MERIT AND MERCY
There is a very disconcerting phrase in a great many of the prayers of the “new” translation of the Roman Missal. One example comes from the opening prayer for Mass on Wednesday of the 1st Week of Advent: “…so that at the coming of Christ your Son we may be found worthy…and merit to receive heavenly nourishment…” I have underlined the offending phrase. It is completely absent from the earlier version of the Sacramentary. I grant there is a corrective of sorts from other prayers (for example, the Prayer over the Offerings for the 2nd Sunday of Advent, which reads: “…since we have no merits to plead our cause…” But confusion can easily reign.
What is the problem? Catholic theology tries to be clear on this, but context of the prayers allows the language too often to imply that we can somehow “earn” or “deserve” (= “merit”) our eternal reward of life in Christ. Is this serious? It is, actually, because there is an old principle of our theology: “The rule of [liturgical] prayer [what we say] is the rule of faith [what we believe].” This is the proverbial thin ice on which we should not have to skate.
It’s important for us to revert to solid Church teaching, but many of us don’t have the time to explore or research, and sometimes we simply take in by a virtual osmosis the words we hear. The Catechism of the Catholic Church is more careful:
With regard to God, there is no strict right to any merit on the part of man.
Man’s merit, moreover, itself is due to God, for his good actions proceed in Christ…
[Our adoption in Christ] can bestow true merit on us as a result of God’s gratuitous justice.
The merits of our good works are gifts of the divine goodness. …Our merits are God’s gifts.” [Catechism of the Catholic Church ##2006-2009]
If all this is true, is there a better phrase to describe God’s goodness to us and our response to that grace? Yes, there is: it is Divine Mercy—precisely what we are celebrating this weekend. The “Common Preface IV” for weekdays puts it well: “…you have no need of our praise, yet our thanksgiving [and, I add, our existence] is itself your gift…” How true it is, and I simply go back to the Dayenu chant we sang during the veneration of the Cross on Good Friday—“If you had only done…that would have been enough…” But God in Jesus Christ went far above and beyond, in outrageous, wild, prodigal love, as I sang at the Easter Vigil in the Exultet: “…to ransom a slave you gave away your Son!” This is the Divine Mercy poured from the pierced heart of Christ, pouring the Blood and Water of the sacramental life of the Church for us. This is the image we honor this weekend, and this is the meaning of Easter. Pope St John Paul II formally instituted this solemnity; Pope [Emeritus] Benedict XVI affirmed it with his encyclical Deus Caritas Est (God is Love), and it has been the theme song of Pope Francis for these last 5 years. So we have a Polish philosopher-mystic, a German theologian, and an Argentine Jesuit all pointing us in a specific direction—to the Heart of Jesus. Are we still unwilling to embrace Mercy—for ourselves and for others? Or do we think we can “merit” or “earn” something on our own, and perhaps even think God should be grateful to us for our personal efforts? Who’s in debt to whom, after all?