From Fr. Bennet Tran, Pastor: One of the more significant books that has influenced my thinking and ministry is Sherry Weddell’s Forming Intentional Disciples: The Path to Knowing and Following Jesus. I hope that we as a parish will engage with the insights offered by Weddell. In the coming months, we will print a summary of a chapter of the book the first and third Sundays of each month. I hope this book will spark interest in our discussions about what is happening in the Church among our family members and friends and encourage us to take action to respond to the signs of the time. The book is readily available on line.
Chapter 4: Grace and the Great Quest
Summarized by Brad Bursa, edited and revised November 2018
Sherry Weddell begins this chapter with a quote from The Woman Who Was Poor, by Léon Bloy: “There is only one sadness, it is to not be a saint.” But she adds, there is a greater sadness than even the lack of individual saints: the absence of the communal fruit that God intends to manifest within our Christian communities and network of saints-in-the-making. This absence is an almost unfathomable loss because it affects the whole human race. Grace empowers our intellects and wills to understand God’s will and obey it, yet at the same time it leaves us free to resist if we choose. It is, in a word, love received and given. Sanctifying grace – the saving grace that makes us participants in the life of the Blessed Trinity and members of the body of Christ – is normally received by older children and adults through a properly disposed reception of the sacraments. What does properly disposed mean? Thereby hangs a tale of immense importance.
Grace and Disposition: In recent decades, there has been little or no serious discussion at the parish level about how an individual receiving the sacraments can prepare his or her heart and soul, to live fruitfully. The world waits, longs for this full manifestation. Yet in many, if not most, of our parishes, we have accepted a passive, notional “faith,” a general absence of fruit, and a lack of overt manifestation of grace as normal.
If our pastoral practice is to be life changing, then we must be acutely aware that the reception of a valid sacrament and the fruitful reception of sacramental grace are two different but related issues. Validity means that the sacrament was truly bestowed and the intended grace made truly present to the person receiving the sacrament. But validity does not guarantee that the grace made available has been actively received and is bearing fruit in that person’s life.
The Church has long distinguished between “objective” redemption and “subjective” redemption. By his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus has reconciled our race with the Father; this is objective redemption. Subjective redemption is the application of the saving gifts of Christ to individuals, the realization of salvific transformation in each of our lives.
As adults we can do something infants can’t: we can throw up roadblocks or obstacles that stop the grace of God either in whole or in part. As St. Augustine famously observed, “God created us without us: but he did not will to save us without us.” The Church uses remarkably strong language in this regard, calling it superstition to treat the sacraments as though they were magic and change us without our active cooperation. The “positive disposition” of the sacraments is an eager seeking after God with the hope and expectation that “God will show up.” It means we are prepared to change and we actively seek the grace of God in order to do so.
Intention Matters: Passively receiving a sacrament is not enough. The grace we receive is directly related to personal faith, spiritual expectancy, and the hunger with which we approach the sacraments. Simply going through the motions to please others is not enough for fruitful reception. The issue at hand is whether or not someone is spiritually ready to receive both the sacrament and the sacramental grace in question. There are two common maxims that pastoral leaders often evoke as solution in these situations.
ONE: “The Sacrament Will Take Care of It.” People in ministry seldom talk about the effects of the sacrament and rather tend to assume that the individual will receive what the sacrament is supposed to offer. We often use the single English word faith to denote what is covered by two different Latin terms. The first Latin term, virtus fidei, means “the virtue of faith,” which is the power or capacity to believe but not the act of faith itself. Virtus fidei is the “capacity to believe” placed within us by baptism that can exist without explicit personal attachment to Jesus Christ. The Church uses a different term, actus fidei, for the explicit, personal act of faith that is at the heart of discipleship. For that virtue to become a personal act of faith, it must be activated freely, explicitly, however minimally…It is that personal act of faith, however minimal, and always under the grace of God, that transforms the human being from one who can be a believer into one who is a believer…It is that act of faith that is required for the right sacramental intention. The virtus fidei, the capacity to believe, must become actus fidei, explicit personal faith, for a teen or adult to receive a sacrament fruitfully.
TWO: “The Church Will Provide.” While this is true, it does not mean that the Church will “cover for us” if we don’t possess genuine faith and spiritual openness to the grace being offered. Ecclesia supplet means that the Church, out of her treasury of grace, may compensate for the sacramental and liturgical mistakes of priests who intend to do what the Church intends. However, the Church has never taught that she would automatically supply the response of personal faith and obedience that only the individual can make. If we receive the sacraments without faith, the grace of God can be “tied,” meaning that the fruit that should accompany the sacraments remains bound because of certain blocks that prevent its effectiveness. An adult must “drop his or her nets” and begin the journey of intentional discipleship in order to receive sacraments fruitfully.
Cooperating Grace: The Church uses this term for the process whereby we choose our spiritual destiny by freely cooperating with God’s initiative. God first gives us the necessary “prevenient” grace to enable us to respond to his initiative towards us. But we are under no compulsion: we still freely choose to obey. And then the Creator and Lord of the universe, stunningly, chooses to “cooperate” with our choice. Of course, our personal response at the moment of receiving baptism or another sacrament is only the beginning of a lifetime of responding in faith to God’s grace. If we don’t intentionally seek to continue to grow in faith, the initial grace we receive can be thwarted. As part of our lifelong freedom, we retain – mysteriously and tragically – the power to “baffle” God’s grace. Thus how we help teens and adults prepare their hearts, minds, and souls to receive the grace of God fruitfully and then cooperate with that grace throughout life is every bit as critical to the life and mission of the Church as making the sacrament available in the first place.
Source and Summit: The Church teaches that the “Eucharist is the source and summit of the Christian life.” The Eucharist is described this way because the Eucharist contains “the whole spiritual good of the Church, namely Christ himself.” We have to make an intentional journey to the summit, an intentional journey, properly prepared, to fully receive the inexhaustible grace to be found in the Eucharistic Christ. But in order that the liturgy may be able to produce its full effects, it is necessary that the faithful come to it 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. The general principle at work is always that those who want more of the Lord will receive more of the Lord. This is why the Mass requires the “conscious, active, and fruitful participation” of all present.
With Fear and Trembling Stand: The consequence of receiving the sacraments without faith, of receiving in vain, are not merely that nothing happens and that therefore we just “don’t get the good stuff.” On the contrary, we actually hurt ourselves by receiving in vain. Receiving the sacraments in the state of unconfessed mortal sin is a sacrilege. Receiving faithfully not only means being in the state of grace, but also having the right or supernatural intention. Mere carelessness, lack of preparation, or lack of thanksgiving can be harmful and cause spiritual loss.
Given that the majority of baptized Catholics do not even attend Mass on a regular basis, we may safely question whether many Catholics possess the inner disposition of discipleship necessary for the sacraments, as well as liturgical and personal prayer, to have their intended effect and bear their intended fruit. The vast majority of Catholics have received the sacraments validly and have received the character – but we must ask whether they have also received, or received fully, the inward reality.
Seeking Revival: Sacraments that bestow a character (Baptism, Confirmation and Holy Orders) can be “revived” when the recipient comes to personal faith, repents, and chooses to follow Jesus Christ as a disciple in the midst of the Church. One makes a choice of faith, prepared in repentance, that allows the work of God to set itself free and to emanate all its strength. The gift of God is finally “untied” and the Spirit is allowed to flow like fragrance in the Christian life.
In calling Catholics to a deliberate discipleship and intentional faith, our goal is not to create a community of spiritual elites. Rather it is to create a spiritual culture that recognizes, openly talks about, and honors both the inward and outward dimension of the sacraments and the liturgy. Our goal must be to help anyone who is open to developing a positive inward disposition that runs to do God’s will and results in abundant and amazing fruit for the sake of the Church and the world.
How can we intentionally call postmodern people to follow Jesus?
How can we deliberately and effectively help ordinary Catholics in the pew make the journey to intentional discipleship?
How would you go about effectively designing preparation for those receiving the sacraments?