Deacon Keith Fournier: A Reflection on Freedom, Grace and Conversion
As long as freedom has not bound itself definitively to its ultimate good which is God, there is the possibility of choosing between good and evil, and thus of growing in perfection or of failing and sinning. This freedom characterizes properly human acts. It is the basis of praise or blame, merit or reproach. The more one does what is good, the freer one becomes. There is no true freedom except in the service of what is good and just. The choice to disobey and do evil is an abuse of freedom and leads to "the slavery of sin". (Romans 6:17) - The Catholic Catechism
Deacon Keith Fournier
CHESAPEAKE, VA (Catholic Online) - As we continue this weekend to celebrate Fourth of July activities in the United States of America, our focus turns toward that word which captures the hearts and minds of every man, woman and child, FREEDOM.
There is no single word which echoes more passionately within the American heart than freedom. This Nation was founded by men and women who experienced threats to freedom's promise and potential and responded to them with heroism. It has beckoned from its birth to all who hear freedom's invitation to come and see what true Freedom means.
These compelling words written by Emma Lazarus are engraved on the pedestal of the Lady Liberty in New York's Ellis Island: "Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore, Send these, the homeless, tempest tossed, I lift my lamp beside the golden door."
Freedom's lamp still shines beside that golden door. However, that light is being diminished by counterfeit notions of freedom which are leading this Nation we love to lose its moral compass and, as a result, to be confused about the very meaning of the word freedom.
One of the architects of the freedom undertaking which brought down the Berlin Wall at the end of the last century, St. John Paul II once wrote:
"Human freedom belongs to us as creatures; it is a freedom which is given as a gift, one to be received like a seed and to be cultivated responsibly. It is an essential part of that creaturely image which is the basis of the dignity of the person."
The Catechism of the Catholic Church in its Section entitled "Life in Christ" offers a summary of the Sacred Scripture and Tradition on freedom and how we progress in the Christian life:
"God created man a rational being, conferring on him the dignity of a person who can initiate and control his own actions."God willed that man should be 'left in the hand of his own counsel,' so that he might of his own accord seek his Creator and freely attain his full and blessed perfection by cleaving to him."(CCC 1730)
The citation offered within the text of the Catechism is taken from the Second Vatican Council's Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World ("Gaudium et Spes", paragraph # 17) and the Old Testament Book of Sirach 15:14 which reads:
"When God, in the beginning, created man, he made him subject to his own free choice." What follows is a line from the 2d century Church Bishop, Ireneaeus of Lyons: "Man is rational and therefore like God; he is created with free will and is master over his acts."
The real meaning of human freedom are broken open for us in the Catechism in a way that makes it ideal for reflection. These instructions on the relationship between grace and freedom are grouped together under the topic of "Freedom and Responsibility":
"Freedom is the power, rooted in reason and will, to act or not to act, to do this or that, and so to perform deliberate actions on one's own responsibility. By free will one shapes one's own life. Human freedom is a force for growth and maturity in truth and goodness; it attains its perfection when directed toward God, our beatitude."
"As long as freedom has not bound itself definitively to its ultimate good which is God, there is the possibility of choosing between good and evil, and thus of growing in perfection or of failing and sinning. This freedom characterizes properly human acts.
It is the basis of praise or blame, merit or reproach. The more one does what is good, the freer one becomes. There is no true freedom except in the service of what is good and just. The choice to disobey and do evil is an abuse of freedom and leads to "the slavery of sin". (Romans 6:17) (CCC #1731, 1732, and 1733)
So why do we have such a hard time living the responsible freedom which God invites us all into? Why do we make the wrong choices, leading us into further bondage to disordered passions are misguided pursuits? The answer is that our capacity to grow in freedom has been fractured by sin.
We do not always choose the path to our true liberation because of the effects of what St. Paul called the "law of sin and death" (Romans 8:2). We experience the plight summarized succinctly by the Apostle in his letter to the Romans, "What I do, I do not understand. For I do not do what I want, but I do what I hate." (Romans 7:15)
The Catechism, summarizing the teaching of Scripture and Tradition, explains this fracture of our freedom occasioned by sin with these words:
"Man's freedom is limited and fallible. In fact, man failed. He freely sinned. By refusing God's plan of love, he deceived himself and became a slave to sin. This first alienation engendered a multitude of others. From its outset, human history attests the wretchedness and oppression born of the human heart in consequence of the abuse of freedom.(CCC # 1739)"
Sin is an abuse of our use of human freedom. It is a wrong choice which, if not confessed and untreated, leads us to more and more wrong choices. The more we sin the more we lose our freedom. However, in the words of the Apostle Paul, it was "for freedom Christ has set us free" (Gal 5:1). So it is Jesus who leads us to freedom and frees us from the bondage of sin.
We need the Divine treatment offered for the fracture to our freedom which was occasioned by the original sin of our first parents. We need the remedy for the further weakening caused by the cumulative effect of our own errant exercises of this power of choice.
That treatment is found in the Cross of Jesus Christ. It alone can heal the fracture which sin has brought to our capacity for true freedom. It is our splint. We need grace.
In another Section on freedom, the Catechism gives us an insight which has the potential of rewriting the continuing story of our lives: "Mortal sin is a radical possibility of human freedom, as is love itself."(CCC #1861)
Because we are created in the Image of God we have the power, the capacity, to make choices. But what we choose not only changes the world around us, it changes us.
An early 4th century Church Father explained it this way:
"We are in a sense our own parents, and we give birth to ourselves by our own free choice of what is good. Such a choice becomes possible for us when we have received God into ourselves and have become children of God, children of the most high. On the other hand, if what the Apostle calls the form of Christ has not been produced in us, we abort ourselves. The man (woman) of God must reach maturity."
The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains in a section entitled Liberation and Salvation:
"By his glorious Cross Christ has won salvation for all men. He redeemed them from the sin that held them in bondage. "For freedom Christ has set us free." In him we have communion with the "truth that makes us free." The Holy Spirit has been given to us and, as the Apostle teaches, "Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. (CCC 1741)"
It is only by choosing the good, conforming our choices to the truth as revealed in the Natural Moral Law and fully revealed in the Person of Jesus Christ and taught by the Word of God - and the instruction which He continues to give to us through His Church - that we can grow in authentic freedom and become the men and women whom we were created, and are being re-created in Christ, to become.
We cannot do any of this on our own, with our own human effort. We need God's grace, His Divine Life.
The Father has given this grace to us freely in His Son, Jesus Christ. We are now invited to grow in our relationship with Him by living our lives in the heart of the Church, which is his Body, of which we became members through Baptism. We are invited to grow in this reality and make it our own by embracing the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives.
By reading, praying and living His Word, receiving the grace which is mediated through the Sacraments, learning the New Way of Life revealed to us in the Bible, and continuing to seek more and more of the Holy Spirit through communion with God in prayer, we are able to be continually converted and made new. (2 Cor 5:17)
By grace, we are empowered to replace the old habits of vice with habits of holiness.
We are to live in the Holy Spirit, allowing the Holy Spirit to work within us, making us new and enabling us to grow in virtue and to begin to manifest the fruits, the character of Christ being formed in us. (Gal. 5:22)
Consider this poignant insight from the Catechism: "The more one does what is good, the freer one becomes. There is no true freedom except in the service of what is good and just. The choice to disobey and do evil is an abuse of freedom and leads to "the slavery of sin.(CCC 1733)"
By grace we can choose to grow in the likeness of the One who carried His Cross to free us from the power of sin and the final enemy of death. However, even God will not violate our human freedom. he strengthens it and enables us to respond to His continual invitations.
Coming to understand the relationship between our freedom and the grace of God more fully is a key to our progress in holiness and our response to the invitation of conversion. We are invited to be educated in freedom.
The Catechism points us on the way: "Freedom and grace. The grace of Christ is not in the slightest way a rival of our freedom when this freedom accords with the sense of the true and the good that God has put in the human heart."
"On the contrary, as Christian experience attests especially in prayer, the more docile we are to the promptings of grace, the more we grow in inner freedom and confidence during trials, such as those we face in the pressures and constraints of the outer world. "
"By the working of grace the Holy Spirit educates us in spiritual freedom in order to make us free collaborators in his work in the Church and in the world: 'Almighty and merciful God, in your goodness take away from us all that is harmful, so that, made ready both in mind and body, we may freely accomplish your will.(Prayer of the Roman Missal) (CCC # 1742)"
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