Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Lawn Chair Catechism Session 5: Grace and the Great Quest

As part of the continuing Lawn Chair Catechism series on "Forming Intentional Disciples: The Path to Knowing and Following Jesus" by Sherry Weddell over at, I am joining the discussion here on "The Backs of People's Heads and Baby Faces". Take a look over at to see what we're talking about this week and feel free to drop in with your thoughts here or at CatholicMom, or even on your own blog.

It can be hard to settle our minds on the idea of “cooperating with grace”. How would you explain the Catholic doctrine on salvation to others?
What exactly is "cooperating with grace"?

Well, I had to do some studying on this one. I kind of had a notion of "cooperating with grace" but not really a solid understanding. If it's what it sounds like it is (you have to work with the Grace that God gives you,) then I've got this. But if not...well, let's just say my childhood catechesis had holes and I'm still plugging them.

A quick Google search landed me at the "Summa Theologica" (Question 111, Article 2 - if you're following along at home). And it's a bit more involved than my initial analysis. So let me see if I can sum this up and not offend the sensibilities of all my more theologically trained friends.

In my understanding, the gist of it is this:
  • God saves us by His Grace.  
  • But in order for us to be saved, we have to exercise our free will and turn toward Him and cooperate (work with) with the Grace that he gives to us. 
  • We don't cause the Grace to happen by turning toward God, but we allow his Grace to work in us, making us change and work toward good. 
  • Operating grace (what God gives us, say, through the sacraments) and cooperating grace are the same thing, but they have different effects on the soul. 
  • Therefore, it is essential to receive grace but it is also essential that we change our lives and move toward God in order for that grace to really change us and make us one with God.
Got it? Whew! That's a still a pretty involved definition, though. So, I had to think about how I would explain it to others, but simply. So this is what I came up with:

In order to be saved you must open yourself to the grace of God by repenting of your sins, being baptized and allowing Grace to work on changing your soul and taking you where God wants you, which is ultimately with Him in Heaven. The catch is that you have to do something with the Grace, even if all you have time for is to say "Yes, Lord. I will follow you," before your eyes close for the last time. (Did I touch all the bases?)

If His Grace is suffcient, why do we have to do anything?

I must confess to not reading the book for this project, I am working off of the executive summaries (I know. Bad blogger). Going from the summary, this chapter seems to focus on those entering the Church as adults, but of course, that's not my experience. And because of that, I am much more concerned about evangelizing my fellow cradle-Catholics. Catholics as a group, have gone from knowing we're supposed to be at Mass, but not knowing why, to not being at Mass and not knowing why we should be. We've gone from bad to worse.

That's danger that we, as uninformed and undercatechized Catholics, face. We see the Grace. In fact, that's all we can see. We know it's there for us and many receive it every week. And it's so convenient. Why worry? God gave us His grace and that's enough, right? If I mess up, God's got it. If they even think it through this far, they might even stumble towards a confessional. But most don't because somewhere along the line they got the idea that Confession isn't important.

As a tween, I can remember being told by a well-meaning adult, "You know that part at Mass where we say, 'Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed.'? That's all ya need, right there." Oh boy. And I believed him.

Those of us who grew up with the Sacraments have a tendency to take them for granted. Not knowing what those Sacraments do for you, some cradle-Catholics drift away to find places where they are "fed". Sometimes that's another church where they can get some answers. Sometimes it's just being "spiritual but not religious" because all those rules are too hard to follow. (There's that obedience thing again, doggone it.)

Many of us who still attend Mass just kind of go with the flow. We show up for Mass on Sunday without a sense of why we're really there. Are we there to hear some good music? Are we there to see some pretty statues? Are we there to hear some good preaching? Maybe we are there because that's what you do on Sunday morning. Maybe we are there to "get the grace".  But then what do we do with it? We're there in body, but our souls have not been turned toward Christ. The lights are on, but nobody's home.

But we are there to do something, not just sit there soaking up the ambiance. Active participation became a big buzz-phrase in the 70's and 80's. We were encouraged to "Sing!" and "Say the responses!", but Active Participation happens on a whole different level. Active participation doesn't always involve opening your mouth. It involves the opening of the heart. We are there to listen for the still, small voice of God calling us to further conversion, calling us to come closer to Him. Then, at Communion, we do just that.

And now, The Great Quest...

So I guess the question that I would have to ask is, what is God calling you to in the life-long process of your conversion? He's not just calling you to go back to doing whatever it is you were doing before. He's calling you to follow Him. And make no mistake, He has a job for each one of us. It will take courage. It will take obedience. It will take grace.

It's not everyone's job to teach in a classroom. It's not everyone's job to sing. It's not everyone's job to be a Priest or consecrated religious. But it is everyone's job to live their Faith in real and tangible ways, showing with our actions and words, what work God's Grace is doing in us. Our end of the bargain is to keep turning toward God and to work toward the good. That is cooperation with grace. With it, we evangelize by simply doing our job. Without it, our Faith is dead.

One of the songs that kept playing in my head as I was writing this is "Dear Lord and Father of Mankind". It's a perennial favorite of mine and I wrote a post about it last year at about this time on my music blog. If you like to hear it and read the hymn text (which is a beautiful meditation on discipleship), please click here.


  1. I love the meme! And you did a great job summarizing grace! You make a good point about participating in the mass: it is more than just doing the movements. I don't even hear people do that anymore, though. Hardly anyone sings at my parish and now, over a year since the new translation, I'm still hearing people using the old responses! (I can understand slipping up once in a while, but I'm talking the same people every week.) Maybe some parishes need to re-emphasize active participation in order to get people there. As you said, the light is on, but no one is home. Some days I'd just be happy to see more lights on.

    1. Thanks, Bethanie!
      I know what you mean about people not singing and saying the old responses. You know there has to be a some level of frustration they've reached and catechesis is the answer. But the people who are likely saying to old responses are also likely the ones who would never attend a "special lecture" on the changes in the Mass Translation. All we can do is invite them and pray for them.
      The grace of just showing up is STILL working on them, whether they know it or not. And hopefully, eventually, they will make that slight turn toward God and the Father will run to meet them. :)

  2. But this only creates more questions for me.
    Is catechesis really the answer? What kind of catechesis? What are the odds that people will present themselves for this catechesis?


    1. Yes, teaching (and learning) is always the answer in these situations. Of course there are lots of ways to address the changes to the Roman Missal. Priests could preach about it from the pulpit and about how the texts of the Mass point to different readings throughout the year (because they do). They could run a series of bulletin inserts. There are lots of resources out there for this purpose. They could talk give a class like Fr. John Riccardo's "RCIA for Cradle Catholics" (many of these talks can be downloaded for free as podcasts).
      But, as you say - what are the odds that people will present themselves for this catechesis? Slim. I know. People who are curious are all over the internet, looking at sites like CatholicMom or Conversion Diary or name-your-Catholic-Blog. It's the ones who aren't curious that we need to reach, and I see your point. Would they come to learn. Probably not.
      You know, it's been my experience that everyone wants to "hang with the cool kids". It sounds really trite, but it's a natural tendency. What if we WERE the cool kids? What if our lives were SO transformed, SO vibrant and we were SO joyful that we drew people to ask what makes us so happy? Then we could tell them. No, better: We could SHOW them. I think that where Sherry is taking us with this book.
      Believe me, those people who are sleepwalking their way through Mass are still looking for answers. Hey, they bother to show up - that's better than some! We just might not be speaking their language, yet.

    2. But that only brings up more questions:
      Why exactly would we be the "cool kids?"
      What is the thing that we could show them that could "speak their language?"


    3. Jan, I just want to quickly respond so you don't think I'm ignoring you. I want to give you a well thought out answer, and as I am driving around at the moment, I can't do that. I will write when I get home. Thank you for making me think. :-)

    4. You asked about why we would be "the cool kids", and perhaps that's an imperfect analogy. Most analogies are.
      Certainly Catholics who are living according to the dictates of the Church are not perceived as "cool" by the culture at large. What I mean by that is that if we live our lives as if we were seeking God and loving Him with our whole heart, soul and body, then people would see that and be drawn to it. And that ties in to what we can show them.
      Obviously, every person has their own language that they speak or hear, hence the many gifts of the Spirit. I can tell you the things that worked in my parish, but they might not work in your parish.
      Most of what turned the parish I belonged to as a young mother into a hotbed of evangelism was telling people the truth about what Catholics believe and inviting questions. Then, people who had conversion experiences looked around an saw what needed to be done and got to work.
      All of this was led by a team of dedicated Dominican Friars,so I would say clergy participation/leadership was essential to the success of this initiative.
      In my current parish, we have a team of sisters, again led and backed by a dedicated Pastor, who personally invites people to deepen their faith through scriptural study and catechesis (here, we're talking about the very basics of faith being taught to an immigrant population). The mission of the sisters is "To evangelize the laity so that they will go out to evangelize the laity." It sounds confusing, but what they are doing is forming Lay Missionaries to go out into the neighborhood and evangelize. It works. We have gone from two English Masses and one Spanish Mass to THREE nicely full Spanish Masses and two English Masses.
      Sadly, what we're seeing is a decrease in Anglo attendance, but the sisters have not had much success introducing their program in that population group. There are Anglos who would like to take part because they see the fruits of the mission, but the materials and methods are awkward for our cultural bias. So, that's what I mean about speaking the language. (Not Spanish vs. English - but cultural differences.)
      Again, this is all my own experience. I can't say in particular what would work in someone else's parish. Does that help?

    5. Sorry about the sloppy typing. Tablet typing is a skill I'm still perfecting. ;-)

    6. First, thank you for taking the time to reply to me.

      There are very large differences between Hispanic and Anglo groups, aren't there? I've taught both populations and in the math classroom they're quite different too. It doesn't surprise me that approaches that work well with Hispanic populations don't work well with Anglo populations. They bring different experiences and expectations to the process-probably like the cultural differences you speak of.

      It sounds like you have a very nice increase in Mass attendance--three masses to five. That's awesome! It would be interesting to read more about this. Is there anything online about the materials & methods they're using? Also, what is it about the Anglo cultural bias that seems to be the inhibitor? Is it a matter of expression preferences, or do they understand the whole process differently on some deeper level?


    7. The order that the Sisters belong to (and our new priests, as well) is a Mexican order called The Missionary Servants of the Word. Their English language web presence is very limited, but if you can read Spanish, it's worth taking a look. They have a translation feature, but it's kind of like Google Translate. And they really need help with their web design. ( Their forte is face-to-face, person-to person evangelization.

      They are a young order, less than 30 years old, but a quickly growing one. Their apostolate is teaching scripture classes and they also do door-to-door evangelism. They also have a very active prison ministry, at least here in this diocese. I should really write more about this in another forum. It's a fascinating and very successful program and I would like to explain it better and in a better spot than in a blog combox.

      In our Midwestern Ohio subculture, which is very reserved by nature, door-to-door evangelization doesn't work well. Not only do the people knocking on doors feel uncomfortable, the people answering the doors feel uncomfortable. Here, with the Anglos at least, there needs to be some reason to invite people to ask questions or come to Church. It's a personal thing. With my former parish, we had a great deal of success with people being invited personally by friends and co-workers to come to Mass and ask questions. I think that would be the key to growth in this parish's Anglo community, but other factors come into play here.

      The Anglo population is aging rather quickly and the children of the parish, for a variety of reasons, have moved to other neighborhoods or other churches. Many of them were victims of the bad catechesis of their childhood. This is not to say that older people cannot be energized by the Faith. Not at all. It's that they all have a different perspective about what Ministry is. The Women's Club, for example, does all the Funeral Dinners (and that's no small job). There are people who run the Lenten Fish Fry and the Festival and those who sing in the choir (though very few - and no men). So their idea of ministry is very insular, but still very necessary. They keep the parish moving internally much like a homemaker would. It's very necessary, but not exactly suited to active evangelization like the Sisters are doing.