WDTPRS Wednesday 4th Week of a Lent: “He crowns His own merits in us”

Mass of St. Gregory by YsenbrandtCOLLECT (2002MR):
Deus, qui et iustis praemia meritorum
et peccatoribus veniam per paenitentiam praebes,
tuis supplicibus miserere,
ut reatus nostri confessio
indulgentiam valeat percipere delictorum.

In the Gelasianum Vetus for Wednesday of the Fourth Week of Lent we find “Omnipotens sempiterne deus, qui et iustis praemia meritorum et peccatoribus per ieiunium erroris sui ueniam praebis, miserire supplicibus, parce peccantibus: ut reatus nostri confessio indulgentiam ualeat percipere dilictorum: per dominum nostrum.” In the Hadrianum of the Gregorian Sacramentary there is: Deus qui et iustis praemia meritorum et peccatoribus per ieiunium veniam praebes miserere supplicibus tuis, ut reatus nostri indulgentiam valeat percipere delictorum.

Same day in both with the indication of the same Roman Station of St. Paul’s outside-the-walls.

O God, who does profer to the just the rewards of merits
and through penance forgiveness unto sinners
be merciful to Your humble petitioners,
so that the confession of our guilt
may prevail in obtaining the remission of our offenses.

you reward virtue and forgive the repentant sinner.
Grant us your forgiveness
as we come before you confessing our guilt

I’ll bet you are as surprised as I am to see any reference to sin or guilt.

O God, who reward the merits of the just
and offer pardon to sinners who do penance,
have mercy, we pray, on those who call upon you,
that the admission of our guilt
may serve to obtain your pardon for our sins

We need to be clear about something.

What we do on our own cannot obtain anything from God on its own merits. To paraphrase St. Augustine when God crowns our merits, He crowns His own merits in us.

St. Augustine of HippoWe have here a pairing of words which are, so to speak, two sides of the one and same coin: meritum and praemium.

Meritum or “merit” is the right to a reward (praemium) due to some work done. Supernatural merit is the right to a reward for a work God determines is good and which is done for His sake. This sort of work must be supernatural in its origin, that is, it is done under the influence of grace, and supernatural in its purpose. God alone is the source of supernatural good and therefore He must designate it as such.

Consider the consecration in Holy Mass which contains the command of Jesus at the Last Supper and His description of what His commands lead to. Christ tells us that consuming His Body and Blood are for eternal life (cf. John 6). He commanded His Apostles to do what he was doing. If we do what He commands for His sake and the reasons He described, then we merit the reward God designates. The vocabulary (devotio, servitus, meritum, praemium) boldly communicates the truth of our stance before God.

Non-Catholics often think that when Catholics talk about merit, we are saying we can earn salvation by performing good works.

The Church doesn’t teach this.

The Council of Trent said that

“none of those things which precede justification, whether faith or works, merit the grace of justification; for if it is by grace, it is not now by works; otherwise, as the Apostle says, grace is no more grace” (13 January 1547 Session VI, Decree on Justification 8, cf. Rom 11:6).

Holy Church teaches that Christ alone merits anything in the strictest sense. Man by himself does not merit supernatural rewards (cf. CCC 2007).

When moved by grace we do those things God promised to reward (cf. Rom 2:6–11 and Gal 6:6–10). God’s grace and His promises are the source of all our merit (CCC 2008). We must make a distinction between condign merit, awarded because it is fully deserved and our action was proportioned to the reward, and congruent merit, awarded by God’s generosity for imperfect works.

The Bishop of Hippo St. Augustine (+430) eloquently teaches (ep. 194, 19 – read this out loud):

“What, therefore, before grace is man’s merit, by which merit he receives except by grace and since God crowns nothing other than His own gifts when He crowns our merits?”

The theology of this teaching, even the key phrase of Augustine, is in Preface “de sanctis” – (De gloria Sanctorum): “…et, eorum coronando merita, tua dona coronas….”

Clearly the Church continues faithfully to hold to her traditional theology of merit and grace.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Allan S. says:

    I found the painting pictured in this post to be interesting and researched it online. For the benefit of readers, here are the details from the webiste of the J. Paul Getty Museum:

    The Mass of Saint Gregory the Great
    Adrien Ysenbrandt
    Netherlandish, about 1510 – 1550
    Oil on panel
    14 1/4 x 11 1/2 in.

    In an elaborately detailed Gothic cathedral, Pope Gregory the Great kneels before the crucified Christ, who has miraculously appeared before the congregation. While saying mass one day, Pope Gregory became aware of a disbeliever and began to pray for a sign that would leave no doubt about the real presence of Christ in the Mass. Showing his stigmata and surrounded by instruments of his Passion, Christ materialized before the Pope. Gregory sees the vision first, gazing intently above as he spreads his hands in amazement.

    Adriaen Ysenbrandt used gold-colored paint liberally to describe decorative candlesticks, censers, goblets, and the fine liturgical vestments. The church’s ornate interior was rendered in crisp detail. In contrast, the figure’s faces were softly and loosely painted, giving their features a blurred effect.

  2. tealady24 says:

    “Non-Catholics often think that when Catholics talk about merit, we are saying we can earn salvation by performing good works.”

    Most Catholics, I think, also believe this. There is no distinction between merit and grace. There is sadly, only a consortium of beliefs, cafeteria-style, that most Catholics believe in! Conversion is a lifelong process, filled with becoming aware of our deep foundational beliefs; yet ask most Cathlics to defend what they “believe” in and there is no response beyond what is ascertained from the culture of the day.

    And our bishops don’t seem to be much help, either. Or certain itinerant priests; it gets very confusing.

  3. Brad says:

    During my catechesis and conversion I was not taught that I could have absolutely no merit(s) in the eyes of the Father. [That sounds Lutheran, to me.] RCIA just didn’t go there. I was tacitly left to assume, shall we say, otherwise. In a vacuum, the converting soul tries to “work out his salvation with fear and trembling” and gets things wrong. During my neophyte period, thanks to confession, communion, and Ralph Martin’s Fulfillment of All Desire, a book presenting the writings of mega-doctors, I was first introduced to the Truth that Christ’s passion is the only thing that has merit in the eyes of the Father. I just ride his coattails upwards. Or should I say, I grab the hem of his garment. It is a great miracle that He would even notice me or let me do so.

  4. Andrew says:

    During my catechesis and conversion I was not taught that I could have absolutely no merit(s) in the eyes of the Father.

    It’s a good thing they didn’t teach you that, since “Filial adoption, in making us partakers by grace in the divine nature, can bestow TRUE MERIT on us through gratuitous divine justice …” (CCC 2009)

  5. SonofMonica says:

    This is a question regarding the wording of the new translation, and anyone who cares to help me out, please feel free: it seems like the new translation is treating God as a plural noun, such that we get, “O God, who reward the merits of the just,” Instead of “O God, who rewards the merits of the just.” I must have missed the memo–what gives? Not complaining–I just really have no idea why.

  6. CharlesG says:

    @ SonofMonica: It’s not plural, it’s the second person, since God is being addressed: “[O God, who] [You] reward”. In the old days, this would have been “O God, who rewardest”…, again in the second person. The old ICEL always replaced “who” with “you” so we’re not used to hearing this construction.

  7. SonofMonica: Answer these questions by substituting the correct pronoun and reading it aloud. We don’t say “you rewards the merits of the just”.

  8. markomalley says:

    November 27th cannot come soon enough.

  9. muckemdanno says:

    Some Catholics (such as Brad, above) have gone a little bit too far with the “our good works aren’t really ours” line of (Protestant) thought. Our good works truly are ours and truly merit supernatural reward. The Council of Trent, session 6, has some dogmatic statements to this effect, especially Canons 26 and 32, the last two in this list:

    CANON IV.-If any one saith, that man’s free will moved and excited by God, by assenting to God exciting and calling, nowise co-operates towards disposing and preparing itself for obtaining the grace of Justification; that it cannot refuse its consent, if it would, but that, as something inanimate, it does nothing whatever and is merely passive; let him be anathema.

    CANON VII.-If any one saith, that all works done before Justification, in whatsoever way they be done, are truly sins, or merit the hatred of God; or that the more earnestly one strives to dispose himself for grace, the more grievously he sins: let him be anathema.

    CANON IX.-If any one saith, that by faith alone the impious is justified; in such wise as to mean, that nothing else is required to co-operate in order to the obtaining the grace of Justification, and that it is not in any way necessary, that he be prepared and disposed by the movement of his own will; let him be anathema.

    CANON XXIV.-If any one saith, that the justice received is not preserved and also increased before God through good works; but that the said works are merely the fruits and signs of Justification obtained, but not a cause of the increase thereof; let him be anathema.

    CANON XXVI.-If any one saith, that the just ought not, for their good works done in God, to expect and hope for an eternal recompense from God, through His mercy and the merit of Jesus Christ, if so be that they persevere to the end in well doing and in keeping the divine commandments; let him be anathema.

    CANON XXXII.-If any one saith, that the good works of one that is justified are in such manner the gifts of God, as that they are not also the good merits of him that is justified; or, that the said justified, by the good works which he performs through the grace of God and the merit of Jesus Christ, whose living member he is, does not truly merit increase of grace, eternal life, and the attainment of that eternal life,-if so be, however, that he depart in grace,-and also an increase of glory; let him be anathema.

  10. SonofMonica says:

    @CharlesG/FatherZ: I do understand what you’re saying, but I’m not sure that is the reason it sounds incorrect to me. There is no period after the word “just,” so it does not seem that we are informing God, “You reward the merits of the just.” It seems like the intent of the sentence is to say “O God [Which god?] [The God] who rewards the merits of the just….. [please, if you will,] have mercy….” Thus the speaker seems to be describing in third person who it is that he is about to address in second person with the rest of his sentence, so that the recipient knows he is the one being addressed. As such, as seems like the correct replacement pronoun for the analysis would be “He,” not “you.” I’m not saying/arguing that your mind should be changed, but your explanation doesn’t seem to me to fit the sentence, the way my mind interprets the sentence.

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