Today I am constrained to compose in one week another pastor's column -- along with last week's -- to satisfy an early deadline for the church paper on account of Thanksgiving week, wherein the printers take their vacation time. Lacking another idea to write about, I offer the following, something that I have always been curious about.
Catholic theology recognizes that we can offer to God, over and against the sins we have committed, the merits of Christ and the saints. The Mass itself is the offering of Christ to God the Father, a renewal of the sacrifice Christ once made on the cross. But how is it that this can be done by us? My puzzlement has been to try to undersand how we can satisfy, or pay off, the debt our sins had incurred by drawing from the merits, or the credit, of someone else. Imagine, if you will, that you who are in debt of a sum of money to another person pay for it by drawing from the credit account of some other person! This would not be deemed lawful according to the terms of human justice. And yet, we assert that we can do a like thing with God by taking from the merits of Christ and the saints and applying them in compensation for the debt our sins had incurred. As an example of this, think of the prayer in the Divine Mercy Chaplet, "Eternal Father, I offer You the body, blood, soul, and divinity of our Lord Jesus, in atonement for our sins...." There we have that idea expressed. We offer God what is in truth Christ's.
In trying to understand how this can be so, I realize that whenever I pray I am doing a "good work." That expression in quotation marks indicates the Catholic theological truth about the supernatural value that my prayers, willed desires, and deeds can have. Thus at Mass when you co-offer with the priest the sacrifice of Christ which He once made on Calvary, you and the priest are performing a new act of sacrificing that one-time sacrifice of Christ on Good Friday. We renew it. At Mas we are not, as a perceptive inquirer brought up the matter in my class last week, "going back in time" as if in a kind of sci-fi time-machine and thus somehow made 'present' the moment Christ died for us. Rather, we are making a new offering of that same and singular sacrificial act of Christ, but here at the altar in an "unbloody" manner, as the Church says.
In searching to understand this I thought of a possible analogy in marriage. As I remind my couples preparing for matrimony, the precise moment when the marriage "happens" is when the couple has exchanged their mutual consent. This is the "I do" formula they recite before the priest. What is said in the words is then consummated in the physical act of marital love which is to follow. Each subsequent act of the marital embrace of that couple is in a manner a renewal in act of the verbal marital consent that they expressed in their marriage vows. Thus there is each time a new instance of what was commenced in that initial "I do." I see a possible analogy in this for understanding how each Mass can be a new offering of the one and only sacrifice Christ offered on the cross. It is not an imaginary 'going back in time' but a real and present act of Christ made through the willed offering of the priest. (And the people join with him in this corporate willed act because they have been incorporated into Christ, in His body.) And so it is that you and I can claim as our own, something which is not ours -- namely, Christ's merits -- and offer them in compensation for our sins. His offering becomes ours because we have been enabled to lay claim to it by being baptized (members of Christ) and by being ordained (in the case of the priest).
I'm positively elated when I think that I am able to say to God: "I offer You, O God, all the merits of Christ, and those of the Blessed Mother and the saints, for all the sins I have committed." I want to say this often, frequently drawing out of Christ's (and Mary's and the saints') storehouse of spiritual treasure (merits) and apply it, in whatever measure I can claim it, against my own sins and those of all humanity.
Your pastor is not a theologian but merely a parish priest who is trying to grasp something that has always been perplexing to him about our faith. Perhaps these musings can easily be shot down by a theologian as wrong. In such case I would readily surrender to his just judgment and critique. But at least, for the moment, I think I have a glimpse of what I am able to do to make up for sin [...?] my being a member of the Church. It makes me glad to think that I can collaborate with Christ to help heal the wounds He suffers on account of our ongoing sins.
Saturday, December 02, 2017
Fr. Perrone:The treasury of merit, and a marital analogy
Fr. Eduard Perrone, "A Pastor's Descant" (Assumption Grotto News, November 26, 2017)