Every time we celebrate Mass, the priest begins with words of welcome. He says to us something like the following: “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.”
These openings are taken from St. Paul, who began each of his letters in a similar way. For instance, he wrote to the Romans: “To all the beloved of God in Rome, called to be holy. Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 1:7). And to Timothy, one of his closest friends, he wrote: “to Timothy, my true child in faith: grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord” (1 Timothy 1:2).
Such a strong emphasis on grace! But just what is grace? And how does it help us in our lives of faith?
A Free Gift. Put simply, grace is God’s personal gift to us to help us grow in faith and live holy lives. Today, more than ever, we need the grace of God.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches us that grace is “the free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call” (CCC, 1996, emphasis added). So grace is unmerited. We don’t have to earn it. In fact, we cannot earn it. It is a gift that God delights to give to all who come to him.
We live in a world where nothing, it seems, is free. Merchants may offer free ice cream or free pizza, but usually there is some kind of string attached. For instance, you may have to buy one pizza at full price to get the second one free. But in the case of God’s grace, there is no string attached. There is nothing we have to do. God simply pours it out. His grace is always there for the taking!
When we look at grace, it may be helpful to recall the distinction between sanctifying grace and actual grace. Sanctifying grace is a permanent gift that God gives us when we are baptized. It is his grace transforming us into a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17). Sanctifying grace is a permanent gift that enables us to live a holy life and to follow God’s commands to live in love (CCC, 2000).
Actual grace, on the other hand, has to do with the individual gifts and blessings God gives us in the course of our lives. It is God’s power poured out in specific situations to help sustain and strengthen our relationship with him. For instance, we receive actual grace every time we receive the Eucharist, go to confession, sit with the Lord in prayer, or serve his people. It is the power of this actual grace—working in hearts that have been prepared through sanctifying grace—that enables us to make it through our life’s journey.
Jesus told us: “Without me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). We need the openness to his Spirit that sanctifying grace gives us. But we also need the many thousands of gifts of actual grace that move us to listen to the Spirit when he is speaking to us or urging us to follow Jesus more closely.
Surrounded by Grace. This gift of actual grace can take on many forms. Let’s take a look at some of the more prominent ones so that we can observe and recognize when God is at work. The last thing we want to do is reduce these heavenly gifts to mere coincidence or luck!
First, there is universal grace, which God gives to everyone no matter what his or her life looks like. Scripture tells us that God doesn’t want anyone to perish “but that all should come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). And it’s through his universal grace that he calls people to come back to him. You can see this grace at work in people like the “good thief” on the cross next to Jesus, the Samaritan woman Jesus met at JacobR#8217;s well, and Simon Peter as he threw his fishing nets over the side of his boat (Luke 23:39-43; John 4:1-42; Luke 5:1-11). It was God’s grace that prompted these people to look at their lives in a new light and turn to Jesus.
This is the same grace that God is pouring out to everyone who is far from him or who is struggling in their lives. So while we know that we need to intercede for our loved ones in need, we can also take comfort in the knowledge that God is always reaching out to them. His grace—as wide as the universe—is always at work.
God also pours out salvific grace, which is the help we need to accept that Jesus is our key to salvation and eternal life. Scripture is clear that we cannot save ourselves. It is also clear that our redemption—our forgiveness of sins and our ability to be reconciled with God—have come to us as a pure and gracious gift from God. It is his grace that has saved us, and it is his grace that moves us to accept this salvation in humility and love. As St. Paul told the Ephesians: “By grace you have been saved . . . it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8).
Sometimes, especially in trying times, God gives us sustaining grace. It’s the grace that helps us stay focused on Jesus in times of need (Hebrews 4:15-16). It’s the grace that makes us calm and hopeful, even if it feels like everything is crumbling around us. It’s the grace at the heart of Jesus’ invitation: “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). If you are struggling with a difficult situation, know that God’s grace is all around you, sustaining you and lifting you up. Try to lean on that grace for support and help. Believe that those who put their faith in the Lord and his sustaining grace will never be disappointed.
And then there is sacramental grace. This is the grace that makes each sacrament powerful and effective in our lives. For instance, it is sacramental grace that wipes away our sins and heals our guilty consciences in confession. It is sacramental grace that binds a man and woman in marriage and gives them God’s help to love each other for better or worse, in sickness and health, all the days of their lives. In the story of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, it was the grace that came when Jesus broke the bread that opened the eyes of the two disciples. It was grace that helped them finally see Jesus and believe that he had risen from the dead. Of course, this is the same grace that we can all experience every time we celebrate the Eucharist!
Universal grace, salvific grace, sustaining grace, sacramental grace, and many others—God’s grace is all around us. It’s like a river, bearing us up and propelling us toward the Lord. All we have to do is learn how to navigate this river—how to let all this grace help us reach our final, heavenly home.
Grace for the Needy. When Jesus visited the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth, he told the people that he had come to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim freedom for prisoners and sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, and to proclaim a new era of God’s grace (Luke 4:18-19). We can apply these words on multiple levels. On one level, Jesus literally did reach out to the poor, the sick, and the oppressed. But on another level, these words speak to our spiritual lives as well.
Spiritually speaking, we are all needy. We are all prisoners to sin and poor and blind and in need of deliverance. The more we see Jesus as the way to freedom, the more we will turn to him and find his grace and help—supernatural power and wisdom and guidance.
So whenever you come up against your neediness, don’t be discouraged. Rejoice instead. Why? Because in Jesus we have access to all the grace we will ever need. When he came to earth, Jesus ushered in a new order. The grace of his life and love have surpassed all the grace that God gave through Moses and the prophets. As John tells us: “From his fullness we have all received, grace in place of grace” (John 1:16). God has an endless supply of grace. Isn’t he good? Isn’t he gracious?