grace and merit




“Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.” (Romans 8:17)

“Christ does not explain in the abstract the reasons for suffering, but before all else he says: “Follow me!”. Come! Take part through your suffering in this work of saving the world, a salvation achieved through my suffering! Through my Cross. Gradually, as the individual takes up his cross, spiritually uniting himself to the Cross of Christ, the salvific meaning of suffering is revealed before him” (Apostolic Letter, Salvifici Doloris, 26, by Pope John Paul II)

There is in the Catechism of the Catholic Church a remarkable paragraph that speaks to the amazing power God has given us, by our prayers and good actions, to merit most amazing graces for others. If the paragraph in question is sound theology, as we know it must be, then it would be good for us to take advantage of this spiritual solidarity and use God’s grace to merit good for others!  Here is that paragraph from the Catechism:

2010 “Since the initiative belongs to God in the order of grace, no one can merit the initial grace of forgiveness and justification, at the beginning of conversion. Moved by the Holy Spirit and by charity, we can then merit for ourselves and for others the graces needed for our sanctification, for the increase of grace and charity, and for the attainment of eternal life. Even temporal goods like health and friendship can be merited in accordance with God’s wisdom. These graces and goods are the object of Christian prayer. Prayer attends to the grace we need for meritorious actions.” (See also CCC 307, 618, 953, 956, and 1508)

Now in Saint Paul we see a clear Biblical basis for this Catholic doctrine of meriting good for others with specific reference to the concept or doctrine of redemptive suffering. I am especially going to take a look at two striking passages –  one from Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, and the other from his Letter to the Colossians (using the Living Letters translation, which is a simplified/paraphrased  translation recommended by Billy Graham, which can easily be compared to traditional translations).

At 2 Philippians 2: 17-18 Saint Paul discusses the possibility of offering his life as an oblation for the community. Here is what he says:

“And if my lifeblood is, so to speak, to be poured out over your faith which I am offering up to God as a sacrifice — that is, if I am to die for you – even then I will be glad, and will share my joy with each of you. For you should be happy about this too and rejoice with me for having this privilege of dying for you.”

COLOSSIANS  And at Colossians 1:24 Saint Paul says to the community there:

“But part of my work is to suffer for you; and I am glad, for I am helping to finish up the remainder of Christ’s sufferings for his body, the church.”

We can see, therefore, from the passages cited above, that at Calvary Christ merited for members of his mystical body the privilege of joining in His super-abundant, all-encompassing suffering for the benefit of others.

Paul’s understanding of redemptive suffering flows from his insight that believers in Christ form one organism, or one body, united to Christ who is the head (“all of us, in union with Christ, form one body” – Romans 12: 5). Paul says elsewhere at 2 Corinthians 1: 5-6 (RSV):

“For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too. If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation….”

Still further at 2 Corinthians 4:8-12 Paul states:

“In all things we suffer tribulation: but are not distressed. We are straitened: but are not destitute. We suffer persecution: but are not forsaken. We are cast down: but we perish not. Always bearing about in our body the mortification of Jesus, that the life also of Jesus may be made manifest in our bodies. For we who live are always delivered unto death for Jesus’ sake: that the life also of Jesus may be made manifest in our mortal flesh. So then death worketh in us: but life in you.”

So in the Catholic church, following the teaching of Paul on the value of redemptive suffering, we are urged to unite our own suffering to the Cross of Christ for the welfare of others. Pope John Paul II made this point about the value of redemptive suffering in a trip he made to Poland, stating:

“Therefore, uniting myself with all of you who are suffering throughout the land of Poland, in your homes, in the hospitals, the clinics, the dispensaries, the sanatoria—wherever you may be—I beg you to make use of the cross that has become part of each one of you for salvation. I pray for you to have light and spiritual strength in your suffering, that you may not lose courage but may discover for yourselves the meaning of suffering and may be able to relieve others by prayer and sacrifice. And do not forget me and the whole of the Church, and the cause of the Gospel and peace that I am serving by Christ’s will. You who are weak and humanly incapable, be a source of strength for your brother and father who is at your side in prayer and heart.” (quote from Father Hardon)

And in her mystical life Saint Faustina, the “secretary of Divine Mercy,” experienced this revelation from Jesus:

“I saw the Lord Jesus nailed upon the cross amidst great torments. A soft moan issued from His heart. After some time He said “I thirst. I thirst for the salvation of souls. Help Me, My daughter, to save souls. Join your sufferings to My Passion and offer them to the heavenly Father for sinners.” (Diary 1032)

The old Catholic practice of making a “morning offering” of the trials and tribulations one suffers during the day, for one’s own benefit or for the benefit of others is, no doubt, based on strong Biblical foundations. Perhaps tomorrow you are going to find yourself, as someone once said, “nailed to your desk,” doing hours of paperwork that you would love to chuck out the window. In union with Jesus’ sacrifice on the Cross, and in union with all the masses being said throughout the world, you can offer up your hardships and daily duties for the benefit of some soul who desperately needs grace. Don’t waste your sufferings.

Tom Mulcahy, M.A.

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                              “HAIL [MARY], FULL OF GRACE” (Luke 1: 28)

If one reflects for a moment on the fact that Mary truly merited to become the Mother of God (“The Blessed Virgin is said to have merited to bear the Lord of all: not that she merited his Incarnation, but that she merited, by the graces she had received, such a degree of purity and sanctity, that she was fit to be the Mother of God” – St. Thomas Aquinas), then one begins to better understand the magnitude of her spiritual motherhood for all who believe (“She is mother wherever [Jesus] is Savior and head of the Mystical Body” – CCC 973).

When we consider the immense assistance Mary can provide to us in the spiritual life, it is helpful to see that the Catechism of the Catholic Church expressly says that her merits are “unfathomable,” which would seem to suggest that they are available to all of us in surplus quantity. The Catechism states:

We also call these spiritual goods of the communion of saints the Church’s treasury, which is “not the sum total of the material goods which have accumulated during the course of the centuries. On the contrary the ‘treasury of the Church’ is the infinite value, which can never be exhausted, which Christ’s merits have before God. They were offered so that the whole of mankind could be set free from sin and attain communion with the Father. In Christ, the Redeemer himself, the satisfactions and merits of his Redemption exist and find their efficacy.This treasury includes as well the prayers and good works of the Blessed Virgin Mary. They are truly immense, unfathomable, and even pristine in their value before God” (from nos. 1476-77).

In his invaluable book, True Devotion to Mary, Saint Louis De Montfort writes earnestly about the “necessity” of devotion to Mary (Chapter 1), and of the importance of developing a “great union” (1.36) with her. He attests in his book to the increase in spiritual life that comes from consecration to Mary. Of this “true devotion” to Mary, Father Faber says:

“I cannot think of a higher work or a broader vocation  for anyone than the simple spreading of this peculiar devotion [to Mary] of Saint [Louis] De Montfort. Let a man but try if for himself, and his surprise at the graces it brings with it, and the transformation it causes in his soul, will soon convince him of its otherwise almost incredible efficacy as a means for the salvation of men, and for the coming of the kingdom of Christ” (Preface to True Devotion to Mary, p. xxii).

Of the power of Mary’s mediation, Saint Pope John Paul II once said:

“In Mary’s case we have a special and exceptional mediation…Jesus Christ prepared her ever more completely to become for all people their ‘mother in the order of grace’ ” (Saint Pope John Paul II, Mother of the Redeemer, 39)

“In the communion of saints,” says the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “a perennial link of charity exists between the faithful who have already reached their heavenly home, those who are expiating their sins in purgatory and those who are still pilgrims on earth. Between them there is, too, an abundant exchange of all good things” (no. 1475).

This exchange of “all good things” is illustrated by Mary’s visit to Elizabeth. We clearly see from Luke’s Gospel that Mary’s visit had an extraordinary effect on Elizabeth, for Luke tells us that upon hearing Mary’s greeting, “the babe in Elizabeth’s womb leaped  for joy and Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit”, praised Mary, exclaiming: 

“Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the voice of your greeting came to my ears, the babe in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what what was spoken to her from the Lord” (Luke 1: 42-45).

These are tremendous words uttered by Elizabeth. Let us see exactly what happened when Elizabeth first heard Mary’s greeting. The sequence of events is breathtaking: 1. The babe in Elizabeth’s womb (John the Baptist) leaped for joy; 2. Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit; 3. Elizabeth proclaims that Mary is blessed above all other women; and 4. Elizabeth proclaims Mary’s Divine Maternity, calling Mary “the mother of my Lord.” What is further, and is quite extraordinary, is that John the Baptist has been sanctified in Elizabeth’s womb, just as prophesied earlier in the same Gospel at Luke 1: 15 (these thoughts about Mary’s visitation are gathered from Mary in the Redemption by Adrienne Von Speyr).

This profound relationship between Mary and the Holy Spirit (as clearly seen by Mary’s visit to Elizabeth) was also noted by Saint Louis De Montfort, who said: “The more the Holy Ghost finds Mary, His dear and inseparable spouse, in any soul, the more active and mighty He becomes in producing Jesus Christ in that soul, and that soul in Jesus Christ” (True Devotion to Mary, 1.20).

Mary, by way of her union with the Holy Spirit, holds a very special place in the mystical body of Christ and has been granted a unique maternal office to draw us closer to Jesus. She proclaims: “My soul doth magnify the Lord” (Luke 1:46). Each of us must say, like Elizabeth, “Who am I that the mother of Jesus Christ should come to me with such amazing spiritual assistance?” And yet Jesus wills it so, and it was he who merited Mary’s maternal intercession for us and the “unfathomable” merits she possesses. Why? – because, as Father Faber says, Jesus knew how much we would love Mary.

Thomas L. Mulcahy, M.A.

Image: The Virgin of the Lillies (Public Domain, U.S.A.)

Refrences: The quote from Saint Thomas Aquinas appears in The Glories of Mary by Saint Alphonsus de Ligouri, p.253. On the Catholic understanding of merit, see CCC 208, which states: “The merit of man before God in the Christian life arises from the fact that God has freely chosen to associate man with the work of his grace. The fatherly action of God is first on his own initiative, and then follows man’s free acting through his collaboration, so that the merit of good works is to be attributed in the first place to the grace of God, then to the faithful. Man’s merit, moreover, itself is due to God, for his good actions proceed in Christ, from the predispositions and assistance given by the Holy Spirit.” See also CCC 2010.

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