While some Catholics denounce the propriety of singing songs like “Amazing Grace” in a Catholic Mass, discounting them as “unsingable” or “Protestant,” there is another way of looking at this. In a nutshell, many of these songs — Amazing Grace among them — take on fresh meaning once the full light of faith shines upon them.
While this isn’t true for converts from all denominations, I grew up in a church in which hymn singing was a highly “formative” occupation, theologically speaking (that and “Bible drills” in Sunday school). As a result, these songs are an important part of my spiritual heritage. Indeed, these hymns frequently express truths about life and faith in God that can enrich Catholic communities as much as Protestant ones.
The question we need to ask ourselves is not whether a particular song is “Protestant,” but whether the ideas it expresses are true. We know that, by virtue of their baptism, all Christians are part of the Body of Christ (though some are united imperfectly). Even those who have not embraced the fullness of the faith are capable of capturing a glimpse of the spiritual life that Catholic Christians do well to consider for themselves. Because of their love for the Word of God, and their familiarity with it, Protestant hymns are saturated with themes and metaphors from the Bible. This is the source of power to transform the human soul.
The greatest error of the Protestant Reformation — the error that is at the root of all theological error — was spiritual and intellectual pride. This pride prevented them from submitting to the authority of Rome and the teaching of the Fathers. For many converts, conversion takes place only after this kind of pride is systematically dismantled, returning us to a childlike state of acceptance and humility as we journey toward the Vigil.
Speaking only for myself, it was when I was in this childlike state that the hymns of the faith of my childhood took on new meaning.
“T’is grace that taught my heart to fear,
and grace that fear relieved.”
As we grow older and deeper in faith, however, there are times when we are more cognizant of how that grace operates within us. It is this grace that enables us to mature in faith. It is grace that illuminates the intellect, and teaches us about God’s power and his mercy (fearful heart vs. relieved heart). And in that transforming process, we realize what a gift God’s grace is.
“How precious did that grace appear the hour I first believed.”
Believe it or not, this is a line that I sang with even greater fervor after I became Catholic. It was God’s grace — nothing more, nothing less — that enlightened my mind and heart to receive the fullness of the truth, and to believe that the Catholic Church was truly the Church founded by Christ. It took more than simple intellectual reflection. It required a paradigm shift of the will and the heart. It took a true leap of faith.
My friends, intellectual and spiritual pride that blinded me for so long … even though I had followed God all my life, it took a supernatural work of grace to unstop my spiritual ears and remove the blinders.
“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost but now am found, t’was blind but now I see.”
Unfortunately, this spiritual and intellectual pride afflicts Christians on both sides of the church divide. It is this kind of affliction that keeps some Catholics from experiencing all the joy and life God wants to give them. Joy (as opposed to “emotionalism”) rooted in truth, and watered with humility and faith.
Thank God that in His wisdom, He provided the means to remove this pride at the root, in the sacrament of reconciliation.
So next time you hear the song, go ahead and sing about that Amazing Grace!
P.S. In one of my discussion groups, someone pointed out that the word “wretch” like me is a reference to the Calvinist belief in total depravity. Here was my reply:
“Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed.” Believing this — that we cannot save ourselves, and that we need the saving graces of the work of Christ (which we believe are imparted through the teachings and sacraments of the Church) — does not make us Calvinists. It makes us Christian.
It is true that John Newton was a Calvinist, and it may be that Calvinists put a particular mental spin on it as they sing (with regard to total depravity). We don’t share that theological perspective … but for all the reasons I’ve already written, the song itself is a powerful testimony to God’s goodness. It’s sad that Newton didn’t come to understand the full truth of God’s amazing grace in his lifetime. But the song itself is not problematic.
In the words of the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 13:12: “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.” Newton saw “darkly” and “partly” because he was detached from the fullness of the truth, entrusted to the Catholic Church.
For all the reasons I’ve already mentioned, I sing the song with greater fervor — not less — because I have experienced that grace in ways Newton never did. And when we all get to heaven … oh, what a chorus THAT will be!