complete state of grace, I would go to heaven.
Grace is not scarce
What I understand now, and what is Official Church Teaching, is that grace is not scarce. It is abundant (see 1 Tim 1:14, Rom 5:17, and Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, 10). But if this is the case, why do so many people seem to be living as though grace were scarce?
The short answer is sin. Sin blinds us to God’s love and graciousness. However, even in the midst of our sinful lives, God’s grace is at work. Think of the story of the Samaritan woman. When Jesus Christ, the manifestation of God’s love, was standing right in front of her, she at first failed to recognize him. However, her life up to that point, as self-destructive as it might have been, had prepared her for the very moment when her heart would be opened to Christ.
The paradox of grace
There is a paradox about grace, however. As we read through the Samaritan woman’s story, it is clear that there are several turning points. At each point, she has a choice. Will she let down her defenses just a bit more and continue to recognize God’s grace? Or will she turn away and cut off the dialogue? God’s grace is abundant, but it is not violent. God will not force us into a relationship. We have to freely accept God’s grace. The Catholic word for this is “cooperate”:
The faithful come…with proper dispositions, that their minds should be attuned to their voices, and that they should cooperate with divine grace lest they receive it in vain. (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, 11)
A core principle of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults is that the process varies for each person “according to the many forms of God’s grace, the free cooperation of the individuals, the action of the Church, and the circumstances of time and place” (5).
Are we, the RCIA team, cooperating with God’s grace?
I am pretty sure the “individuals” in that citation refers to the seekers. But it could just as easily refer to us, the RCIA team members. Very often, we have set up predetermined classes, syllabuses, programs, and outcomes before we ever meet a seeker. The mere thought of any variance from our set schema makes our stomachs knot up. For example, someone recently told me they have six catechumens in their parish right now, so it just isn’t possible to have a program that is tailored to the needs of each person.
Think about what that means. The Holy Spirit has been purposefully active in the lives of six separate people. Through creative and divine inspiration, perhaps even using the darknesses of these people’s lives, the Spirit has urged, suggested, whispered, prodded, and seduced these six separate people to your parish. The Holy Spirit has chosen you, among all the people and places in the world, to send these six people. And now you are saying you don’t have the time or the resources to cooperate with the action of the Holy Spirit to move these six individuals to discipleship.
God’s grace comes in many forms, and it is up to us to cooperate with the many forms of God’s grace that are presented to us in the surprising lives of the seekers we encounter. I know this is a challenge. I know time is short and resources are scarce. But the less time we have and the fewer resources we have, the more important it is we cooperate with the grace and action of the Spirit. If we only have a little bit of time, that time has to be spent discerning the will of the Spirit for each individual and acting accordingly.
What is your experience?
Have you shifted from a less programmatic stance to a process that accounts for the many forms of God’s grace? What was the very first step you took? Or, if you haven’t yet made that shift, what do you imagine a doable first step would be?
Check out this webinar recording: “Is your RCIA team ready to accept the challenge of God’s grace?” Click here for more information.