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The Priority of Grace: Theologian Karl-Heinz Menke on Opus Dei

The German theologian Karl-Heinz Menke emphasized the priority that St. Josemaría Escrivá, founder of Opus Dei, gave in his teachings to the action of divine grace, even in the ordinary life of the faithful.

Emilio Mur-June 28, 2022-Reading time: 7 minutes
Karl-Heinz Menke

Karl-Heinz Menke next to Pope Francis as he accepts the 2017 Ratzinger Prize ©CNS Photo.

Karl-Heinz Menke is professor emeritus of Dogmatic Theology at the University of Bonn, between 2014 and 2019 he was a member of the International Theological Commission and in 2017 he received the "Joseph Ratzinger" Prize for Theology. The prestigious professor has also refuted the criticisms that another renowned theologian, Swiss Cardinal Hans Urs von Balthasar, made of "Camino"the best-known work of Josemaría Escriváfounder of Opus Dei.

Karl-Heinz Menke acknowledges that he shared them for some time, but now perceives that von Balthasar missed "the crucial point: only if I have understood my parents, my upbringing, the blows of fate and disabilities, the limitations and talents of my life as grace; only if I have understood with my whole existence that I - precisely I! - can move mountains and be light and salt of the earth, can and must allow myself to be told, perhaps every day: 'You can do much more. Let it rest! You are not a punching bag; react! Temper your will!".

Karl-Heinz Menke said this in Cologne (Germany) on June 25, during the homily at a Mass celebrated on the occasion of the memorial of the founder of Opus Dei. In addition, he stressed the importance that St. Josemaría He also emphasized the social and charitable commitment of the people of the Work.

For its interest, we reproduce the complete text in a Spanish translation.

Homily in commemoration of St. Josemaría Escrivá in Cologne, St. Ursula

It was a long time ago, but there are things that are not forgotten. Thus, I remember a meeting to which I had invited the parents of the children who were going to receive their first confession and first Communion. As usual in this type of meeting, at the beginning everything revolved around external things: order, distribution of papers, clothing and the like. But then a mother, whom I knew well, stood up and, rather excited and red-faced, let off steam by saying what she had evidently been repressing for a long time. More or less: "You know us, me and my husband.. We go to Mass every Sunday and often during the week. We also go to confession. I go from house to house to collect funds for Caritas. And my husband is on the Kolping board. If we have to help at the parish feast, Corpus Christi or any other feast, we are there. Only people, and even our own relatives, laugh at us. Our neighbors don't have to argue with their teenage children to go to Mass on Sundays. They give their teenage daughters the pill and have no pangs of conscience when it comes time to file their tax returns. Much less do they have to explain to an eight-year-old child - as I have already done for the fourth time - what sin is and that Jesus is waiting for us every Sunday".

This woman said - decades ago now - what many people thought or felt. If I understood St. Josemaría Escrivá correctly, he himself is an answer to that question. 

What fascinated me most in reading Peter Berglar's biography of Josemaría Escrivá is the saint's gift for discovering in every human being-even in those who are deeply wounded by the deviations and deviations of sin-the grace [!!!] that, discovered and deployed with coherence, can become something radiant (light of the world and salt of the earth). St. Josemaría was deeply convinced: every human being, no matter how inconspicuous his life may seem in the eyes of this world, and no matter how hindered by all kinds of adversities and limitations, is touched by grace. It is only necessary to recognize and awaken this grace, to foster it constantly and make it bear fruit.

The path marked by grace is rarely identical to a single possibility. A person who became a dentist could also have become a good teacher. Practically no one is naturally suited exclusively to a single profession. Certainly, nature must be taken into account; he who cannot speak should not become a speaker; and he who has no dexterity should not become a watchmaker. But it is always true that when one has discovered what one is destined to be, when one finally knows what the grace of one's own life is, then the rest unfolds.

St. Josemaría advises us to receive the Eucharist daily and to set aside two half hours a day to converse with our Lord. Not to add something religious to the numerous obligations of daily life. In that case, the relationship with God or with Christ would be something like a second floor above the first floor of the working day. No! It is a matter of giving primacy to the reception of grace, which should determine everything we speak, plan, think and do.

Grace is not a substitute for nature. A bad doctor does not become a good one by attending daily Mass. On the contrary, those who cover laziness, incompetence or incapacity with the cloak of piety are one of those comic figures scathingly caricatured by Friedrich Nietzsche and Heinrich Heine. Pity is no substitute for lack of competence. But, for example, a physician who understands his work as a gift from Christ to his patients will at the same time exert himself to the utmost. That is holiness: the sanctification of work.

Without grace, all is nothing. But with grace I can move mountains. St. Paul said it with an emphaticness that is hard to surpass: "Even if I speak with all the tongues of men and of angels, even if I have the gift of prophecy and know all mysteries and all knowledge, even if I have all faith, a faith that can move mountains, if I do not have love [Josemaría Escrivá would say: "grace"], I am as a sounding bell or a clanging cymbal, I am nothing" (1 Cor 13:1 ff.).

Only those who have understood that their life - be it that of the mother mentioned at the beginning, that of the doctor mentioned above, that of a bricklayer or a nurse - is grace (the vessel of love), understand the imperatives that St. Josemaría wrote in "The Way": "Do you dress up? -You... of the crowd? If you can do much more, leave your mark! You are not a punching bag; react! Temper your will!"

I must admit that for a long time, unfortunately, I took on board the criticisms of Hans Urs von Balthasar. He described these imperatives as mere slogans, as if they were a kick; but in doing so-and despite being one of the greatest theologians-he missed the crucial point: only if I have understood my parents, my upbringing, the blows of fate and disabilities, the limitations and talents of my life as grace; only if I have understood with my whole existence that I-precisely I-can move mountains and be light and salt of the earth, can and must allow myself to be told, perhaps every day: "You can do much more. Let go! You are not a punching bag; react! Temper your will!".

The Gospel of the miraculous catch of fish, the Gospel for St. Josemaría's feast day, reminds us of the basic requirement for all missionary success: "Cast your catch of fish, and you will be able to catch it. your Do not envy the nets of others! Be, where you have been placed, the love, the grace of Christ". Missionary success, for many contemporaries, is a term that smacks of manipulation and appropriation. But love does not take possession of anyone; on the contrary, it liberates.

Still today I correspond with a man who - he was employed in garbage collection - became a drunkard after the divorce of his marriage, homeless, etc.; you all know what downward career I am referring to. A twenty-year-old student - today a faithful member of Opus Dei with his whole family - literally picked him up off the street and accompanied him for two years with admirable fidelity, step by step and in spite of all the setbacks. Today, this man, freed from his hell, attends Holy Mass almost every evening; he collects discarded toys from the garbage, repairs them in his many free hours and donates them to various kindergartens and children's homes. He has even developed two patents; in May last year he received the German Cross of Merit.

Cardinal Schönborn speaks at The joy of being a priest of one of his priests: "For decades, he has been in the confessional every day at half past four in the morning. People from all over the region know that they can find the 'priest' there. When they go to work in Vienna or the surrounding area, many make a short detour to go to that village for confession. He is always there. He has even enlarged the confessional a bit so that he can do his morning gymnastics there. He reads, prays and waits; he is simply there. He is one of the best priests, also for the young people, by whom he is very dear. He is a priest who is grace because he lives by grace".

It is possible to live all in have mode and all in the way of love (from grace). There are scientists who work day and night to discover, for example, a vaccine that saves the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, without thinking for a second about the money they earn from it. And there are people who live even evangelical poverty in the way of having, following the motto: "Look: I have poverty; you don't have it!"

St. Josemaría called his priesthood "of the Holy Cross" because he lived by the Eucharist. Whoever lives by the Eucharist knows that grace as the perfection of nature is also its crucifixion. It is not possible to receive Christ who literally gives himself (sacrifices himself) without the will to allow oneself to be situated in this giving (sacrifice) of oneself: the more concrete, the better. Certainly: what is decisive is the indicative, not the imperative. The decisive is given to each of us in a singular way. But it is also true that we are not simply the object of grace; we are also the subject of grace.

I suppose that St. Josemaría would have replied to the mother who was venting her feelings at that parents' meeting on the eve of her children's first confession and communion: "Being a Christian has never been comfortable. But when one lives by grace, one no longer wants to do without it.

For he who gives himself becomes free. Hardly any of Opus Dei's many critics know that there is no subject on which St. Josemaría spoke more about than freedom. In one of his homilies in 1963, he confessed: "I am a great friend of freedom, and that is precisely why I love this Christian virtue [obedience] so much. We must feel that we are children of God, and live with the illusion of fulfilling the will of our Father. To do things according to God's will, because we feel like it, which is the most supernatural reason. When I decide to want what the Lord wants, then I free myself from all the chains that have shackled me to things and worries [...]. The spirit of Opus Dei, which I have tried to practice and teach for more than thirty-five years, has made me understand and love personal freedom.

This explains, it seems to me, the selection of the second reading for his commemoration (Rom 8:14-17): "Those who allow themselves to be led by the Spirit of God are children of God. You have received, not a spirit of slavery [...] but the spirit of sonship" (8:15).

Testo originale del articolo in inglese qui

The authorEmilio Mur

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