Primacy of Grace

Author: Cardinal Camillo Ruini


Cardinal Camillo Ruini

Reflections on the Holy Father’s Apostolic Letter Novo Millennio ineunte - 3

It is necessary "to observe an essential principle of the Christian view of life: the primacy of grace" (Novo Millennio ineunte, n. 38). This phrase in the Apostolic Letter Novo Millennio ineunte is simple, profound and far reaching in its impact. In fact, John Paul II lays down one of the cornerstones of the faith. The history of Christian thinking, in its Latin and Eastern tradition, is well aware of how much ground the theme of grace covers. Over the centuries, St Augustine and St Thomas gradually achieved a certain maturity of the subject; yet, its obvious complexity created misunderstandings and contrasting views that led to divisions that are still with us. The names of Pelagius, Gottschalk, Luther, Calvin, Jansen ... call to mind a long history of controversies on the theme of grace.

Grace of God at work frees human freedom by going before and accompanying ecclesial activity

To assert the primacy of grace as an essential element means knowing how to look towards the developments of the coming decades with serene, but vigilant, eyes. The call to grace, in fact, demands that we refer to another term of comparison: freedom. Man emerges free from the hands of his Creator and, especially today, he is jealous of this freedom. Therefore, if on the one hand, his vision of the future is inspired by evangelical confidence because he sees the grace of God in action; on the other, man must be careful as he takes into account his personal freedom, so that he loses nothing by the choices that he makes. How to reconcile freedom with the action of grace is one of the questions that is still being discussed by theologians in search of coherent solutions. The pastoral nature of Novo Millennio ineunte helpsus to move towards reflections that take into greater account daily living. In this context the following reference is important: "There is a temptation which perennially besets every spiritual journey and pastoral work: that of thinking that the results depend on our ability to act and to plan" (n. 38).

The Holy Father's exhortation "to start afresh from Christ" to give new vigour to the primary work of evangelization requires, from the bishops and from the communities entrusted to them, attention to the special character of grace. The call of the Apostle Paul to consider ourselves as "God's fellow workers" (I Cor 3,9) makes us understand that it is always He who is the first real "worker". Precisely in reference to the mission, John Paul II wrote: "The Holy Spirit precedes, accompanies and follows" the commitment of evangelization. In the first place, therefore, we are invited to cooperate with God: we owe him an unconditional supremacy! The dual meaning of the Latin term labor, moreover, makes it possible to verify how our "work" is also a "toil" that has to engage those who have been called. Therefore, while he calls to cooperation and gives his grace, the Lord invites us to invest all our resources of intelligence and energy" (Novo Millennio ineunte, n. 38) without abandoning anything that we are and without forgetting that without him wecan do nothing (cf. Jn 15,5).

Primacy of grace In spiritual conversion and striving to live the Sermon on the Mount

The Apostolic Letter shows a number of times how the primacy of grace becomes visible. The path ofholiness emerges as its most coherent expression. Apart from rationalization, it indicates the need of permanent conversion that knows how to accept the gift of God in the act of overcomingone's selfishness. Pastoral activity that is able to accept such a direction can offer concrete ways that foster a "pedagogy of holiness". Thus there is room to accept the variety of calls to holiness which, if accepted, permit each one to be shaped by grace and to follow the road of the "radical nature of the Sermon on the Mount" (Novo Millennio ineunte, n. 31).

Prayer, listening to the word of God, the celebration of the sacraments, especially the Sunday Eucharist and Reconciliation, are further ways in which it is possible to realize the action of grace. It is clear that, when writing a Letter to the Diocese of Rome after the Great Jubilee, John Paul II wished to emphasize such ways as the setting the goals of pastoral planning: "Brothers and Sisters of the Church of Rome, I especially recommend to you, always but in particular at this time in which we are making a community discernment in view of future commitments, to make a great deal of room for. prayer and for listening to, the word of God and to make the most of the Eucharist, especially that of Sundays.... May the rediscovery of the sacrament of Reconciliation, which we experienced during the Holy Year, continue now and be sustained both by opportune catechesis and also by the generous readiness of the priests in the confessional". Our communities are, therefore, really invited to become "schools of prayer" (Novo Millennio ineunte, n. 33).

Primacy of grace in the spirituality of communion and in cultural transformation

Finally the spirituality of communion is the major way that John Paul II commends to the particular Churches to express the primacy of grace. The Holy Father's warning must give us pause: "External structures of communion will serve very little purpose. They would become mechanisms without a soul" (ibid.,n. 43), if we should leave out of the picture the activity of grace which they serve and which draws them into an ever more genuine communion.

Paying attention to the primacy of grace in its full impact also has a strong cultural connotation, The reference I made earlier to freedom here finds its normal application. There is no denying that one of the traits that characterizes contemporary man is his realization of personal autonomy. Fruit of a slow but relentless process, it developed in various struggles that have affected both his relation with God and that with society, and even his interpersonal relations. In recent decades, the process has resulted in an autonomy of ethical judgement, increasingly locked within the limits of a stifling subjectivity.Since we barred the path to a relation with God and with others, we have not been able to register any great moral advances. Morality has been tagged as arbitrary and fragmented thus creating great uncertainty, while the concentration on today's fashion has made imperative the need to recover the essentials.

In this context it is necessary to find the linguistic form that will allow the subject of grace to be presented as a major teaching. It should result in an attitude that appreciates the primacy of gratuitousness and receptivity, as genuine expressions of the true dignity of the person. The gratuitousness of existence leads to more coherent considerations on the value of life and its sacredness and leads us to open ourselves to receive, as our response to the gratuitous offer of the love of God.

In his commentary on the Gospel of John, St Augustine has an enlightening passage that helps us grasp the importance of God's action in drawing us to himself. He writes: "You show the sheep a green shoot and you attract him. You show walnuts to a child and he is attracted: he runs where he is attracted; he is attracted by what he loves without suffering any constriction; it is his heart that is captivated". With Novo Millennio ineunte, John Paul II places us in this world, that we may discover pastoral ways and means that permit the Church to be the preacher of the Gospel and proclaimer of the truth that sets free. This, in the end, is the condition of whoever lives under the primacy of grace: to be a true witness that out of love Jesus Christ died for everyone and called everyone to share with him his own life with the Father.

(Orig. Ital. in O.R. 23 May 2001, n. 4)

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
29 August 2001, page 6

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