The link between grace and justice

A friend told me a story recently of her first Thanksgiving after the death of her mother years ago. My friend related how her mother did not teach her much about cooking, sewing, and housecleaning when my friend was young because her mother figured that she would learn all that soon enough on her own as she got older, and thus would have more time while growing up to enjoy other activities. My friend’s mother handled all of these chores, including the fixing of a sumptuous Thanksgiving dinner to which the relatives were invited each year.

So as Thanksgiving approached, my friend determined that the tradition would continue and that she would do all of the cooking. She prepared the turkey and the other dishes. The plates were filled and the meal began. My friend started eating and realized almost immediately that the turkey wasn’t fully cooked and that the potatoes were lumpy. She looked up, she saw the family around the table picking at their food, and she started to....

At this point of the story, as I was listening to my friend share it, I anticipated that my friend was going to say “started to cry.” Imagine being in that situation. There was so much riding on maintaining the tradition, everyone was still mourning the death of a loved one, and the host was hoping not to disappoint her guests. Yet even in the midst of these concerns, instead of crying, my friend said that she started to laugh.

“Guys, the food is not very good, is it?” Everyone around the table had to agree. But they also rediscovered that being together to celebrate the holiday was the most important thing. “That’s what Thanksgiving is all about,” my friend remarked as she concluded her story.

Behind the altar of my parish church, Our Lady of Grace on the Everett/Chelsea line, there is a stained glass window depicting the Annunciation. The window’s most prominent feature is the white dove of the Holy Spirit emitting a white cone of grace over and around Mary as she hears the Archangel’s invitation to bear Jesus in her womb.

Vocation and grace, the two divine elements of the Incarnation, were also present in my friend’s Thanksgiving experience, giving her the capacity to laugh and somehow rise above the circumstances. Vocation and grace are present in every difficult situation. The roadmap of our lives, should we take the time to reflect on the sometimes complicated and often unexpected pathways that we have traveled over the years, is really just a trace, written in the medium of human life itself, of God’s gifts of vocation and grace.

In his encyclical on social justice and human development, Pope Benedict XVI offers an intriguing reflection on what he refers to as “the astonishing experience of gift” (“Charity in Truth” no. 34). If we become attuned to all of the blessings in our lives, we grow more aware of the “gratuitousness” or giftedness of life. Original sin, the Holy Father submits, is that which causes us to become “wrongly convinced” that we are “the sole author” of ourselves, our lives and our society, as if all the good that we experience or seek to accomplish is solely of our own making. This closed-in attitude affects our understanding of evil and alters our vision of justice.

The Holy Father writes that “[t]he conviction that man is self-sufficient and can successfully eliminate the evil present in history by his own action alone has led him to confuse happiness and salvation with immanent forms of material prosperity and social action.” With God out of the picture, justice becomes only a matter of employing better technology, creating greater access to wealth, and using the most efficient means to fix social problems, even if those means violate divine truths.

Because the true source of all that is good is God’s transcendent love, God’s love for life must inform our efforts to bring justice. Life is a gift and thus “[o]penness to life is at the center of true development,” Pope Benedict asserts. “When society moves towards the denial or suppression of life,” he continues, “it ends up no longer finding the necessary motivation and energy to strive for man’s true good” (“Charity in Truth” no. 28).

When the United States House of Representatives was debating the health care reform legislation this fall, I watched on C-Span as several pro-life members of Congress from both parties spoke eloquently in support of the principle that abortion should not be considered to be health care. I was particularly moved by the Democratic women and men who bucked their leadership to champion an amendment that would keep abortion mandates out of the health care plan.

At a press conference following the successful vote on the pro-life amendment in the House, the chief sponsors told the media that the protection of life was the primary reason that they had run for office and thus it was a priority of their public service. The health care reform battle is far from over and concerns in a host of areas must be resolved. Yet the pro-life witness displayed during the House debate will always burn bright. These men and women demonstrated through their professional actions in their vocation as legislators that justice and truth, grace and openness to life, are compatible and necessary.

Daniel Avila is the Associate Director for Policy and Research of the Massachusetts Catholic Conference.