Category Archives: Grace

Resolving for a Change

Without having the benefit of Divine Revelation, Socrates, and by extension, Plato, was able to discover many truths about humanity.  Lacking an understanding of Original Sin and its effects however, he also made a serious mistake in the area of ethics.  This error is on display in the dialogue with Gorgias when Socrates makes the claim that all wrongdoing is a result of ignorance.  He thought that once we know the good, we would automatically do it.  Socrates’ ignorance was the problem, but it was ignorance of the Christian explanation of Original Sin that leaves him in error.  With the fall of man there was not only a darkening of the intellect that caused ignorance but also a weakening of the will that makes even the good we know difficult to do.  No one is immune to this defect in our nature, even the great Apostle to the Gentiles St. Paul, who candidly shared with the Romans his own struggle: “For I do not do the good I want, but I do the evil I do not want” (Romans 7:19).   So universal is the experience that it almost seems to be common sense, which makes it odd that the wisest man in Athens did not catch it.  Odd, that is, until we, especially those who have earnestly set out on the Christian journey, realize that all too often we make the same mistake.

Why did I single out those who have “earnestly set out on the Christian journey”?  Because they are the ones who presumably pray, reflect upon their short comings and sins and do spiritual reading.  And, therefore they are the ones that, according to St. Francis de Sales, are the most likely to fall victim to a subtle form of self-deception.  They are the ones who, for example, want to learn from Our Lord to be meek and humble of heart.  They begin by reading about and meditating on humility and meekness.  They expose themselves to the lives of the saints who were meek and humble.  They learn all Scripture has to say about humility and meekness.  They even speculate what it might look like in their own life.

As all learning does is apt to do, knowledge about humility and meekness brings them great pleasure.  Hearing or reading of humility and meekness puts them in a humble and meek state of mind.  It gives them, as Screwtape says, “humble feelings”.  This pleasure serves as a counterfeit of the real pleasure attached to mature virtue.  That is, they become meek and humble only in their imagination.  This imaginary humility and meekness helps them to quiet their conscience causing them to leave aside any self-reflection in these areas.  They are virtues that have been conquered and it is time to move to the next set.  The problem is that meekness and humility, like all the moral virtues, reside in the will and not in the intellect.  You must do humble and meek things repeatedly and with ever greater vehemence to actually become humble and meek.  You must, as St. James cautions, “become not just hearers of the word, but doers” (James 1:22).

Becoming Doers of the Word

St Francis de Sales issues the above mentioned caution, but also offers us a simple solution, a re-solution, you might say.

“Above all things, my child, strive when your meditation is ended to retain the thoughts and resolutions you have made as your earnest practice throughout the day. This is the real fruit of meditation, without which it is apt to be unprofitable, if not actually harmful–inasmuch as to dwell upon virtues without practicing them lends to puff us up with unrealities, until we begin to fancy ourselves all that we have meditated upon and resolved to be; which is all very well if our resolutions are earnest and substantial, but on the contrary hollow and dangerous if they are not put in practice. You must then diligently endeavor to carry out your resolutions, and seek for all opportunities, great or small. For instance, if your resolution was to win over those who oppose you by gentleness, seek through the day any occasion of meeting such persons kindly, and if none offers, strive to speak well of them, and pray for them” (Introduction to the Devout Life II, 8).

In speaking with many Christians who are soberly trying to live out their Christian call, but find themselves stuck, I find a common thread.  They may devote consistent time to prayer, but they do not devote themselves to making concrete resolutions based on that prayer.  I find this because I saw it in my own life first.  I would religiously (literally) devote 30 minutes to meditation every day and would find that, when I wasn’t deceiving myself, that I had made little progress.  That is until I read St. Francis de Sales’ great treatise on living a lay Catholic life, the Introduction to the Devout Life.  It was the quote above that made me realize I was not consistently making resolutions and when I did they were too general.  And while that persisted I was simply a hearer of the word.  But when I allowed that word to penetrate not just my mind, but my will, I began to move again.

The key was making not just a vague resolution like “I will act humble today” but instead “when my co-worker who is constantly challenging me about everything does it again today, I will defer to him.”  We might fail, but it was not for a lack of trying.  The more effort we make even in failing, the more God responds with grace. Before long virtues that were arduous begin to bring some pleasure with them pushing along further.

Over the last few weeks my inbox has been flooded with this or that devotional for Lent.  They are all good, but I couldn’t help but wonder what would happen if I simply put into practice what I already knew.  What if rather than purchasing another devotional, I practiced greater devotion?  Perhaps, you were wondering the same thing.

Owning Our Hypocrisy

If a man was to read the gospels with a fresh mind, that is, without any pre-conceived notion of Who Jesus is and what He was trying to accomplish, he would quickly conclude that one of the worst sins was hypocrisy.  And in a certain sense, he would be right.  There is no group of sinners that Our Lord singles out more often than the hypocrites.  Knowing His profound distaste for this particular sin, it is not surprising that we, His followers, should vigilantly avoid it and keep any traces of it from creeping into our lives.  In many ways this should be one of the easiest sins to avoid because it is also one of the easiest sins to identify in ourselves.  We should know when we are posing to be something we are not.  But this may be oversimplifying the case because it has a subtle way of insinuating itself into our spiritual lives and spreading like a weed.  Therefore, it is fruitful for us to examine this vice more closely.

If lying is to signify by words something different from what is in one’s mind, then dissimulation is a form of lying in which the outward deed does not correspond to the inner intention.  To the topic at hand, hypocrisy is a type of dissimulation when a “sinner simulates the person of a just man” (ST II-II q.111, a 2).  Like all offenses against the truth, when practiced enough, one forgets the truth and begins to believe the untruth.  One starts seeing himself as just.  This was why Our Lord was so harsh with the Pharisees—they had become blinded to their hypocrisy and only by shining His light that the Truth could they be set them free.

Hypocrisy’s Deadly Roots

Rightly recognizing its capacity to kill our spiritual lives, we do all we can to avoid it.  The problem however is that we do too much, mostly because we have failed to make an important distinction.  St. Thomas doesn’t say that you must do everything with perfect intention in order to avoid hypocrisy.  That, unfortunately is the way most of us think of hypocrisy.  No, instead he says that hypocrisy consists in the intention of presenting ourselves as just.  An example might help see the distinction more clearly.  Two men enter an adoration chapel and prostrates themselves before the monstrance.   The first man does so in order to be seen by others and be thought a holy man.  His is an act, not of piety, but of hypocrisy.  The second man does so, not because he wants to adore Our Lord, but because he has always been taught that is what you are supposed to do with only a vague awareness of why.  This is far from being a perfect intention, but it is not hypocrisy.

This description helps to clarify why Our Lord spent so much time pointing hypocrisy out.  It can, and usually does, become a sin of those who have advanced a certain amount in their spiritual life.  At first, we have little interest in appearing to be religious and we may even have reason to hide it.  But as our friends change, our vanity can be directed towards our “spiritual” friends and hypocrisy creeps in.  A hypocrite has to see some value in faking it and thus it is a more “advanced” sin.  This makes Our Lord’s command to “go into your room and shut the door” (Mt 6:6) invaluable for avoiding hypocrisy.  We should perform acts of piety as if we have only an audience of One.

Counterfeit Hypocrisy

There is a further dimension of this that merits some explanation as well.  It is a fear of hypocrisy that keeps us from performing certain acts of piety.  This fear causes us to confuse the false piety of hypocrisy with weak acts of genuine piety.  We hold out until we can get fully behind what we are doing.  For example, a person sends you a novena to St. Joseph, asking you to pray it.  Deep down you believe novenas work, but you feel like you mostly would be going through the motions doing it.  If only your faith was a little stronger than you would do it.  Therefore, to avoid “feeling” like a hypocrite you don’t do it.

It should be clear that to do the novena would not be hypocritical, but what is not clear is that you will never get to the point where your faith is “a little stronger” without doing acts that are weaker.  Faith and the accompanying virtue of piety are habits in our soul and only grow when they are exercised.  By starting with the weak, imperfect acts, they eventually grow to full bloom.  This is not merely going through the motions, but instead adding a little more fervor, a little stronger intention, each time we do them.  With each repeated act, God does His part by strengthening these virtues further because He will not be outdone in generosity.  Before long you not only develop a devotion to St. Joseph, but the Communion of Saints becomes not just a sterile dogma, but a living reality in your life.  This cannot happen however without those first weak baby steps.  “I believe Lord, help my unbelief!”


Christian Dignity

There is a certain logic and progression to the Catechism that reveals it to be more than a book of beliefs, but a map for the spiritual journey.  After delivering the content of what we believe (the creeds) and how we are empowered to believe it (the Sacraments), the Catechism examines what being a Christian looks like through an account of the moral life.   It begins with a quote that, at least at first glance, flies in the face of what most of us think of when we consider the moral life of a Christian.  It references a Christmas homily of St. Leo the Great in which the great pope exhorts Christians to “recognize your dignity and, now that you share in God’s own nature, do not return to your former base condition by sinning. Remember who is your head and of whose body you are a member. Never forget that you have been rescued from the power of darkness and brought into the light of the Kingdom of God” (CCC 1691).  Of course it mentions “not sinning” but his reasoning for shunning sin strikes many of us as a little off.  He mentions nothing about breaking commandments or risking salvation but instead says sin is beneath our dignity as Christians.  In reading the signs of the times, the authors of the Catechism chose this particular quote because of both its timelessness and timeliness.  We live in an age of defensive Christianity and it is only by embracing our dignity as Christians that we can go on the offense once again.

This last sentence regarding widespread defensiveness bears an explanation.  There are certainly many Christians that live in a defensive stance against the world, trying to protect Christianity from outside influences.  Insofar as that is concerned, this is a good and necessary stance provided it is done with proper moderation.  What I mean by “defensive Christianity” has to do with the stance we take in our individual spiritual lives.  Most of us see a life of grace as one in which we are protected from evil.  Evidence the habit, even within Catholic circles, to focus on “being saved” and “getting to heaven.”  Both are important, but they represent a stunted view of the Christian life.  By placing the emphasis on our Christian dignity and off of merely being saved, we can fly towards Christian perfection and sanctification.


Although this may be slightly tangential, it is worth discussing the concept of dignity.  Many people insist that men and women have an inherent dignity because they are made in the “image and likeness of God.”  That is not entirely true.  Adam and Eve were made in the image and likeness of God, but we are not.  Our dignity rests in the fact that we are made in the image of God.  That is, as creatures who have the spiritual powers of intellect and will, we surpass all of material creation in greatness.  This means that we are afforded a certain treatment that we call dignity.

Christian dignity is something more because it restores God’s likeness.   To “be like” God means we have a nature like His, or, more accurately since He is God, a share in His nature.  It is the “likeness of God” that was forfeit by our first parents and, thanks to Christ’s redeeming sacrifice, is restored to us in Baptism.  Christian dignity then stems from our restored likeness to God or as St. Leo puts it “recognize your dignity and, now that you share in God’s own nature.”

Of course Pope St. Leo is just reminding of something that Pope St. Peter said in his second letter—“that you may become partakers of the Divine nature” (2Pt 1:3).  Catholics have always called this share in the Divine nature sanctifying grace.  But Catholics rarely reflect on the full impact that this has and what our being “born anew of the Spirit” (c.f. Jn 3:6-7) really means.  Because most assuredly if we did then, at least according to the Saintly Pontiff, it would be enough to keep us from forfeiting it through sin.

Reading the Scriptures with the Head and not just the Heart

One of the obstacles has to do with our approach to Scripture.  We can read it with sentimentality rather than taking it literally.  One might be excused with reading St. John’s letters this way when he says something like “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are…Beloved, we are God’s children now” (1 Jn 3:1-2).  But one cannot ever read St. Paul in a sentimental manner.  When he says “For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the spirit of sonship. When we cry, “Abba! Father!”  it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God,  and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (Romans 8:15-17) we should take our sonship quite literally.  This is a repeated theme throughout the New Testament and one of the keys to understanding what it means to be a Christian.  We are quite literally God’s children only because He has given of His own nature to us.  To be adopted by Him means not just that we were created by Him, but that as Father He recreated us by impressing His own nature on us.

There is more to this than simply realizing it.  He gave this gift to us not just as protection from sin (i.e. that we might be saved) but for us to make use of it.  Those in a state of grace are given a super-nature, one that enables them not just to “be like God” but to act like Him.  As the name implies, this supernatural power builds upon our natural power, or more accurately, it transforms and elevates it.  The more we use this super-nature, the more we become like God which only makes us the super-nature more (in theological terms we increase in sanctifying grace).  We become, as Jesus commanded us “perfect as the heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt. 5:48).  Notice too how this clears up all the intellectual debates about faith and works and merits.  It is us using God’s nature that He was given us.

This also takes the emphasis off of “getting to heaven.”  Why?  Because we are already there.  Heaven is the place where God dwells and those who dwell with Him enjoy union with Him.  With the gift of sanctifying grace comes the indwelling of the Holy Spirit (c.f. Romans 5:2-5).  God comes and takes up residence in our souls so that we may be united with Him.  Again, sentimentality blocks us from understanding what St. Paul means when he says we are “Temples of the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor 6:19).  The Holy Spirit truly comes into our souls and dwells there.  With Him come the other two Divine Persons as they cannot be separated, even if their mode of presence is different (like the Incarnation).  That is why St. Paul says we have been given the “first fruits” of heaven through the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:22-23).  It is still first-fruits so that the degree in which we will know God (faith versus the Beatific Vision) is different, but not in kind.  Divine grace truly contains the seeds of heaven, growing day by day.  Our focus should not be simply getting there, but acting like you are already there.  As St Theresa of Avila said, “it is heaven all the way to heaven.”

If all that I have said to this point is true, then why would we ever forfeit it for a momentary delight?  There are no “cheap thrills”; each is more expensive than we could possibly imagine.  We would be more foolish than Esau who failed to see his dignity as the first-born son and sold his birth right for a bowl of porridge (Gen 25:29-34).  This is Pope St. Leo’s crucial point—stop and recognize who you are now, Whose you are now; do you really want to throw that all away?  Recognize your dignity Christian.

Science and the Immaculate Conception

One of the most common mistakes that Catholics make regards what is actually celebrated during this week’s feast of the Immaculate Conception.  The general consensus is that it is a feast marking the Immaculate Conception of Jesus.  They this feast with the Feast of the Annunciation which marks the miraculous manner in which the Word took flesh in the womb of the Immaculate Conception.  One thing they are not wrong about however is that, while the feast centers on the circumstances and consequences of Our Lady’s singular grace, the Feast, like all things pertaining to Our Lady really is about Christ.

The Council of Chalcedon in 451 was called in response to the Monophysite heresy.  This heresy believed that the two natures of Christ were united such that they really became one, that is, the human was fully absorbed by the divine rendering only a single nature. Its backers proposed the metaphor that the divine nature was like an ocean and His human nature like a drop of water totally lost in the divinity.  This may seem to be unnecessary theological hairsplitting until we follow through to its logical conclusions.  First, with no true humanity, He would only appear to be human like some sort of vision or hologram.  Second, and more importantly, it meant that the humanity of Christ could not be a separate source of activity from the divinity.  He could not really suffer and die as a man and any appearance of those things would be only that, an appearance.

The Council, with the approval of St. Leo the Great, was quick to reject any trace of this and reaffirmed that Christ ss true God and true man, “perfect in divinity and perfect in humanity, the same truly God and truly man, composed of rational soul and body; consubstantial with the Father as to his divinity and consubstantial with us as to his humanity; ‘like us in all things but sin.’. He was begotten from the Father before all ages as to his divinity and in these last days, for us and for our salvation, was born as to his humanity of the virgin Mary, the Mother of God” (quoted in CCC 467).

The necessity of both powers of operation, human and divine, are necessary for Christ’s sacrifice to be efficacious.  Remove either power and atonement becomes a sham.  Mankind incurred a great debt, so great that only God could pay it.  Justice must be served for the moral order of the universe to be restored.  In mercy, God takes the debt as if it is His own.

Christology and the Immaculate Conception

What does all this have to do with the Immaculate Conception?  As true man, Christ was “born of a woman” (Gal 4:4).  That is self-evident, but it also means His mother was a true mother.  And like all mothers, she supplied to Him her flesh and it was her blood that coursed through His veins.  Put in a more scientific manner, it was her ovum that was fertilized and that ovum became the building block of the human nature that was assumed by the Person of the Son.  She was truly His mother and not merely a surrogate or a human incubator.

Furthermore, we are told that the Son of God come in the flesh is “like us in all things but sin” (Heb 4:15), that is, neither original nor actual sin touched Him.  The impossibility of actual sin we all intuitively grasp, but we may not think about the fact that the human nature He inherited must also be free from original sin and its effects.   Original sin is not sin committed, but “sin” inherited.  It is passed down from our parents.  Since Our Lord had only one human parent, and she was truly His Mother and no mere surrogate, the flesh that Mary passed down to Him had to be free from original sin and its effects.

We begin to now see the logic of the Immaculate Conception as an explanation for the purity of His blood offering and His freedom from Original Sin.  We have ruled out the possibility that by some miraculous intervention the ovum that was to become a part of Our Lord’s human nature was altered at the moment of Conception.  Mary would no longer be His true mother.  But we have not yet seen why Our Lady must be free from the stain of Original Sin from the moment of her conception.  Why could it not be that she was sanctified at some other time?

When Pope Pius IX declared the dogma of the Immaculate Conception in 1854, he commented on the fact that it was “wholly fitting that so wonderful a mother should be ever resplendent with the glory of most sublime holiness and so completely free from all taint of original sin.”  In other words, he thought it was not theologically necessary, only fitting.  But there may be a certain biological necessity that would help us to see why this dogma is true.

How Science Supports the Immaculate Conception

Thanks to advances in the field of human embryology, we know that the flesh of Our Lord (in Mary’s oocytes) was actually formed at her conception. Although He takes her flesh at the Annunciation, but the actual flesh He takes to Himself (in the oocyte that matured into an egg) was present in Mary at her beginning.  Just as she carried it around after His birth, Mary was, in a very real sense, carrying around the flesh of Our Lord from the moment of her conception.

For the more scientifically minded, we know that at the moment of conception, although obviously not fully formed, the human person is self-directed and thus needs no outside intervention to develop assuming the proper environment.  That means that even if oogenesis occurs at the meiosis I stage of development, everything that is to be used for the formation of those germ cells is already present.  We should make sure that we see development as a continuous process, begun in a definitive direction at conception, and not a series of independent stages.  The stages are simply mental constructs to help us understand the development itself.

Science then would help to confirm that the Immaculate Conception is necessary, even if theology can only describe its fittingness.  Science is a path not just to facts but to wonder, a sure path to the Truth.  The dust from the earth shattering landing of the Son of God has yet to settle, leaving traces of Him everywhere we look.  Science is no threat to our devotion but a means of increasing it.

This realization can also help to increase our devotion in another way.  According to Josephus, the great Jewish historian, the restoration of the Second Temple of Zerubbabel began in the year 19BC.  This is the same year that tradition also says Our Lady was born.  That is, at the same time that Herod set out to rebuild the Temple, God began construction on the true Temple.  The cornerstones of the Temple of Our Lord’s body were laid at the moment of Our Lady’s Conception, of that truth science confirms.

As Friday’s Feast Day comes around, we can be sure that there will be many Catholics confused as to who the Immaculate Conception refers to; thinking it refers to Jesus’ conception and not Our Lady’s.  But they are not entirely wrong—Our Lady, in whom the true Temple was made, carried around the building blocks with her from the moment of her own conception.

Our Lady, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee!

Sacramental Momentum

At the beginning of his extended treatise on the Eucharist in the Summa Theologiae, St. Thomas draws a parallel between our corporeal lives and our spiritual lives that helps explain the inner logic of the Sacraments.  Specifically he says “the spiritual life is analogous to the corporeal, since corporeal things bear a resemblance to spiritual. Now it is clear that just as generation is required for corporeal life, since thereby man receives life; and growth, whereby man is brought to maturity: so likewise food is required for the preservation of life. Consequently, just as for the spiritual life there had to be Baptism, which is spiritual generation; and Confirmation, which is spiritual growth: so there needed to be the sacrament of the Eucharist, which is spiritual food” (ST III, q.73, a.1).  While it is certainly a clever way to teach about the need for the Sacraments, to see it as only that would be to miss an important analogical corollary; one that has practical applications for our apostolic approach to those in various stages of conversion.

In mitigating the factions that had arisen within the Corinthian community, St. Paul reminds them of his (and our) role in the conversion of others.  It is by way of cooperation that we participate in the conversion of another, but it is ultimately God Who provides the growth (c.f. 1Cor 3:6-7).  We all intuitively grasp this and realize that our role is secondary (at best) and that only through grace does another person “grow to the full stature of Christ” (Eph 4:13).  Nothing new has been said so far.  But how that growth is provided is not at all intuitive.  In fact we might be tempted to think it is a mystery and only according to God’s good pleasure.  As Catholics we do know that there is one sure way that God causes growth—through the Sacraments.


Sacramental Inertia

This is where St. Thomas’ analogy between our corporeal lives and our spiritual lives fits in.  The analogy is not just about the inner logic of the Sacraments themselves but also represent a progression in our Spiritual lives.  Just as a living person has a natural drive toward food, the person who has been born again in Baptism has a supernatural drive to feed on the Bread of Life.  Just as the child who has been born and has nourished his life with food desires to grow up, so too in the Spiritual life there is a supernatural desire for Confirmation.  What St. Thomas doesn’t say, but which is implied, is that this supernatural desire is contained as a grace within the Sacraments.  Baptism leads to a desire for the Eucharist.  Baptism and the Eucharist lead to a desire for Confirmation.  Baptism and Confirmation lead to an increased desire for the Eucharist.  Each reception of the Eucharist leads to a more fervent desire for the Eucharist itself.  And so, through this analogy we see that within the Sacraments there are graces pushing the recipient towards the other Sacraments, most especially towards the “source and summit” in the Eucharist.  It is like Newton’s first law applied to the Spiritual life—that which is set in motion in Baptism stays in motion through the other Sacraments.

Like all theological truths, this (super)natural progression also has practical consequences, one which we ought to make profit of in our apostolic endeavors.  If we know that an infallible means of growth is the Sacraments and follow St. Paul’s model then we ought to push others towards the Sacraments.  When we meet someone who does not know God at all and is unbaptized, our focus ought to be to lead them to the Baptismal font.  Why?  Because the grace of conversion contains within itself a desire to be baptized.  If the person is Baptized, then our focus ought to be on pushing them towards Confession and the Eucharist.  Why?  Because the Baptized person is already being inwardly pushed towards those Sacraments.  They may not be able to identify the specific impulses, but they will know them when they see them.    Lukewarm Catholic already in communion with the Church?  Push them towards Jesus in the Eucharist Who is the fire that will set ablaze the most lukewarm of hearts.

I knew of a man who did nothing else but invite his Protestant friends to Eucharistic Adoration.  He reasoned that if his Protestant friends really knew Jesus, they would recognize Him when they met Him in the monstrance.  It might not happen immediately, but in many of the cases they kept going with him until it did.  If Jesus is really there, and He is, then it is hard to find a flaw in this approach.

Applying the Law Sacramental Inertia

Our apostolic endeavors are only effective insofar as we cooperate with grace already working interiorly in the person.  By making use of this principle of Sacramental Inertia we are assured that we are on the same page as the Holy Spirit.  The Sacraments become a sort of apostolic blueprint that represent a goal.  In Latin, the Mass ends with Ite Missa Est, literally “she is sent,” meaning that we are sent out into the world to bring others back with us.  Like John the Baptist our goal is simply to point out and bring others to Jesus.  If we really believe the Sacraments are what the Church teaches they are, we will make them our apostolic goals.

One last point merits our attention as well, especially if it seems that the picture I have painted is overly simplistic.  It is no coincidence that the Sacraments, especially the Eucharist (and Confession), as next steps are also the biggest obstacles.  The principle of Sacramental Inertia is not foreign to mankind’s greatest spiritual foe.  They are either mocked by direct attack, counterfeited or else indirectly attacked by attacking the Sacrament of Holy Orders.  We should be constantly aware that the last thing the Devil wants is for a non-Catholic to begin a Sacramental life and he will do all that he can to impede that.  Our approach, when not leavened with prayer and sacrifice, will always become mere apologetics.  The Sacraments are the greatest treasure of the Church and we must always recognize that sharing these gifts is our apostolic goal.

King Jesus and Queen Mary

Although the Church does not officially celebrate an Octave proceeding from the Solemnity of the Assumption, the timing of the liturgical celebration of the Queenship of Mary eight days later sets up what could still be viewed as an “Octave in spirit.”  The timing is especially apt because her coronation completes the picture first presented to us in the Assumption.  Quite literally, it crowns everything that we know about Mary and, even more importantly, about her Son, Jesus Christ.  It is in the spirit of entering more fully into these two Marian celebration that it is particularly helpful to reflect specifically on her role as Queen.

The Church often finds herself in a defensive stance when it comes to proclaiming the truth about Mary.  This posture mostly follows from a belief, even if only unconscious, that Our Lady’s greatness diminishes Christ’s greatness.  We grow anxious that we might love Mary too much and thus take away from Jesus.  But everything that we believe about Mary flows from the fact that she was predestined to be the Mother of God.  God never calls a person without also giving that person the necessary natural and supernatural endowments to carry out their mission.  Mary’s plentitude of grace comes from God because of her role as the Mother of God.  Her union with her Son was not just mystical but natural and His dependence upon her made her cooperation in His work of redemption wholly unique.

Mary’s Role as Mother of God and Its Consequences

There are consequences that follow from her role as Mother of God.  Related to our particular reflection, she was the mother of the One Whom God would give “the throne of David his father, and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Lk 1:32-33).  In short, she is the Mother of the King of Kings.

St. Gabriel’s message confirms what we already find in many other places in Scripture, namely that the Davidic kingdom provides a blueprint for the Kingdom of God.  And like the other the other near-East kingdoms of the time, the Mother of the king or the Gebirah in the Davidic kingdom played a pivotal role in the management of that kingdom.

This unique role of the Gebirah has been studied and written about extensively (I especially recommend Dr. Edward Sri’s book called Queen Mother), so I won’t duplicate those efforts here (**see footnote).  Instead, I will point out two passages that are particularly illustrative.  Both involve David’s wife Bathsheba, the mother of future King Solomon.  Early in the First Book of Kings (1:6) when an aging David is coming to the end of his reign, she enters the royal chamber in a posture of obeisance and offered homage to the king.  While acknowledging her, he pays her no particular honor.  Fast forward a chapter (1Kings 2:19ff ) and we find that once Solomon becomes king she enters the royal chamber and the narrative finds him bowing before her, having a throne brought in and placed at his right hand.  She intercedes on behalf of Adonijah and the king says he cannot refuse her.

The juxtaposition of these two passages confirms for us two things and help us to see more clearly what role Queen Mary, as the Gebirah, plays in the fulfilled Davidic Kingdom.  First, Bathsheba has no authority as wife of the king, but once her son becomes king, she is given a throne.  Without her son on the throne, she has no authority so that her authority depends upon his royal authority.  Likewise, all that we say about Mary’s Queenship flows only from Christ’s authority.  She has only a share in His authority.  But as is always the case with the Church’s Marian beliefs, take away from Mary and you diminish Christ.  Mary’s exaltation puts flesh, literally and figuritvely, on what we believe about Christ.  Without those beliefs, the teachings about Christ gravitate towards abstraction.  If  you take away her queenship, you will be saying that Christ is not the true heir to the throne of David.  The throne of David always had a throne at the king’s right hand for the Queen Mother.

Second, the Queen Mother was no mere figurehead but had royal authority.  The king could not refuse her.  This helps us to shed light on what can otherwise seem like a rather odd interaction between Our Lord and Our Lady at Cana.  As Queen Mother, Our Lord could not refuse anything that His Mother asked even though His “hour had not yet come.”  She assumes He will do it, because she had such authority to “command” Him.

Why Mary Should Steal Your Heart

While this biblical proof-texting is necessary, we must always have the same goal in sight that Pope Pius XII had when he instituted the liturgical feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Queen in his encyclical Ad Caeli Reginam, namely, to “renew the praises of Our Heavenly Mother, and enkindle a more fervent devotion towards her, to the spiritual benefit of all mankind.”  The reasons for our devotion might satisfy our heads, but unless it also engages our hearts it will remain sterile facts.  The aforementioned Pontiff helps us begin the longest 18-inch journey by summarizing what we have already said and pointing out that “…as His associate in the redemption, in his struggle with His enemies and His final victory over them, has a share, though in a limited and analogous way, in His royal dignity. For from her union with Christ she attains a radiant eminence transcending that of any other creature; from her union with Christ she receives the royal right to dispose of the treasures of the Divine Redeemer’s Kingdom.”

Well-schooled in democratic logic, we reflexively dismiss monarchical terms and neglect their import.  We must not forget that we are citizens in the Kingdom of God, not in the Democratic Republic of the United States of Humanity and Divinity.  Christ is the benevolent King and seated at His right hand is the benevolent Queen.  You cannot have Christ as King without Mary as Queen.  You cannot honor Him while neglecting to honor her.  A man who pledged loyalty to the King while disrespecting the Queen would be labeled as a traitor.  Our devotion for Christ should overflow onto His Mother (which will always flow back on Him).  We must see her as both Queen and Mother.

A sure way to increase that devotion is to reflect upon the fact that Our Lady has a “royal right to dispose of the treasures of the Divine Redeemer’s Kingdom.”  The role of Advocate and Queen are practically synonymous—the Queen Mother in her royal office in the kingdom of David exercised her role primarily as an advocate, interceding for the people of the Kingdom.  In fact she did not share in any way in the royal judicial power.  Our Lady is never referred to as the Mother of Justice, but Mother of Mercy because her role is to distribute from the treasury of her Son.  When we realize that she has real power and real authority and that she exercises it as a Mother to each one of us, it is hard not to fall more deeply in love with Our Queen.

In a very real way, then, we see why the Queenship of Mary completes the Assumption.  Although her earthly life came to an end at the Assumption, her throne reminds us that her mission was really only just beginning.  She is the Advocate who always makes an offer that can’t be refused and our celebration of her Queenship must be a time of gratitude to God for so solicitous a Queen and to her for her constant intercession before God.

**For those interested in looking up some further passages supporting this see the succession narratives from 1 and 2 Kings, when each of the kings is mentioned, his mother is also mentioned with him emphasizing her important place beside the king.  The Queen Mother is alsodescried as having a crown (Jer 13:18), a throne (1 Kings 2:19) and is a member of the royal court (2 Kings 24:12-15).



Justification and the Friendship of God

Any discussion surrounding the issue of justification ought to, like all fruitful discussions, begin with defining our terms.  The first act of the mind is apprehension and intellectual grasping of what is being discussed.  We must first agree on the meaning of the terms we are going to be using before we can argue about them.  In my experience, Catholics and Protestants use the term justification without actually saying what they mean by it.  They proceed to argue operating under the assumption that they are using the terms univocally.  Often, however, this is not the case.  A clear definition at the outset goes a long way in helping the two sides not argue past one another.


Justification only makes sense when we properly recognize what amounts to, according to Aristotle, an insurmountable obstacle.  He thought friendship with the gods was impossible because it can only occur between equals.  Man as a mere creature is incapable of true friendship with God unless he is somehow made equal with God.  He can never enter into a personal relationship with God unless He freely elevates man.  The term justification has a juridical tone to it, but in truth this is not essentially a legal problem.  It has nothing do with sin per se, but really is just man’s default position as a creature.  Sin has just complicated the issue for sure, but the problem would exist even if sin didn’t.  Thus the Council of Trent, in response to the Protestant teachings on justification, said that one is changed by justification “from an unjust person into a just person and from an enemy into a friend of God.”

Elevation from man’s natural state to a supernatural state that makes him capable of friendship with God is a free gift.  That ought to be obvious from what has been said.  We call this gift grace.  But there is a problem with using this term; namely that grace is a broad term that requires a modifier.  This is where it is helpful to have a strong Catholic vocabulary.  Grace, broadly speaking, falls into two categories: actual grace and sanctifying grace.


Actual grace is the interior assistance that God confers upon mankind in order to render him capable of supernatural acts of the soul.  In other words, it is God’s help to us in doing works that make us worthy of eternal life.  These works can be antecedent in the sense that when a man is in need of conversion or returning back to God from sin, he is given supernatural assistance in doing so.  They can also be consequent, a topic we will return to in a moment.  What actual graces do is enlighten the mind to recognize the true Good that is friendship with God and/or strengthen the will to move to repentance.  What is equally important is that these graces require man’s cooperation—friendship can be offered but never coerced.  God is responsible for bestowing them, but man is still responsible for responding to them.

Sanctifying grace on the other hand “is a habitual gift, a stable and supernatural disposition that perfects the soul itself to enable it to live with God, to act by his love. Habitual grace, the permanent disposition to live and act in keeping with God’s call, is distinguished from actual graces which refer to God’s interventions, whether at the beginning of conversion or in the course of the work of sanctification” (CCC 2000).


It is, once again, a free gift but it is this free gift that renders us capable of friendship with God.  By making us “partakers of the divine nature,” sanctifying grace infuses the divine life into our souls and elevates us to a supernatural plane.  In other words, we truly become like God.  Our first parents were created with this free gift (made in the image and likeness) but lost it during the Fall (thus only in the image of God).  Now, rather than having it bestowed on us in birth, it is bestowed on us in re-birth.  The ordinary way that it is given to us is through Baptism.  We are “born from above” (Jn 3:7) in Baptism and adopted as true children of God.  Baptism gives to us a likeness to God—like Father, like son.

It bears mentioning as well a word about Heaven.  We tend to treat Heaven as “other-wordly” and simply as a reward.  That is true as far as it goes, but it doesn’t necessarily go far enough.  Heaven is really the place where the friends of God see Him face to face.  It is only those who have remained His friends that are capable of seeing Him as He is (1 Jn 3:2).  This is why we speak of the necessity of remaining in a “state of grace.”  Only those who die with sanctifying grace in their soul can avoid being destroyed by God, “Who is a consuming fire” (Heb 12:29).  In other words, only those whom God has made holy, not just imputed holiness to, but who actually are holy, can endure His presence.


Despite the fact that we speak of justification as a free gift, we also speak of merit.  This term seems to imply a debt on God’s part.  This sounds suspiciously like “we can earn our salvation” and so people tend to shut down when we use the term.  An important reminder helps to clear up some of the confusion.  Naturally good acts remain just that, natural.  They remain in the natural realm and have their reward here and now.  We are capable of doing many good acts on our own.  What we are incapable of doing are supernatural acts.  Even those who are in a state of grace cannot do these action.  They require actual grace and must proceed from a supernatural motive.  Christ says both “without Me you can do nothing” (actual grace) and promises reward for the works that are performed for His sake (c.f Mk 9:40 “Anyone who gives you a cup of water to drink because you belong to Christ, amen, I say to you, will surely not lose his reward.”).

Although we require the assistance of actual grace in performing these supernatural acts, God still imputes them to us as though they were done by us.  He rewards our cooperation in them because it shows our desire to love Him and in so doing actually increases that love within us.  This is what St. Paul is referring to when he tells the Corinthians that “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me has not been ineffective. Indeed, I have toiled harder than all of them; not I, however, but the grace of God [that is] with me” (1 Cor 15:10). It is not unlike a father who gives his son money so that he may buy a Christmas present for his father.  He is pleased not because of the gift but because of the heart from which the gift came.

Merit again is not just a legal term but a way to describe how we grow to be more like God.  These acts are completely outside of our natural capacity, but once elevated to the supernatural realm, we become capable of doing them.  God is the initiator, we are the secondary instruments.  Notice how this explanation helps to sidestep the whole faith and works controversy which quickly develops into a conversational wormhole.  Knowing these terms can help us avoid this apologetical pitfall.