What was the Reformation about? Was it about the Mass? The Bible? Faith alone? All of these things are viewed as major parts of what divides Catholics and Protestants today, but they were not the first thing debated. The first thing debated was free will, and more importantly, how grace impacts that free will. From the first century until today, what the Catholic Church teaches about free will is probably the most radical doctrine human history has ever seen. The Propers for the Eight Sunday after Pentecost help us to understand what free will and grace are.
How often is it that Christians are told today we expect the impossible from people? We are told it is impossible to expect chastity before marriage. While the prohibition against remarriage is a noble sentiment, surely we can’t expect people to do that today, right? It is good to pay a worker a just wage, but given the realities of the free market today, we probably shouldn’t push too hard. Everybody has heard these things before, right? In the end, these arguments deny the Catholic teaching on free will and grace. To them, there’s a limit to what free will can accomplish, and the minute things start getting difficult, we shouldn’t expect such a high standard out of people.
To a certain extent, this view is true. Due to sin, the ability of man to choose is hampered. As St. Paul puts it in the Epistle, we are “debtors to the flesh” because of our sins. Since we are debtors to the flesh, it is natural to choose the flesh, that is, the things of this world. All those arguments are persuasive because they appeal to that damaged nature. If our nature is damaged, why should we be so demanding?
The answer comes from the Collect. It states that through God’s grace, we are “enabled to live according to Thy will.” When Jesus saves us, He gives us “the spirit to think and do always such things as are rightful.” While the call to chastity might seem all but impossible to the non-Christian (and even many Christians!), to those saved by Christ and alive by His grace, we find not only is such a decision possible but beneficial to our lives. While we might forego a few dollars in profit, we find far more riches in being able to help someone else feed their family. We even realize that we really don’t need everything we have, so we learn the benefit of charity to our souls. Christian charity is something the world loves, but is never able to emulate. Why? Because they don’t have grace like we do, because they don’t know Jesus. That’s why evangelization is so important: without evangelization, this world won’t know Jesus, and without knowing Jesus, they will never be able to do the things they are called to. A virtuous life (which is something far more than just a “good” life) will always remain impossible for them because we refused to share Christ with them.
Now when the world (and sadly many in the Church) hears this, they scoff. For all the talk about virtuous living, Christians sure don’t live up to it with all of their sins! That’s one of the strongest arguments against Christianity on an emotional level: if Christians can’t live up to the Gospel, why should I listen to them? As the days grow darker, we’re going to hear this argument a lot more, and we need to understand its emotional pull. In these dark days, you won’t have many saints from birth. Catholicism will no longer be the religion of heritage, but once again be a religion of missionary activity, where most of her adherents learned of the faith outside of their family. As a result, we’re going to see a lot of broken people. We need to understand that just because a virtuous life is possible, does not mean it is easy, nor does it mean it will come to us overnight.
When we sin, God provides the sacrament of confession, or Penance. When we confess our sins, God not only forgives them, but gives us the grace to avoid them in the future. We have to keep making use of that grace because, though saved, we are still unable to live a virtuous life completely on our own. We are broken just like the world is, and we need God to make us whole. The more we are molded by him, the less we will break. The Secret today tells us that grace will “sanctify us in our conduct.” In order for grace to do its work, we need to approach it, and we need to allow it to work. The more it works, the less we fall, and if we do fall, we know how to get back up. We can get back up because we know that life is possible, and grace helps us see how to live it.
The number one way we can receive this grace is of course through the Holy Eucharist. The Eucharist gives us “renewal of mind and body” according to the Postcommunion. In the end, it is this renewal that separates us from the world. Every culture and religion has its own system of forgivness, of wiping the slate clean of our sins. Christianity does more than just that. Not only does it wipe the slate clean of sins, it replaces them with virtue. When grace finds a willing and suitable soul, it transforms it and grows it. Impurity finds it a lot harder to root in your life when your life is dedicated to purity and chastity. Greed is turned away at the door of the soul attached to charity. The goal of the sacraments is to increase our attachment to these virtues, these gifts God has bestowed upon us. Through them, we see the work of our heavenly Father in our lives, and find it not just possible but beneficial to live a life pleasing to him.