One of the greatest theological diseases we find in contemporary Catholicism is pelagianism, the notion that we’re all basically good people whose moral improvement and salvation is the result of our good actions. In this mindset, God’s grace becomes less consequential because it’s less necessary. At its heart, Christianity is about doing good things.
Throughout history, great theologians have combated pelagianism: Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and, in our own time, Hans Urs von Balthasar and Benedict XVI. They have reminded us that, at its heart, Christianity is a love story in which God seeks us out and draws us closer to himself. The first move belongs to God, and any real good we do is a gift from him, enshrouded with his own love. In this understanding, God’s grace has the primacy and priority.
In his homily for the Chrism Mass yesterday, Pope Francis underscored this, calling out implicit pelagianism by name:
It is not in soul-searching or constant introspection that we encounter the Lord: self-help courses can be useful in life, but to live by going from one course to another, from one method to another, leads us to become pelagians and to minimize the power of grace, which comes alive and flourishes to the extent that we, in faith, go out and give ourselves and the Gospel to others, giving what little ointment we have to those who have nothing, nothing at all.
As we hear God’s call to evangelize and serve, we do so mindful that we are responding to a gift received. We are no longer our own, and we no longer operate by our own powers. But the more we respond, by grace, to the grace that we have been given, the more grace grows in us, making us more and more alive.
On Wednesday, in his General Audience , the pope drove the point home further. He reminds us that God’s grace seeks us out before we seek him out, that God’s love and action are prior to our own:
God did not wait for us to go to Him, but He moved towards us, without calculation, without measures. This is how God is: He is always the first, He moves towards us. . . .
God always thinks with mercy: do not forget this. God always thinks with mercy: our merciful Father. God thinks like a father who awaits the return of his child and goes to meet him, sees him coming when he is still far away . . . What does this mean? That each and every day he went out to see if his son was coming home. This is our merciful Father. It is the sign that he was waiting for him from the terrace of his house; God thinks like the Samaritan that does not approach the victim to commiserate with him, or look the other way, but to rescue him without asking for anything in return, without asking if he was Jew, if he was pagan, a Samaritan, rich or poor: he does not ask anythinghe does not ask these things, he asks for nothing. He goes to his aid: This is how God thinks. God thinks like the shepherd who gives his life to defend and save his sheep.
Let us approach Holy Week, then, mindful that we approach a God who first approached us, a Father whose exquisite mercy we need desperately, who gives us abundantly that mercy and grace without which we can do nothing of everlasting importance.