Gradualism is the idea that one approaches the perfection of keeping the law step by step; that the call to holiness is the call to a practice; and that by slow yet sure steps we ascend the ladder of perfection.
This does not mean that we compromise on the content of the law; in fact it means the exact opposite. We are dedicated to the complete fulfilment of the law, and we acknowledge the rightness of the law, which we believe in wholeheartedly; but at the same time we strive to grow in the grace to keep this law over time.
Perhaps a concrete example will help.
When Jesus was on the Cross, he was abandoned by all but four people: His Blessed Mother, Mary of Cleophas, Mary Magdalene and His beloved disciple (see John 19:25). These four represent in themselves the perfect disciples, those whose hearts – particularly the Immaculate Heart of Mary, as well as the virginal heart of St John – lacked nothing in their devotion to the person of Jesus. So entirely taken up were they in the love of God, that they had already arrived at perfect discipleship.
Where were the other followers of Jesus? St Mark tells us that other women (though he includes the Magdalene in the group) were ‘watching from a distance’ (Mark 15:40). Were they not disciples too? Most assuredly they were. But they were not close to the Cross in the same way as Mary the Mother of God and St john the Evangelist. They were following Jesus, but from a distance.
What about the other ten surviving apostles? They were nowhere to be seen. They were in hiding. Had they ceased to be disciples? At that moment it looked as if they had. But they would come back, they would regain their lost courage, and at Pentecost they would preach boldly. Moreover, several decades down the line, they would all embrace martyrdom. St Peter in particular, who had denied His master, would eventually embrace the Cross he once has fled.
The crucifixion probably took place in mid-March 27 AD. St Peter was crucified in 64 AD, probably, some 37 years later. It has taken him 37 years for him to arrive at union with the crucified Christ. The law of love that was so perfectly fulfilled by St John and Our Blessed Lady on Good Friday afternoon, in their union with the suffering Christ, was fulfilled by St Peter after a long spiritual journey that took nearly four decades. St Peter, the first Pope, gives us our first living lesson in the law of graduality.
The Church today is very much like the Church on the first Good Friday: the saints are at the foot of the Cross, looking devotedly at Jesus. Other good souls are also looking at him, but from a distance; perhaps something holds them back, but we hope that they will overcame this distance between themselves and God and draw nearer. And some have wandered off entirely, but will come back, and will one day be as close to Jesus as Immaculate Mary herself.
Of course this interpretation rests on a foundational assumption that the Law is a sign of God’s love, and requires from us a loving response. It is not something we ever fulfil, for who can love God as much as he loves us? Even when we have no sin in us, there will still be room for more love, for the love of God is infinite, and we should always seek to love God the more.
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