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Ask the Register: grace outside the Church?

Q. Does someone who is outside of the Church still receive grace when they attend Mass?

A. When speaking about grace, it’s necessary to define our terms. The English word “grace” comes from the Greek word charis, meaning “gift,” which is found in the Scriptures. One who has charis is someone who is blessed or favored.

In Catholic theology, grace is not just a gift, but a divine gift. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that “Grace is a participation in the life of God. It introduces us into the intimacy of Trinitarian life: by Baptism the Christian participates in the grace of Christ, the Head of his Body. As an ‘adopted son’ he can henceforth call God ‘Father,’ in union with the only Son. He receives the life of the Spirit who breathes charity into him and who forms the Church” (CCC 1997).

The greatest of saints could not attain participation in the life of God on their own. Even the Blessed Mary received the life of God within her as a gift. In fact, at the Annunciation, when the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary, telling her that she will conceive of the Holy Spirit the Son of the Most High, he said, “Hail Mary, full of grace” (Lk. 1:28). Sometimes this is translated as “Hail, favored one.” Mary has received this precious gift in a perfect way, and is thus favored, but it remains a pure gift from God.

Sanctifying grace is the stable disposition within the soul that perfects it, and enables it to live a life in God, through the love of God itself. Sanctifying grace is what makes us holy, and we become holy by allowing the love of God to work through us, placing no obstacles in God’s way by our sinfulness. St. Benedict of Nursia understood this truth in one of his prayers, where he pledged “to refer the good I see in myself to God. To refer any evil in myself to myself.”

Possessing sanctifying grace is another way to speak of what we often call being in the “state of grace.” Grace is essentially our relationship with God, which is meant to be deepened throughout our lives, and to last for all eternity. 

While sanctifying grace is a gratuitous gift from God, we are not an absent, stale participant in the work of grace. We remain in the state of grace when we follow the promptings of the Holy Spirit within us. St. Augustine says: “God, Who created us without our cooperation will not save us without our cooperation.”

While sanctifying grace is intrinsic to the soul or resides within, actual grace is extrinsic to the soul. Actual grace refers to God’s causality that moves us to conversion, growing in our relationship with God, or perhaps establishing the relationship with God for the first time. God could use many things as an instrument of his actual grace. He could use the words heard in a homily, the witness of a holy life, or the singing of a beautiful, reverent hymn, among many other things, to bring souls to conversion of heart.

We can have moral certainty that we are in the state of grace. That means that we can make confident assent that we are living a life in Christ by looking at our lives objectively—avoiding both laxity on one hand and scrupulosity on the other.

However, we can never be absolutely certain that we are in the state of grace. St. Joan of Arc alluded to this saying, “If I am not [in the state of grace], may it please God to put me in it; if I am, may it please God to keep me there.”

Those who are outside of the Church, and even those who are not in the state of grace can still receive actual grace. This is the means by which they will be moved to conversion, that is, to sanctifying grace.

Write to Ask the Register using our online form, or write to 3700 Sheridan Blvd., Suite 10, Lincoln NE 68506-6100. All questions are subject to editing. Editors decide which questions to publish. Personal questions cannot be answered. People with such questions are urged to take them to their nearest Catholic priest.

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