Editorial - Allowing Grace to Catch Up

Michael McCabe

At the 2015 Synod on the Family held in Rome, there was considerable reflection on the moral principle of gradualism, a principle whose roots lie in the thinking and writing of Blessed Paul VI and which has been further developed by Saint John Paul II in Familiaris Consortio (nn. 9 & 34) and Pope Francis in Amoris Laetitia (nn. 295 & 300).

Simply put, people grow in different ways and at different times on their faith journey – and that is just as true for each community as it is for each person. The personal and pastoral challenge for each of us is living with that reality; living with ourselves and living with it in our relationships, our families, our faith communities and society.

The key moral question is how to retain compassion and charity towards those who think and act differently to us? Do we run away? Do we seek out a like-minded group? While flight is necessary for our soul’s growth at times, it does not always lead to growth, compassion, better understanding or wisdom simply because we may be avoiding a deeper issue.

The Gospel passage about the two sons, Matthew 21:23-32, provides a picture of gradual growth:

‘What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I will go, sir’; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?’ They answered, ‘The first.’

In his commentary on this Gospel passage, Father Michael Hayes, tells the story of a Catholic High School teacher who was running into difficulty presenting the Catholic position on abortion to her class. The students seemed to be rejecting the viewpoint that she was presenting, so she asked the school’s guidance counsellor for help. He began his presentation to the students by saying how difficult the practical decisions surrounding abortion can be. The counsellor also spoke of the need for compassion and charity when people make decisions we cannot accept.

At that point the students seemed to change their response. They had no difficulty in acknowledging the objective wrong of abortion. But, unbeknown to their teacher, the issue that had tied them in knots was a classmate who had recently had an abortion – they did not want to turn their back on their friend.

So what seemed to be a ‘No’ for an issue of faith and morality actually contained a ‘Yes’ hidden within – a ‘Yes’ to compassion and charity.

Reading that story reminded me of a couple who called the Presbytery one Saturday morning. The woman, from Europe, was in the early stages of pregnancy. I agreed to meet her and her partner in the chapel. They wanted to talk with me about having an abortion. Their relationship had ended and she was returning to Europe the following week and had already booked into Auckland Hospital for an abortion on the Monday morning. I listened to them both and we prayed. I then asked if I might give them both the Sacrament of Anointing. They agreed to that. The woman told me that this sacrament would not change her mind. It would be her decision, and hers alone. I simply replied, as I have in similar cases, “I pray, that whatever you decide, and fully respecting your conscience, that this child will be a blessing to you both…”

They both cried during the anointing and asked me to leave them in the chapel. That Saturday, a grey wet day, I later saw them out walking and I again prayed for them and their baby.

The woman called me later that week to thank me. She had flown to Auckland to have the abortion. While on the gurney, waiting to go into the theatre, she hopped off the trolley, went back to her room, got dressed, and discharged herself. She had decided to keep the baby. Her former partner had promised to help her raise it, even while they both acknowledged their relationship was finished. She was returning to Europe. She then said, “I never want to see you again but I do want you to know how grateful I am for your time and for the Sacrament of Anointing.” She added that she still felt “very raw” and faced an “uncertain future” but knew she had “made the right decision" and was at peace.

So, what looked like a ‘No’ was actually a ‘Yes’ masking as a ‘No.’

In the Gospel parable, the first son changes his mind. In other words, he allows God’s unfailing grace to catch up with him.

I think it was the same for that woman and her former partner. Likewise with the High School class and likewise for ourselves. In reaching out to those on the peripheries, and in our own moral development, the gradual responding to grace takes time and requires great wisdom.

Rev Michael McCabe (PhD) is founding director of The Nathaniel Centre and Parish Priest of Our Lady of Kapiti Parish