The Complete Fullness of Grace

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Oh, there is so much fun you can have in catechetics. I sense your sceptical look, but it’s true. Recently while teaching catechetics, I led some MA students in exploring in depth some catechetical key terms. It would have translated into some exhilarating word-game if I had greater creative powers, but the fun didn’t quite extend that far…

These exciting key words are all found in magisterial documents on catechesis, and can be used to evaluate resources: for example, comprehensive, integral, systematic, organic… There’s one that I’ve been thinking of recently: complete. Pope St John Paul II refers to it a couple of times in Catechesi Tradendae.

Catechesis should be “sufficiently complete, not stopping short at the initial proclamation of the Christian mystery such as we have in the kerygma” (CT 21)

He then went on to say, in somewhat strong language, that,

“the person who becomes a disciple of Christ has the right to receive “the word of faith” (Rom 10:8) not in mutilated, falsified or diminished form but whole and entire, in all its rigour and vigour” (CT 30)

In the General Directory for Catechesis, we hear a little about what this “diminishing” might look like. Faith has “its own internal dynamic” (GDC 84), the explanation goes: “the faith demands to be known [teaching], celebrated [liturgy], lived [moral life] and translated into prayer.” (My inserted brackets here hopefully make more clear what these four dimensions are.)

What does this mean practically for catechists? I understand this in the following way: if we present the faith in a way that, firstly, neglects one of these four dimensions, or, secondly, in a way that doesn’t move beyond the kerygma, our catechesis is incomplete. We could go as far as to say, it is “mutilated, falsified or diminished.”

These are strong words that some of the MA students found jarring, but there they are… slap bang in the middle of Catechesi Tradendae. And evangelisation resources that I have been exploring recently have got my catechetical cogs whirring.

I haven’t reached any satisfying conclusions yet, so bear with me… this is just theological pondering.

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Our beautiful crypt makes such a good chapel

The resource I’d love to discuss today is… Alpha. I mentioned how and why my mind was changing about Alpha here. Over the last eight weeks, we have used Alpha with a pilot group of 20 people. The outstanding film series which has been produced to ultra-high standards blows everything else out of the water. It is incredibly attractive and attention-grabbing to a post-modern generation. It is beautifully shot and the attention to detail is magnificent. I would go as far as to say that some of the episodes are anointed, and have moved people to tears, especially those for the Holy Spirit weekend.

If we didn’t move beyond Alpha, if we didn’t offer further catechesis, what we are offering would be, in the Church’s words, “incomplete.” But – oh, don’t you worry! – we will most certainly offer further catechesis, and feel that it will be more hungrily devoured after the Alpha experience.

What I am grappling with a little is the content itself. We have watched the films closely, and there is nothing contrary to Catholic teaching expressed. In fact, Catholics such as Fr Cantalamessa speak at different points, Popes John Paul, Benedict and Francis are all quoted, and the stories of Saints such as Maximilian Kolbe are told. In these respects, it is remarkably “Catholic-friendly”.

You can tell there’s a “but” coming…! Even if you don’t know magisterial teaching on catechesis, there’s something that smacks you straight in between the eyes on some of the sessions, particularly, Why did Jesus die? and How can I have faith? One dimension is missing! Particularly on the session about faith, you find yourself sitting on the edge of the seat, willing that any moment now that oh-so-beautiful word might be heard – “Baptism”. Or in the films on sin (Why did Jesus die? and How can I resist evil?), every Catholic knows that beneath the surface the word that just longs to be uttered is – “Confession”. 

Of course, we mention these in small groups and in fact they are mentioned quite naturally by the participants. But without the small group filling out, the second dimension of the Christian life – the liturgical and sacramental dimension – is missing.

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Don’t you love Him…

Sometimes you hear people argue that this can come later – that this course is only Alpha, the beginning, after all! I would respond by saying: In Jesus’ own pedagogy, all four dimensions are there from the beginning. Sacraments are the channels of grace by which, now through the Church, Jesus touches us. He instituted these sacraments and signs pointing towards them in the Gospels. He doesn’t teach and live with people and pray, without those channels of grace also being there. One priest once used the analogy of a stick of rock. The colours are present all the way through it. It is the same with the dimensions of the Christian life. The sacraments are powerful, and work alongside the kerygma. What amazing grace we have available to us in the Church! Why not use it?!

So… yes, we had Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament during our Holy Spirit weekend. And to pray for the Holy Spirit to come, while people were in Jesus’ presence, gazing upon him, and he gazing at them… yes, it was powerful!

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1 Response

  1. It is interesting that you used the title ‘The Complete fullness of Grace’. Of course, it is only possible to experience the complete fullness of grace if one has been lead to the point where they are receiving Holy Communion in a state of grace (with literally no un-confessed past or present sin). St. Teresa of Avila stated that this state lasts for 20 minutes after receiving Holy Communion, though it can last longer. To get to this point of spiritual maturity (of no past or present un-confessed sin) it is highly likely that someone would have had to pass through the Dark Night of the Senses/Spirit (which is not to be confused with the Dark Night of the Soul, which comes much later). This earlier Dark Night phase is synonymous with a torch being shined into all the dark recesses which consequently exposes all those embarassing long forgotten sins that people would bury deep down and forget about. It is part of the Purgative Stage of spiritual development.

    The reason that more Catholics are not getting to this point (which is seen in the lack of Catholics queuing for confession) is because, since Vatican II, Catholic youth work and RCIA have kept new Catholics either in the ‘kerygma straightjacket’ or in a ‘early catechesis straight jacket’ unable to move forward due to not being told the truth at the beginning.

    I want to make a couple of points:

    Firstly, people entering into the Dark Night of the Senses is more common that realised, and there are Catholics who will admit to these experiences, so this is not some mumbo jumbo spiritual stuff which is only the preserve of the great saints. If guided in the right way at the beginning then Catholics will automatically progress into the Purgative Stage.

    Secondly, I am amazed that when I say this stuff to some Catholics that they are bemused by this language, when there are Steubenville University kids who use phrases like Purgative, Illumative, and Unitive (stages) as part of their understanding of the theology of the Body. When JPII used this terminology he was of course referring to the stages that are associated with the the Pathway of the Dark Night of the Soul (St. John of the Cross). He was giving simple terminology to impart the idea of progressing along a pathway.

    In the Hail Mary when we say “full of grace”, this is what is really being referred to i.e. we too can experience a small fragment of what it is like to be “full of grace” just like Mary (or as you say in your title – the complete fullness of grace”). However, this can only be achieved if the truth is told in the formative stage, and Catholics then go on to receive Holy Communion in a state of authentic grace with no un-confessed past or present sin (i.e. our sins fully scoured out). The Purgative Stage should be the goal of the kerygma (and RCIA).

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