On Sacramental Grace
by Fr. William Rock, FSSP
In order to grow in holiness, frequent recourse to the Sacraments is a necessity. This frequent recourse is usually understood to mean regularly attending Mass, receiving Communion, and going to Confession. This is because every fruitful reception of any of the sacraments, including those which can be received frequently, produces an increase of sanctifying grace and thus draws the recipient closer to God and furthers one’s growth in holiness. In addition to this increase of sanctifying grace which occurs at the moment of the fruitful reception, there are also effects of the sacraments which perdure after their reception. While the sacramental character of Baptism, Confirmation, and Orders are one of these benefits – and probably the most well-known – there is also another benefit which seems to be often neglected.
The perennial Catholic theological tradition tells us that with the fruitful reception of the Sacraments there is conferred on the recipient sacramental grace. According to the old Catholic Encyclopedia, sacramental grace includes “on the part of God, a promise, and on the part of man a permanent right to the assistance needed in order to act in accordance with the obligations incurred” in the reception of the sacrament (Catholic Encyclopedia, s.v. Sanctifying Grace). These promised helps are actual graces. According to the Baltimore Catechism #3 (q. 475), “Actual Grace is that help of God which enlightens our mind and moves our will to shun evil and do good.” While sanctifying grace remains with the individual unless lost by mortal sin, actual graces are passing. God offers actual graces, they are either used or they are not, and then they are gone.
So, with the fruitful reception of the sacraments, one receives a promise to the actual graces to fulfill the end associated with each of the sacraments. By Baptism, one becomes a Christian and is promised in the sacramental grace of Baptism the actual graces to live out a Christian life. By Confirmation, one becomes a soldier of Christ and is promised in the received sacramental grace the actual graces to defend the faith in the public sphere. The sacramental graces associated with the sacrament of Matrimony are promised for being a good and holy spouse and parent, in the sacrament of Orders for being a good and holy Minister of Christ, in Penance for avoiding the sins confessed.
To grow in the spiritual life then, and to receive the aid promised by God for living a Christian life and fulfilling the other ends associated with the sacraments, one should utilize these promised aids, and a way to draw them to oneself is to pray for them. While there is no formal way such a prayer is to be said, and each is free to use his own words, it is good practice that the following four points be expressed.
1. Reminding God that He has promised these aids in the reception of the Sacraments. Not that God has forgotten, for God is perfect. But this is done for one’s own benefit, to remind oneself that God has made these promises and to put one into the proper disposition for the next steps.
2. Admitting to God that one needs these aids. Living a Christian life in general, and living it out according to one’s particular state in life, is difficult. There are challenges and temptation. In relying on one’s own strength, one is prone to failure and sin. One should, rather, “hope in God” (Ps 42:6) and His promises. Additionally, admitting that one needs these aids is an act of humility, an act that acknowledges one’s limitations and the need one has of the help of God. “A contrite and humbled heart, O God, thou wilt not despise” (Ps 50:19). “God resisteth the proud and giveth grace to the humble” (Jam 4:6).
3. Asking God for these promised aids. Even though God knows what one needs – “your Father knoweth what is needful for you, before you ask him” (Mat 6:8) – He may withhold it until one asks. This is because by asking, one places oneself in a more proper relationship with God. While acknowledging that one needs help is an act of humility, asking for help is an act of hope, for it expresses confidence that God is not only capable of fulfilling His promises, but that He will do so. It may be asked, “if God has promised these aids, why does He not just bestow them without one asking?” If God were to give these aids without the individual acknowledging that one needs them and without asking, one might think that the strength comes from oneself and not from Him and this could lead to the growth of the vice of pride. Another reason for why God waits for us to ask for graces is that this gives us the dignity of cooperating with His providence and in the work of our salvation.
4. Asking for these graces to be fruitful in one’s life. As actual graces can be accepted or rejected, one should ask God for His help in accepting them so that one can use them to do good and avoid evil.
To this end, it is suggested that at least once a day, perhaps as part of one’s morning prayers, one should ask God for the aids promised in the sacramental graces of all the sacraments one has received. One is free to use one’s own words, but the four points listed above should all be expressed. By doing so, one will begin to live a Christian life that goes beyond the periodic reception of the Sacraments to one where the Sacraments and their effects permeate one’s life on a day-to-day basis and thus one may the more work out one’s salvation (see Php 2:12) and grow in holiness.
Fr. William Rock, FSSP was ordained in the fall of 2019 and is currently assistant Pastor at Mater Misericordiae parish in Phoenix, AZ.
August 10, 2020