A Proper Understanding of the Role Merit Plays in the Prayers of the Mass
On the first Sunday of Advent 2011, Catholics began hearing a word previously spoken only rarely in the liturgy: merit. Consider, for instance, that in Eucharistic Prayer II we pray, “we may merit to be co-heirs to eternal life.” Formerly the prayer was rendered “make us worthy to share eternal life.” Examples such as this abound, in which the previously untranslated word “merit” (forms of the noun meritum or verb mereor) now makes its appearance in our prayers. I have personally heard several complaints that the use of the word merit in our prayers is unfitting. Are we now working our way to Heaven? Are we preoccupied with earning “merit badges?” Do we favor merit over mercy? I have even heard the accusation that our prayers are Pelagian. (Pelagianism, named for its founder Pelagius, was a 4th century heresy that wrongly believed the human person by his own good acts could earn eternal life apart from divine grace.) Do our prayers really seek reward independent of God’s gift of grace?
Also interesting are the various uses of this word that one finds in our liturgical prayers. While the above oration asks of God that we may merit eternal life, in Eucharistic Prayer I we pray, “…admit us, we beseech you, into their company, not weighing our merits, but granting us your pardon….” What is one to make of this apparently contradictory notion of merit? Do we seek reward from God, or should we abjure our meager merit before God? It seems that the juxtaposition of these two attitudes toward merit actually provides a suitable answer to those who would now see a Pelagian spirit in our prayers.
Merit can be understood as the quality of a good work that makes it worthy of reward. Though strictly speaking God does not owe us anything, according to his promises he justly rewards us for good works done through grace. The prayers of the Roman Missal both affirm the traditional doctrine of merit, and offer a model of how the Christian faithful ought to stand before God vis-à-vis their merits.
In considering how the Missal speaks of merit, we may first investigate the ultimate source of merit. Several prayers underscore merit as flowing from God’s gifts, mercy, and promises. Preface I of the Saints is paradigmatic in this regard: “For you are praised in the company of your Saints and, in crowning their merits, you crown your own gifts.” This Preface incorporates the thought of St. Augustine that merit is itself a gift, a grace. This Preface holds, along with Augustine, what many misunderstand regarding the use of the term “merit” in the prayers of the Mass—that merit and grace are not mutually exclusive.
The theme of merit as God’s gift is found also in the Prayer over the Offerings for the Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time:
O God, who provide gifts to be offered to your name
and count our oblations as signs
of our desire to serve you with devotion,
we ask of your mercy
that what you grant as the source of merit
may also help us to attain merit’s reward.
Here, all our activity and devotion finds its foundation in God. It is God who provides the gifts offered back to him, the Eucharistic elements of bread and wine. It is God who provides the source of merits and God who brings to completion what merit attains. From beginning to end the work of man finds its wellspring in the graciousness of God. This prayer also points to another theme found repeatedly in the Roman Missal, i.e., that our merits flow from God’s mercy.
In his “Exposition of Psalm 102,” St. Augustine amplified his notion that, in crowning our merits, God is crowning his own gifts, by adding that if God crowns us, we are crowned by his mercy. For Augustine, the supremacy of God’s mercy excludes any pride on our part, and calls us rather to remember all that God has given us, and to offer him fitting praise. The Roman Missal likewise roots merit in God’s mercy. One of the Prayers over the People (16) offered in the Ordo Missae prays:
Look with favor on your family, O Lord,
and bestow your endless mercy on those who seek it:
and just as without your mercy,
they can do nothing truly worthy of you,
so through it,
may they merit to obey your saving commands.
God’s mercy is understood here as essential to any supernaturally good work, anything “truly worthy” of God, echoing the words of Jesus in John 15:5, “I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” In the above oration, the fruit one would bear, or merit, by remaining in the mercy of God, is to obey his commands. It is significant that the object of merit here is hardly self-seeking reward. Rather, what we seek to merit is the ability, through God’s mercy, to keep his saving commands.
Likewise, on Ash Wednesday, in the Prayer over the People at the conclusion of Mass, the priest prays, “Pour out a spirit of compunction, O God, on those who bow before your majesty, and by your mercy may they merit the rewards you promise to those who do penance.” The attitude of humility pervades this prayer, and mercy is seen as the means by which merit is possible. There is a connection between penance and meriting rewards, but the emphasis is on the necessary role of God’s mercy, as well as his promise to give such rewards.
As we consider God as the source of all merits, this theme of God’s promise is also noteworthy. For instance, in the collect for the Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time, we hear:
Almighty ever-living God,
increase our faith, hope and charity,
and make us love what you command,
so that we may merit what you promise.
What may be merited is coextensive with what God has promised; merit stands in utter dependency on God’s promises. This, however, is not the only way this prayer pictures human dependency on the divine. The prayer first asks for an augment in the theological virtues, which can originate only in God. It then petitions God to make us love what he commands. The “so that” of the final clause indicates that any human merit is dependent, not only on God’s promise, but also on the condition that he moves us to delight in his precepts.
Not only is God the source of all merit; God’s liberality is so great that what he gives surpasses what we merit. The collect for the Twenty-Seventh Sunday of Ordinary Time reads:
Almighty ever-living God,
who in the abundance of your kindness
surpass the merits and the desires of those who entreat you,
pour out your mercy upon us
to pardon what conscience dreads
and to give what prayer does not dare to ask.
This is not a petition that we may merit something; rather, a statement is made regarding God’s generosity vis-à-vis our merits as the grounds for our confidence in making a further request. There is again an attitude of humility as well as confidence in God, asking that he mercifully pardon what conscience fears and in granting what prayer does not presume to ask. This confidence in God is founded on his exceeding both our merits and desires. Not only is God the source of all human merits, but this prayer also recognizes that any calculating quid pro quo would be unfitting in light of God’s superabundant generosity rewarding far beyond our just deserts.
A number of orations also declare our lack of merits before God and an attitude of distrust in our own merits. Several prayers in the Roman Missal powerfully communicate the need for humility with regards to our own merits and the need to place our confidence in God alone. The Nobis Quoque of Eucharistic Prayer I (“To us, also, your servants, who, though sinners…”), for instance, petitions, “admit us, we beseech you, into their [the Saints’] company, not weighing our merits, but granting us your pardon….” The petition asks for a share in the fellowship with and admittance to the company of the Saints. While in certain prayers we pray that we might merit entrance into the company of the Saints, the Roman Canon specifically asks God not to consider our merits in granting this petition. Instead, we ask God to hear our request by granting his pardon.
There is here an attitude of distrust in our own merits. While a great number of prayers in the Roman Missal attest to the reality of human merit, it is notable that nowhere in the orations of the Mass do we present our merits to God as the reason or grounds for God to grant what we ask. We pray that we may merit certain things, and we may speak of benefiting from the merits of the Saints, but when it comes to our own merits, this oration from the Roman Canon is paradigmatic. Once again, it’s important to note, when seeking benefits from God, we place our confidence in his mercy, generosity, and gifts rather than in our own merits, even to the point of specifically asking him not to weigh our merits in consideration of what we ask.
Another example of this denial of the worth of our merits is found in a Prayer over the Offerings, repeated several times during the Season of Advent:
Be pleased, O Lord, with our humble prayers and offerings,
and, since we have no merits to plead our cause,
come, we pray, to our rescue
with the protection of your mercy.
Through Christ our Lord.
Humble Before Thee
This prayer explicitly mentions the attitude of humility as we approach God in our prayers, and it is in humility that we confess that we lack any merits by which we might sway God to hear us. Once again, not trusting in our merits, we instead place confidence in God’s mercy. Rather than see this as a denial of the very possibility of merit, which would contradict not only Catholic Tradition but also numerous other prayers of the Missal, we should see this prayer instead as a statement of the proper attitude that should accompany our merits as we implore God for our needs.
Moving past Lent, the Prayer over the Offerings of Palm Sunday is another clear example of a denial of the worth of our merit:
Through the Passion of your Only Begotten Son, O Lord,
may our reconciliation with you be near at hand,
so that, though we do not merit it by our own deeds,
yet by this sacrifice made once for all,
we may feel already the effects of your mercy.
Through Christ our Lord.
A contrast is made in this prayer between our own works and the work of Christ’s sacrifice—the reception of the effects of God’s mercy is attributed exclusively to the latter. There is also a contrast between our merit and God’s mercy.
This eschewing of our merit in the Prayer over the Offerings is even more notable given that the collect of the same Mass petitions God to “graciously grant that we may heed [Christ’s] lesson of patient suffering and so merit a share in his Resurrection.” By the juxtaposition of these two prayers, it is clear that the lex orandi of the Church keeps in tension the real possibility of meriting eternal life through our good works along with a strong disavowal of any kind of self-confidence that could arise by trusting in those works to the exclusion of God’s mercy for attaining the same end.
The Merits of Truth
What is it, then, that we are able to merit? The Missal speaks of meriting growth in discipleship: following, loving, and serving God, as well as obeying his commands. We merit participation in the mysteries of Christ, forgiveness of sins, increase in grace, and an outpouring of God’s Spirit and his gifts. Eternal life is a reward we hope to merit, which is also referred to as eternal joy—or simply heaven. The same idea of heaven is communicated through various images: the kingdom, glory, a homeland, an inheritance, and a banquet. We also hope to merit to attain to God himself through the beatific vision, union with Christ and being conformed to him, and fellowship with the saints in the same reward as them.
Two aspects of our merit are constantly present in the Missal. Through God’s grace and promise, we are truly capable of meriting eternal life by our works and we may hope to gain that merit before God. At the same time the Missal offers a pattern of approaching God with an attitude of humility, placing hope in his mercy and distrusting our own merits. The former is a truth about God’s healing and elevating grace; the latter is a spiritual truth about our attitude or posture before God’s transforming grace.
 Compare Preface I of the Saints (“…in crowning their merits, you crown your own gifts;” “…eόrum coronándo mérita tua dona corόnas”) to St. Augustine in En. Ps., 102.7 (CCSL 40:1457.9-10): (“Therefore he crowns you because he crowns his own gifts, not your merits;” “Ergo coronat te, quia dona sua coronat, non merita tua.”).
 En. Ps., 102.7 (CCSL 40:1457.18-19): “Ergo et quod coronaris, illius misericordia coronaris.”
 The prayer appears as the Prayer over the Offerings on Tuesday of the First Week of Advent, Friday of the First Week of Advent, the Second Sunday of Advent, Tuesday of the Second Week of Advent, Friday of the Second Week of Advent, Tuesday of the Third Week of Advent, and Friday of the Third Week of Advent.