Question box: What is grace?


By Father Thom Hennen

Q. I have been Catholic all my life but have never heard grace explained. Can you help me?

A. I can certainly try in just a few words here. Yes, “grace” is a word that we throw around a lot in the Church, and yet I would bet if you were to ask a room full of practicing Catholics what grace is, you would discover silence and not a few puzzled looks. Grace is something we only seem to have a sense of when it is experienced or when we have no other way of explaining some good in our lives.

Fr. Hennen

I think the best, most succinct definition of grace from the “Catechism of the Catholic Church” is simply “a participation in the life of God” (para. 1997). In other words, it is a sharing in or a kind of “tapping into” God’s own divine life.


At the heart of the concept of grace is the idea that it is pure gratuitous gift. While we can open ourselves to this gift (for example, through prayer and the sacraments), it cannot be bought or earned. I think Catholics, in particular, can fall into a trap of thinking of God like a “vending machine” of grace. We go to church, we put our money in the basket, we say our prayers, we do something nice for someone and then we expect God to give us our grace. And, when he doesn’t (or we don’t immediately perceive the grace that is given), we kick the “machine,” grumble and walk away feeling ripped off.

However, God is not a vending machine and “owes” us nothing. That being said, it is in God’s nature to love us. Grace is an expression or overflowing of that love in our lives. It has more to do with who God is than anything we have done.

This touches also on the concept of “merit” in Catholic theology. However, even here the Catechism states, “With regard to God, there is no strict right to any merit on the part of man … for we have received everything from [God], our Creator. The merit of man before God in the Christian life arises from the fact that God has freely chosen to associate man with the work of his grace. The fatherly action of God is first on his own initiative, and then follows man’s free acting through his collaboration, so that the merit of good works is to be attributed in the first place to the grace of God, then to the faithful” (CCC, paras. 2007-2008). In other words, even my hopefully generous response to God’s gift of grace is itself the working of grace, a gift from God. The only adequate response is thanksgiving, which happens to be the meaning of the word “Eucharist.”

The Church further distinguishes between “sanctifying grace” and “actual grace.” Sanctifying grace (received at baptism) is a “stable and supernatural disposition,” whereas actual grace refers to particular “interventions” of God (cf. CCC, para. 2000). All analogies “limp,” as they say, but you might think of sanctifying grace a bit like being “plugged in,” like a lamp in your home. As long as there is power (and with God there always is), the grace is “flowing.” Actual graces are like “pulses” that enable certain things to happen when needed, like God “turning on the lamp.”
I know that is a lot to ponder (and probably doesn’t begin to scratch the surface), but I hope that helps as we all strive to understand better and open ourselves more to the gift of God’s grace.

(Father Thom Hennen serves as the pastor of Sacred Heart Cathedral in Davenport and Vicar General for the Diocese of Davenport. Send questions to

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