Some less than doctrinally-minded Christians are under the false impression that Catholics think we can “earn” our way to heaven by our own good works, as if our good works had their own merit apart from God.
Catholics believe that true good works always have their origin in God, but the works are truly our works as well, since we cooperate with God in performing them. Therefore, having their origin and purpose in God, they merit the reward of God’s promises.
Whenever we find a reference to works in our liturgical prayers, do not forget the Catholic understanding of good works.
Omnipotens sempiterne Deus,
dirige actus nostros in beneplacito tuo,
ut in nomine dilecti Filii tui
mereamur bonis operibus abundare.
This our Sunday Collect was in both the 1962 Missale Romanum and the 8th century Liber sacramentorum Engolismensis for Sunday in the Octave of Christmas.
Beneplacitum means “good pleasure, gracious purpose”. In the Vulgate beneplacitum translates the original Greek eudokia in, e.g., Eph 1:9; 1 Cor 10:5. Other phrases are used for eudokia too (e.g., bona voluntas in Luke 2:14, the famous “peace on earth to men of good will” or “peace on earth good will toward men”). Paul wrote eudokia at the beginning of 2 Thessalonians (1:11-12), rendered as voluntas bonitatis in the Vulgate:
… we always pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his call, and may fulfill every good resolve (omnem voluntatem bonitatis) and work of faith by his power, so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ (RSV).
Abundo means, “to overflow with any thing, to have an abundance or superabundance of, to abound in.” In that preposition in with the ablative indicating place or location in space (in beneplacito tuo) we have an image of our good works originating in God and, coming from Him, overflowing out to and from us.
A LITERAL VERSION:
Almighty eternal God,
direct our actions in your gracious purpose,
so that in the name of Thy beloved Son,
we may merit to abound with good works.
OBSOLETE ICEL (1973):
All-powerful and ever-living God,
direct your love that is within us,
that our efforts in the name of your Son
may bring mankind to unity and peace.
NEW CORRECTED ICEL (2011):
Almighty ever-living God,
direct our actions according to your good pleasure,
that in the name of your beloved Son
we may abound in good works.
From before time and the universe were created, God knew each one of us. Of all the possible universes He could have created, He chose to create this one, into which He fashioned us at the precise moment He foresaw we would be needed in His plan. Along with existence, He gives us work to do, and offers the graces to do it. When we cooperate, we “abound” because of God’s action within us through the good works He makes meritorious. They overflow from us because of His generosity.
St. Augustine of Hippo (d 430), working against the errors of Pelagianism, wrote in a monumentally important letter to the Roman priest Sixtus (later Pope Sixtus in 432):
“What merit, then, does a man have before grace, by which he might receive grace, when our every good merit is produced in us only by grace and when God, crowning our merits, crowns nothing else but his own gifts to us?” (ep. 194, 5, 19).
To abound, we must bow and we must bend.
When we bend our will to God’s will and plan, especially as manifested through the teachings and disciplines of Holy Church, we lose nothing of our selves or our prized “freedom”. In fact we become freer in our self-fettering to God.
Picking up a theme Pope John Paul II presented from the beginning of his pontificate, “Do not be afraid! Open wide the doors for Christ!”, Pope Benedict said in April 2005 during his homily for the Inaugural Mass of his pontificate:
“Are we not perhaps all afraid in some way? If we let Christ enter fully into our lives, if we open ourselves totally to him, are we not afraid that He might take something away from us? Are we not perhaps afraid to give up something significant, something unique, something that makes life so beautiful? Do we not then risk ending up diminished and deprived of our freedom? … No! If we let Christ into our lives, we lose nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing of what makes life free, beautiful and great. No! Only in this friendship are the doors of life opened wide. Only in this friendship is the great potential of human existence truly revealed. Only in this friendship do we experience beauty and liberation.”