Grace is the “free and undeserved help” that God gives us so that we can respond to His call to friendship and communion with Him; through grace comes our justification – being cleansed of sin and infused with God’s righteousness.
The Holy Spirit showers us with the initial grace of conversion, empowering us to repent, turn away from sin, and open ourselves up to receive God’s abundant forgiveness; not a single one of us can merit, or deserve, this initial grace, which is simply a sheer gift of God.
But justification goes well beyond just canceling out our sins; it extends to our total interior transformation, our sanctification, and even more radical, our partaking of the divine nature.
Our justification is so ardently desired by God that the Father sent His beloved Son, Who willingly endured death by the torments of crucifixion to accomplish it; as a result, justification is an awe-inspiring work of God, revealing the depths of His love and mercy toward us.
Through Baptism, we receive justification: we are incorporated into Christ, adopted as God’s children, and filled with his sanctifying or “deifying” grace, which draws us into the very life of the Holy Trinity now, and makes us fit to share His glory for eternity in heaven.
Sanctifying grace is an “habitual gift” enabling us to “live with God, to act by His love” (a state we lose by committing a mortal sin); besides habitual grace, God also gives us helps called “actual graces” at particular times, e.g., in the sacraments, graces for our state in life, and charisms, or special graces, to build up the Church.
Although the grace of God goes before us, and seeks us first, we have the free will to act upon that grace and draw closer to Him, or to fritter it away; God does not treat us as automatons, but wants us to be free and willing co-workers with Him.
Once we are members of the Body of Christ, we can merit additional graces for ourselves and others; even so, our ability to gather more graces is in itself due to the merits of Christ; His grace is constantly at work in us, supporting our own efforts every step of the way, and making our own “merits” possible.
Because we share in the intimate life of the Holy Trinity, we are all called to holiness, each and every one of us; our vocation to holiness is fulfilled in the Church, where we are fortified by the sacraments, illumined by the Truth, and inspired by heroic role models – the Blessed Virgin Mary and the saints.
Just as the Church infallibly transmits the doctrine of faith, so does she hand on authoritative teachings on morals; in this context, the precepts of the Church enjoin us to attend Mass on Sundays and holy days; confess our sins at least once a year; receive the Eucharist at a minimum during the Easter season; observe the days of fasting and abstinence; and support the Church materially.
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Our justification cost Jesus His life. If God Himself went to such extraordinary measures for us, we have no excuse for settling for mediocrity, or imagining that a lukewarm, half-hearted “getting by” is enough.
Instead, we are called to give a similarly radical response — nothing less than total commitment to God. Such an extreme spiritual makeover would contribute to our personal growth, and serve as a powerful witness of our faith. Just by living morally, we become highly effective evangelizers.
Illness prompts us to face our own mortality; as a result, it can often provide an occasion for deepening our spiritual life, and growing in relationship with God.
The Lord entered into this reality of our human condition when He became man; aside from showing compassion for the sick and disabled, Jesus identified with us by enduring the furthest limits of suffering in His Passion and Death.
Jesus performed miracles of physical healing, not only to cure people in their bodies, but to serve as signs of the coming of God’s Kingdom; the miracles point to His more radical healing of our immortal souls.
Christ instituted this sacrament, directing His disciples in the Gospel to lay hands on the sick, and its manner of celebration is described in the Letter of James: the priest (presbyteros) prays over the sick person and anoints with oil.
If possible, the sacrament of Reconciliation can precede the anointing; if the sick person is unable to confess, the anointing brings about forgiveness of sins; the anointing can be followed by reception of the Eucharist.
Anointing is not only for those on the point of death, as the familiar term “Extreme Unction” implied; anyone battling a serious illness, or about to undergo surgery, or experiencing difficulties with advanced age, is eligible to receive it, and it may be repeated if one’s condition worsens.
God may choose to heal us physically, but He may instead ask us to bear our burden, even as Christ carried the Cross, for the sanctification of our souls and for the good of the entire Mystical Body.
This sacrament confers a special gift of the Holy Spirit, to strengthen us in our struggle with illness, give us His peace, and help us overcome temptations to doubt and discouragement.
It also consecrates our suffering in a special way; thus united with Christ’s Passion, we too participate in His saving work.
Anointing completes our configuration with Christ begun in Baptism; at the end of our earthly pilgrimage, we are prepared to transition through death into eternal life; our last sacrament should always be the Eucharist, received as viaticum, “food for the journey.”
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If this earthly life were all we had, then illness would only be a terrible misfortune. But viewed from the perspective of eternity, our physical suffering takes on a different dimension, imbued with meaning and purpose.
We are on earth for only a short time, and each one of us is going to die. The Lord may permit us, or our family members, to experience grave illness, according to His mysterious will.
But we trust Him, knowing that He is our origin and our destiny, and He holds us all in His Heart. Our suffering can bear fruit in ways that He alone knows, and we can come to learn only in heaven.
Baptism is the essential basis of our supernatural life in Christ, the sacramental entry into the life of faith, the doorway opening up to the other sacraments.
Its name comes from the Greek baptizein, meaning “plunge” or “immerse” in water; this sacrament has also been called “enlightenment” and the “washing of regeneration and renewal by the Holy Spirit.”
Baptism is prefigured throughout the Old Testament: e.g., the Spirit’s hovering over the waters in Creation, Noah’s Ark, the Israelites’ passage through the Red Sea, and their crossing of the Jordan into the Promised Land.
Christ fulfills these prefigurations: He submits to be baptized by His forerunner, St. John the Baptist, to identify with us sinners; sanctifying the waters for our own Baptism, He transforms John’s symbol of repentance into a life-giving sacrament.
Christ commanded His disciples to baptize “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” the invocation still pronounced by the minister as he immerses (or pours water over the head of) the baptized person three times.
Through Baptism, we are incorporated into Christ and assimilated into His Paschal Mystery: we die, are buried, and rise with Him to new life in God’s sanctifying grace, cleansed of all sin.
We emerge from the Baptismal water as a new creature, an adopted son or daughter of God, co-heir with Christ, and temple of the Holy Spirit; now partaking of the divine nature, we enter into the life of the Most Holy Trinity.
The newly baptized are also anointed with sacred chrism (oil), signifying that we are incorporated into Christ as priest, prophet, and king; we are simultaneously incorporated into the Church, as the Body of Christ.
Our souls are forever changed by Baptism, which seals us with an everlasting spiritual mark – an indelible character – of belonging to Christ; hence this sacrament, once received in the proper form, is not to be repeated.
Because of the vital importance of Baptism, Christian parents have had their infants baptized since the dawn of the Church; this ancient practice testifies to the truth that saving grace is a sheer gift of God, not due to any merit of ours.
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Many in our contemporary world struggle with an identity crisis, defining themselves by their careers, wealth, prestige, physical appearance, families, political party, and sports team loyalties.
But none of those things reflects who we are. Our core being is not defined by the ephemeral circumstances of our earthly life, for it is oriented toward eternity.
We have been given the staggering dignity of being joined mystically to Christ, and grafted into the Triune God. Ever mindful of God’s infinite love for each one of us, let us strive to live in accord with our Baptismal dignity
The communion of saints is a description of the Church; we have communion in “holy things,” which creates our communion “among holy persons.”
Among the holy things, or spiritual goods, we share in common are our faith; the charisms or special graces given by the Holy Spirit; our material possessions, which we use to help others; and our charity.
But above all, the holy things we share are the sacraments, especially the Holy Eucharist, which binds us most intimately with Christ and therefore with each other.
Through the sacraments, Christ, as the Head of His Body the Church, communicates His riches to all; these riches are referred to as the Church’s treasury – not meaning worldly wealth or property, but her spiritual endowment.
In addition to Christ’s infinite merits, this treasury includes the totality of the prayers and good works of the Blessed Virgin Mary and all of the saints.
Because we are one in the Mystical Body, we all share in each other’s good, and a wonderful exchange of spiritual goods takes place continuously.
A perennial link of charity connects us with the saints in heaven as well as with the holy souls being purified in Purgatory: the saints constantly intercede for us to help us on our journey, just as we on earth pray for our family, friends, and those in special need.
This profound understanding of communion is why the Church on earth has always prayed for the dead; the faithful departed are not cut off from us, but organically joined to us in Christ, so that our prayers may benefit them, and they may assist us.
While our good works redound to the benefit of the whole Body, every one of our sins harms this mystical communion.
Thus sin is never a purely private matter, for it has a detrimental effect on the Body.
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Our culture promotes radical individualism, celebrating a selfish desire to do whatever we like and call it good.
But such a notion is incompatible with the mind of Christ. To be authentically Christian, we must live with a deep sense of communion with others, aware that our “personal” choices have consequences that reverberate well beyond ourselves.
Let us reflect if our opinions are formed by the world, or by Christ.
The Nicene Creed describes the Church as “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic” – given by Christ, these essential characteristics are the “four marks” of the Church.
The Church is one because of her divine Founder; our visible bonds of unity are our profession of one faith, common celebration of the sacraments, and apostolic succession of bishops in communion with St. Peter’s successor, the Pope.
The Church instituted by Christ endures to this day in the Catholic Church; but sadly, our gift of unity has been wounded through sin, causing the splintering of believers into other ecclesial communities.
These other Christian communities have elements of sanctification, and varying degrees of imperfect unity with the Catholic Church; the Orthodox Churches are nearest of all to us, with their apostolic succession and ancient liturgical heritage.
We must never resign ourselves to the historical tragedies of division; urged by the love of Christ, and in fidelity to His will, we must pray and strive for the restoration of full unity among all Christians.
The Church is holy because of her union with Christ, who sanctifies her and empowers her to sanctify in turn; the Blessed Virgin Mary is the perfect exemplar of the holiness of the Church, while the saints reflect diverse patterns of sanctity.
Although the Church in heaven has reached the state of perfect holiness, the Church on earth is still made of sinners struggling on the journey; until the end of the world, the Church is simultaneously holy and yet ever in need of purification.
“Catholic” comes from the Greek for “according to the totality,” or “in keeping with the whole,” and the Church is catholic in two senses: she has the fullness of the means of salvation, and she is universal, with a mission to the entire human race.
The Church is apostolic because she is built on the foundation of the witness of the Apostles (from the Greek for “emissaries”), she safeguards and transmits apostolic teaching, and she is guided by the Apostles’ successors, the bishops.
The Church should not be seen as a federation of discrete local Churches with merely organizational ties to Rome; even as particular Churches contribute their own culture to the rich Catholic tapestry, they are truly one in the Mystical Body.
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We can sometimes take for granted the incomparable gift we have been given as Catholics – the fullness of the means of salvation that Christ wills for us! It is not triumphalism to want to share this gift with others.
On the contrary, we would be lacking in love if we failed to appreciate our Catholic faith. Let us be ready to reach out to non-practicing Catholics, and people of other faith communities, and invite them to come and see.
The English word “Church” derives from the Greek Kyriake, meaning “what belongs to the Lord.”
The Latin term for “Church,” Ecclesia, is a loan word from the Greek Ekklesia, meaning “convocation” — with the special sense of an assembly literally “called forth” by God, not just any ordinary group which associates on its own terms.
The Church has been in God’s plan from before the foundation of the world: God has ever intended to gather together a family in communion with Him, and even the tragedy of human sin will not prevent God from accomplishing His will.
This plan to form a People of God begins to unfold in the Old Testament, as God calls Abraham, our father in faith, and espouses Israel as His own chosen people, to whom He reveals Himself.
Jesus fulfills this divine plan by founding His Church, through His preaching, His sacrificial offering on the Cross and in the Eucharist, and by endowing His Apostles with authority, thus giving the Church a visible structure.
Christ cannot be separated from His Church, which is His Body, comprising the saints in heaven, the holy souls being purified in Purgatory, and the faithful on earth; as God wedded Israel, so does Christ join Himself to the Church, His Bride.
The Church is a mystery because it is both the divinely established, Mystical Body of Christ, filled with holiness and grace, and at the same time human, including the earthly community of flawed people still striving to overcome sin.
The Church serves as both the means and the goal of God’s plan: God helps us to attain interior union with Him through the sacramental life of the Church, so that we may enjoy eternal life with Him in heaven.
As the soul is to the body, so the Holy Spirit is to the Church: the Spirit forms us into the Temple of God, and lavishes charisms (graces) upon its members for the building up of the Church and the good of the world.
Because the Church is the convocation of the human race for salvation, it is in its very nature missionary: we must teach and make disciples of all, to bring everyone into the intimacy of God’s family.
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The root meaning of the Church, as an assembly convoked by God Himself, gives us perspective: the Church does not belong to us as its members, but instead belongs to the Lord.
The Church is not a social club, in which we get to write the bylaws to suit ourselves. Nor can the Church be reduced to our experience within a particular parish.
Rather, the Church is both the visible society on earth and a transcendent reality as the Mystical Body of Christ.