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St. Peter and Cooperation with Grace
A couple of years ago I wrote a long catechesis about grace, holiness, and the law of gradualism for Homiletic & Pastoral Review titled, “I will Give You a New Heart.” In one section of that article, I used the Gospel reading from today as an illustration of how grace works in our life. So I wanted to share that section.
It now becomes clear that when we speak about growing in fidelity to the moral law, we are speaking about theosis because it is only by being made into another Christ that we can keep God’s commands. It also becomes clear that this transformation is not our work. We cannot meditate long enough, fast intensely enough, or give enough alms to make ourselves more divine. Theosis is God’s work. As we pray during the Easter Vigil, “For only at the prompting of Your grace do the faithful progress in any kind of virtue.”
However, we still have an absolutely essential role. As creatures gifted with freedom, we must respond and cooperate with God. The story of Jesus first calling St. Peter in the fifth chapter of Luke’s gospel is a meaningful illustration of the interplay between grace and freedom.
In the gospel account, we see Simon Peter going about his life the way he always has, and then Jesus suddenly appears in his boat. Jesus did not ask permission before getting in the boat and Simon was not asking for him to come onboard. Jesus just stepped into his life. In a similar way, grace breaks into our hearts, giving us the desire for something greater, the desire for healing and transformation. Pope Francis makes this point in his Apostolic Exhortation, Gaudete et Exsultate:
The Second Synod of Orange taught with firm authority that nothing human can demand, merit or buy the gift of divine grace, and that all cooperation with it is a prior gift of that same grace: “Even the desire to be cleansed comes about in us through the outpouring and working of the Holy Spirit.” (§53)
Our actions in growing in holiness are always a response to what God has already started, and that is what Simon did. Against his better judgment, he did what Jesus asked of him and cast his nets into the lake. It was Jesus, not Simon’s fishing skills, that caused this supernatural catch of fish. In a symbolic way, this is like our own relationship with the Lord. While there is nothing we can do to make ourselves more divine, God uses our meager — but free — acts of obedience to supernaturally transform us.
At this point, Simon falls to his knees and says, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” In the face of God’s power and love for us, the only appropriate response is repentance. We must turn away from our old life, from the way we have always done things, in order to turn to and receive the new life Jesus is offering.
Notice as well that Simon was not fully changed after that first encounter and act of repentance. This was just the beginning of his long, and often difficult, journey with the Lord. Likewise, we are not completely transformed when we first experience God breaking into our life. Growth in holiness, in the ability to live and love like Christ, is a process. In Familiaris Consortio, Saint John Paul II says that man “is an historical being who day by day builds himself up through his many free decisions; and so he knows, loves and accomplishes moral good by stages of growth” (§34). Pope Francis echoes this in Gaudete et Exsultate, saying, “Grace, precisely because it builds on nature, does not make us superhuman all at once.” Then he goes on to say that the denial of this process is counterproductive to our growth in holiness: “If we reject this historical and progressive reality, we can actually refuse and block grace, even as we extol it by our words” (§50). And this process is often messy, marked with trails and failures, and even moments when, even though we are being transformed by grace, we are not yet free enough to keep the commandments.
You can read the whole article here: https://www.hprweb.com/2020/07/i-will-give-you-a-new-heart/