What Must a Catholic Do to be Saved?
At Baptism Divine Life (a supernatural Birth) enters the soul, virtues are infused (habitual grace) and the person needs to put into practice (by grace) what has been received.
For the normal Catholic, therefore, the question of one's salvation is not a major concern or emphasis; rather it is to love God by following His will by means of a sacramental life, preceded and followed by prayer, penance, love of neighbor, in one's state of life. There is a trust that God will bring one to heaven because of what He has started in the soul. Looking at oneself there is reason to be fearful; but looking at God there is reason to hope. And this hope is the infused virtue of Hope by which one trusts that God will help you get where He desires you to end up, i.e., with Him. The normal Catholic, therefore, does not have an anxiety about salvation, yet has a realistic humility about the terms of it. He therefore does not need absolute certainty of mind that he will be saved, and sees such a need as an insecurity and distrust in the Goodness and Power of God to help the well-meaning. One must constantly turn to God, and when one does assurance (though not absolute knowledge) results. This assurance or trust comes from a practical sensing that God is actually helping one to conquer one's sinful tendencies.
Basically there are three stages on this journey of living out what one has received: the beginner's, the proficient's, the relatively perfect (sanctity).
In the first stage one loves God for one's own advantage; in the second, one loves God for God's sake and not primarily for one's own advantage; in the third, one loves self only for God's sake (much more than self). There is a deeper conversion between the first and second; and a far deeper one between the second and third. If one dies in the third stage one immediately enters heaven or the vision of God; if one dies in the second or first stage one must be purified in Purgatory (so as to end up in the third) before one can see God directly. This is how one can die in a state of grace and therefore be saved, but also be delayed in completely enjoying that salvation until completely purified of imperfection in the love of God.
The means in the growth in the love of God from a beginner to the perfect (from a childish spiritual awareness to a spiritually mature one) are prayer, the Sacraments, the exercise of the virtues by grace. By these means one gradually advances in the love of God within the visible Church. In the first stage God cooperates with the person utilizing the actual and habitual graces already given; in the second and third it is the reverse, the person cooperates in the Holy Spirit operating in the person's prayer life, experience of the sacraments, and the exercise of the virtues. In those stages the Holy Spirit takes over. At the end of the first stage, emotional feelings of devotion are simplified and then are purified, as also are rational understandings of the faith.
In the second stage prayer is infused contemplation in the mind and the will surpassing the emotional and rational order; in the third, all the spiritual faculties of mind, intellectual memory and will are in union with God (there is a final stage whereby the rest of one's humanity falls in line with the soul's union with God). This on a continual basis that is manifested in a peace that surpasses all human understanding. (A good way to get a handle on this is to read the biographies of the Saints, as well as their writings.)
The rich young man asking Our Lord, "What must I do to be saved?" is answered the same today: "Obey the commandments", i.e., Love of God, love of neighbor.
Now for the abnormal Catholic (too prevalent today perhaps), this Divine Life of habitual sanctifying grace bringing the Indwelling Trinity and other habitual graces of infused virtues as powers, is lost through mortal sin, putting the person in a state of alienation from God, losing the Trinitarian Indwelling and sanctifying grace and the habitual grace of Charity or Love of God and leaving an ineffectual faith and hope in God (a dead faith, and hope as a mere wish). The root cause of this is a turning away from God through forgetting Him; usually that happens by continual neglect of prayer. (That usually happens to most in the teenage years or a little later.) This deadly sin of omission makes it easy to consider morals from one's own self-interest and to voluntarily disobey God in a matter God considers serious, thus breaking one's person tie to Him. Then there is reason to be anxious for one's salvation, since the Divine Life in the soul is gone.
Many Catholics, however, either presume it's not such a bad situation or gradually change their beliefs to suit themselves. An essential conversion from mortal sin is needed; this happens with an acceptance of an actual grace to pray and repent, i.e., to decide to give up and to confess to Christ through the priest in the Sacrament of Penance. When this happens sanctifying grace returns as does the Trinitarian Indwelling and the habitual virtues given in Baptism (strengthened in Confirmation).
There may be a see-sawing for a while until firmness in turning away from serious sin is accomplished, since there is a struggle with oneself not to give into the tendencies of Original Sin (which are not removed by Baptism) and the results of personal sin still effecting the soul.
A devout person is one who has solidly done this and is at the top level of the first stage; a spiritual person is one who has gotten into the second level with his will united to God; and a saintly person is one who is in the third stage with all the spiritual faculties of mind, memory, will united to God.
The advantage of belonging to the Church is that there are all sorts of helps and reminders, Divine and human, to avoid sin and acquire virtue in fact; we are helped by the example of others, the prayers of the Saints in heaven; the teaching, preaching of the Church, the Sacraments, religious culture and customs. Very often it is when parents want their children baptized or catechized or to receive their First Communion that they come back to the practice of the faith if lost. A relatively new aspect today is the loss of faith; this occurs when prayer has been given up and the thinking of the world challenges the assumptions of faith; apostasy is complete loss of even dead faith and wishful hope. That used to be rather rare among Catholics.
Among the chief means of maintaining and growing in the life of love of God is the Eucharist or the
We can see the emphasis in this entire understanding is God-centered and love-centered in the context of the Communion of the
Also, the chief virtue of Charity, or Love of God (which includes both elements of affection and desire to do God's will) colors everything (even Faith) and the hinge of THAT is humility. Humility avoids presuming on one's salvation, encouraging trust in God's goodness and help, especially in God's Church, which is the God-made means that contains all the other means, the Communion which gives communion with all the persons God is saving now or has saved in the past who are in Heaven (the Saints) or Purgatory.
Most important of these and a living symbol of the Church herself is the Blessed Virgin Mary, the spiritual Mother Christ gives to each and everyone of the faithful for their learning how to love God. Their sense of her active motherly spiritual presence completely devoid of all hint of harshness is a great consolation and assurance of God's loving purpose towards the believer even when he sins seriously, for she is a refuge of sinners who knows how to get us to her Son as no one else knows how.
She never scolds, but reveals our pitiful state to us by her tears of compassionate love. If one entrusts oneself to her (who is the SPOUSE of the Holy Spirit!) and prayer to her for help, she will get us back to her Son by drawing down the Holy Spirit in such a way as to be saved by Christ. She reveals her own share in the Love of her Son, True God and True Man, the True Divine-Human nature of the Love of God. A by-passing of her ALWAYS results in a misunderstanding or distortion or narrowing of the Love of God in our awareness.
The depth, unity, humility and peace of the love of God is to be found within the great Ark of the Church God himself made for us and is perfectly exemplified in Jesus' Mother, who helps us grow in the very same life she has received from Him.