by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann
“Amazing Grace” is one of the most popular Christian hymns. Written in late 1772 by Anglican clergyman John Newton, it was first sung on January 1, 1773, at the church where Newton served as pastor.
Before his conversion and his ministry in the Anglican Church, John Newton had been a sailor who led a dissolute life. Much to his regret later in his life, he participated in the slave trade.
In his youth, Newton was rebellious and disrespectful of authority. For a time, he was imprisoned on a ship where he had previously served as a member of the crew. Newton himself was enslaved and performed forced labor on a plantation in Sierra Leone. A friend of his father eventually rescued him.
While Newton did not write “Amazing Grace” specifically in opposition to the slave trade, later in his life he became an ardent abolitionist, partnering with William Wilberforce in the effort to abolish slavery in the British Empire. Many interpret his reference to himself as a “wretch” as a direct reference to his participation in the slave trade.
The lyrics of “Amazing Grace” were not published with the melody with which we are familiar until 1847. The hymn was much more commonly sung in the United States than England. “Amazing Grace” was popularized during the Second Great Awakening (1790-1850), a time of renewed religious fervor for many Protestants in the United States.
“Amazing Grace” was not widely used in Catholic liturgies until 50 years ago, largely because of concerns with some theological deficiencies in the lyrics. While “Amazing Grace” obviously reflects the Protestant theology and spirituality of its author, it also lends itself to an interpretation that is consistent with Catholic theology.
Pope Emeritus Benedict wrote in his introduction for his 2005 encyclical, “Deus Caritas Est” (“God Is Love”): “Being a Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.”
At a public audience on Sept. 3, 2008, reflecting on the conversion of St. Paul, Pope Benedict stated: “Christianity is not a new philosophy or a new form of morality. We are only Christians if we encounter Christ, even if he does not reveal himself to us as clearly and irresistibly as he did to Paul in making him the Apostle to the Gentiles. We can also encounter Christ in reading holy Scripture, in prayer and in the liturgical life of the church — we touch Christ’s heart and feel that Christ touches ours. And it is only in this personal relationship with Christ, in this meeting with the risen One, that we are truly Christian.”
Pope Francis in his 2013 apostolic exhortation “Evangelii Gaudium” (“The Joy of the Gospel”) urged Catholics: “I invite all Christians, everywhere, at this very moment to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ” (3).
After quoting Pope Benedict’s affirmation that the heart of the Gospel is an encounter with the person of Jesus, Pope Francis added: “Thanks solely to this encounter — or renewed encounter — with God’s love, which blossoms into an enriching friendship, we are liberated from our narrowness and self-absorption. We become fully human when we become more than human, when we let God bring us beyond ourselves in order to attain the fullest truth of our being” (EG, 8).
“Amazing Grace” is one man’s reflection on his encounter with the person of Jesus Christ. For John Newton, this experience of the mercy and redeeming love of Jesus was truly transformative.
For Catholics, each reception of the sacrament of reconciliation is an opportunity for a profound encounter with the person of Jesus Christ.
In making a sacramental confession, we invite Jesus to reveal himself to us by approaching Our Lord with utter humility and trusting faith. It is in this sacrament that we experience the liberating mercy of Jesus — not in an abstract or theoretical manner, but as it applies to the unique circumstances of our lives.
In Catholic theology, we do not believe that human beings are wretched by nature. We accept the teaching of Scripture that we are made in the divine image.
Moreover, on Calvary God revealed that, despite our sinfulness, the Lord recognizes something so beautiful in each human being that Jesus was willing to suffer death by crucifixion in order that we might know the depth of God’s love and the wideness of his mercy.
No matter if we are a slave trader like John Newton or a director of an abortion clinic like Abby Johnson or a Satanist like Blessed Bartolo Longo or a persecutor of Christians like St. Paul, God’s mercy is greater than our sin.
In the sacrament of reconciliation, by speaking aloud our sin, we are able to liberate our souls from being racked with guilt and paralyzed with discouragement. At the same time, we are able to hear Our Lord’s words of mercy spoken by a fellow sinner who has been designated by the church and who, on Easter night, was empowered by Jesus to continue his ministry of mercy.
John Newton describes in his lyrics an experience of actual grace that, indeed, was an intervention by God in his life. As Pope Benedict and Pope Francis remind us, we all need these actual graces that transform our souls by encountering the person of Jesus Christ.
In the sacrament of reconciliation, the divine life received through the waters of baptism is restored and renewed. Through this sacrament, we also experience God’s mercy, which is God’s love in response to our sin.
This is also an occasion for receiving actual graces that deepen our conversion as we welcome Jesus to exercise his lordship over our hearts.
John Newton was right. God’s grace is truly amazing!