The first Sunday of Advent marks the second anniversary of the Church’s use of the new translation of the Roman Missal. By now, most of us who worship regularly can respond, “and with your spirit” in our sleep. Many of the other responses are engrained as well. However, we still need to digest most of the vocabulary of the freshly-translated liturgical texts. In honor of the two year anniversary of the new translation, I would like to offer a reflection on a word that has made a (re)appearance in the Ordinary Form of Holy Mass: merit. Simply defined, merit is the reward that is due for the undertaking some action for which a return is promised.
It is infrequent that I offer a Mass where merit is not spoken at least once. The Church’s doctrine on merit has huge significance for the way we pray, worship God, and live our lives. In its various forms, merit appears 144 times on the pages of the Roman Missal (in the prior edition it was not spoken at all). There is a temptation to bypass the meaning of the words and phrases in liturgy as a distraction to the experience of the of the community. However, I think that if we are not intentional with what we say, we fall into the error of the pagans, “who think that they will be heard because of their many words” (Matthew 6:7). We need to mean what we say and say what we mean.
Why does the meaning of merit matter? In short, it determines whether one is a Pelagian, Lutheran or a Catholic. Along with glossing the doctrine of merit, I would like to touch upon two very important (and connected) issues: grace and justification.
The Pelagian heresy teaches that we can merit salvation (read: please God) solely on our own efforts. God’s grace—though a help—is not necessary for one’s justification (read: being fit for the Kingdom). Another form of this error says that a person’s first turning to God results from his own initiative. Both of these understandings are fraught with error because they essentially hold that a person can make himself worthy of God. Though this heresy arose in the first centuries of the Church, many people still think and act this way. They say things like, “being a good person is enough to get me to heaven” or “I can be a good Christian without worshiping God at Mass.” In a word, these people err by thinking that they can do it all on their own. An additional mistake these people is that they think themselves better than they actually are because they fail to account for their personal sins. We cannot do it on our own, we need God’s gifts of grace mediated through the Church and her Sacraments.
The complete opposite of the error of the Pelagians is the error of the Lutherans. Traditional Lutheran teaching holds that grace is the only thing necessary for the justification of a person. In fact, a person adds nothing to his or her sanctity by a holy way of life. The individual’s personal actions are of no value to pleasing God (and thereby gaining the reward of Heaven). The Lutheran worldview holds that all people are utterly depraved as a result of original sin (classically, they use the image of a dung heap as being representative of a person). A completely depraved person obviously cannot please God, so God’s grace and the merits of Jesus cover the individual. So when God looks down at the “dung heap” he only sees Our Lord’s merits—covering the individual like snow. Since the person never becomes more than a “dung heap,” we see that Lutheran error means that nothing that a person does could please God; human merit is of no use.
Having charted the errors of the Pelagians and the Lutherans, we find that the truth lies somewhere in the middle. The Church’s teaching, which she received from the apostles who received it from Christ, is not just a body of theoretical truths that have no significance outside of themselves. The truths the Church teaches are saving truths. If we believe them and love them, they will bring us safely to Heaven. The Church’s teaching on merit is no exception.
The Church recognizes man’s depravity, a result of original sin. However, God’s grace changes this when a person become a friend of God at Baptism; the depravity which results from original sin is washed away. A person who was once a friend of God, but estranged himself from God by sin is returned to God’s friendship in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Grace is the key to us becoming friends of God; we cannot do it alone. Grace changes a person from a “dung heap” into a new creation. I am reminded of last week’s Gospel where we saw Jesus forgive the sins of one of the men crucified beside him. The “Good Thief” did not make himself holy; Jesus made him holy. In the same way, Jesus longs to make each of us holy. Like the other thief, we can reject the gift of grace which Jesus offers us. Unfortunately, as many empty churches make clear, it seems many people have made this choice. As long a person remains in God’s friendship and cooperates with God’s grace, then he can please God and merit an eternal reward. This can only happen because God first gives His grace to the individual.
Admittedly, I have simplified both the errors and truth concerning the doctrine of merit. My hope is that each of us will be have a better sense of what we are praying for the next time the priest says “merit” at Holy Mass. A final help for us to remember that we need God’s grace in order to merit comes from Our Blessed Lord in the Simile of the Vine and the Branches, “without me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). Cut off from Our Lord we merit nothing. May each of us remain connected to Our Lord by grace and abound with works that merit for us a place in the Father’s House. Let me conclude by quoting Saint Augustine, “when God crowns our merits, He crowns His own gifts.”