In a real sense, the mystery of grace is not very complicated. In essence, the life of grace is a wonderful exchange of love, God’s love and our response. God who is love gives himself freely to every one of us. Ours is the challenge to respond in love. Even in that challenge God helps us.
Grace in religious texts
For the better part of ten years, I served as chairman of the national bishops’ committee that was charged with overseeing the use of the Catechism of the Catholic Church in our country. The primary methodology we used to accomplish the task of our committee was to review religion textbooks and series of texts intended to aid in catechetical instruction. Our review was to determine whether or not the content of the textbooks was in conformity with the teaching of the Catechism.
Much in the published texts was good but there were deficiencies. One of the significant deficiencies detected in the review of a good number of texts concerned the teaching about the grace of the sacraments of the Church. The typical impression given in religion textbooks was that the value of the sacraments was more about what we do at the various stages of life than what God does. In fact, the life of grace has to do with what God does for us, what God gives us. God is love and the gift of himself through the instrumentality of the Sacraments of the Church is his initiative not ours. Out part is to receive and to accept and to embrace his love. We love in response to God’s love. Thus we are enriched at every stage of our life with God.
Grace and Suffering
There is no limit to God’s love and the variety of ways his love appears. In fact, Saint Thomas Aquinas is said to have remarked once that everything is grace. It may be timely during the coming season of Lent to reflect about the reality that even suffering is grace. God may not will our suffering but he permits it. For our part, the mystery of suffering can be a ministry of suffering. Our suffering becomes a blessed ministry if we offer it as an incarnation of the suffering of Christ in our own time and in our own person. During Lent as we ponder the awesome love incarnated in Christ’s passion and death we encounter a marvel of grace.
The mysterious love of Christ’s suffering became a poignant point of reflection and prayer for me during Lent 2008. I was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and treated with chemotherapy and radiation during that time.
In various moments during the months of treatment for cancer I found myself wondering, ‘Out of 250 active bishops in our country why am I the one?’ I’m often asked if I’ve figured out what the meaning of my bout with cancer might be. Was it that once more I am to accept the fact that I am not in charge of all that happens in my life? I reminded myself that God didn’t will the cancer but he permitted it.
Was the cancer to help me identify more completely with the many sick and suffering people all around? Was it to learn that my pain was nothing compared to that of many other people, older and younger? Was it an opportunity to make reparation for my sins and to continue to amend my ways? Was it simply a call to surrender in faith? Was it a challenge to be a person of hope in tough times? Was it a time for me to be catechized by young kids, to receive their simple spiritual direction ‘to always stay glad because God loves us’?
Doing and loving
To be honest I don’t know what God had in mind. Maybe it was all of these things, but in a way it really doesn’t matter. Here is where reflection on the life of grace is instructive. Many holy people don’t do much of what we consider active ministry in the mission of our Church. But they love Jesus.
When you get down to it, it is not what we do in life; it is not my ministry as a bishop, it is not what we do in service to our families and neighbors that count. That surely has its place. What God wants is our love in exchange with his love. He wants my love as bishop; he wants your love as parents and teachers and catechists and professional people and sick people and poor people and generous priests and consecrated religious.
Love is what counts. The fundamental vocation of every baptized Christian is to love and to say yes to God’s help, his grace. God knows we can’t love him perfectly because of our human limitations. He even gives us the grace to love as best we can. In answer to his merciful love and with his help, we can say yes over and over again, in tough times and in good times. God’s love is enough. He gave us the sacraments of the Church as the fonts of his love that we call grace.
This article is originally found on page 11 of the printed edition.