Merit and reconciliation may be different names for a single reality, the general salvific causality. Yet these two names are not synonyms, for they signify the same reality under different aspects. Therefore we may postulate something of salvific causality as merit, which could not be said of it as reconciliation, and vice versa.
The same is true for the application of salvific causality. Here too we find different names for a single reality, the distribution of graces, and these names are also not synonyms, for they throw light on the same reality from divergent angles. So that, as we can attribute something different to the Passion of our Lord, according as we designate it merit or reconciliation, in the same way we may ascribe something other to the distribution of graces according to whether we call it reconciliation or consummation of merits.
Hence, even if Mary’s mediation of grace, of which we treated in the preceding article, could not take place otherwise than through her powerful intercession, it would still be true that the titles Mediatrix of all graces and Suppliant Omnipotence are no more synonymous than the names co-reconciliation and co-merit, so that they entirely justify separate consideration.
The word prayer may be taken in various senses, but the strictest meaning is: an exposition of our desire in the presence of God, hoping that he will fulfill it (III, 21.1). The point here is a desire of the will, the fulfillment of which is beyond our own reach and which we consequently present to God so that he may do what we ourselves cannot. We are speaking thus of the prayer of petition.
Such a prayer of petition may be explicit, when we give it expression by means of words from our lips or our minds; but it may also be a silent prayer, if we do not put the desire itself into words, but do or say something in which it is implicit. A striking example of a silent prayer was once given by a Rotterdam beggar. He did not want to be caught begging by the police, and for this reason had himself wheeled about in an invalid-chair. But he had hung a placard on his breast which read: “It is most unfortunate to be blind and paralyzed.” The man asked for nothing; he did not even affirm that he was himself blind and paralyzed, and yet everyone saw in it an urgent prayer to give him an alms!
The prayer of petition, whether explicit or silent, made for love of God and in a state of grace, is a good work, and as such has the double property of being meritorious and satisfactory. Meritorious, in so far as it fits us for heaven; satisfactory, in so far as it lessens our culpability in God’s eyes. But besides this, the prayer of petition has this speciality that does not belong to any other form of good work: it has what we call the power of impetration. This is very important, for we can certainly obtain by our prayers much that we do not deserve. After losing sanctifying grace by sin, for instance, we cannot start obtaining it again, but our prayers for mercy may well be heard. In like manner we cannot merit conversion for others, for the principle of merit, sanctifying grace, is immediately directed to our own salvation only, but we can certainly under definite conditions obtain conversion for others, (vide II-II, 83.15 ad sum).
In heaven, the saints no longer have merit or satisfaction at their disposal, but they can certainly pray. They can pray for themselves in so far as anything might be lacking to their own blessedness, but above all their prayer of petition will be intercession for us who are not yet in heaven. There is no possibility of doubting the reality of this intercession, for Holy Church teaches it explicitly (Denzinger 984). Moreover it is also obvious that the saints in heaven, just like us on earth, are bound by the divine virtue of charity to desire heaven for other men and consequently to pray for it.
The impetratory power of their prayers depends on a double foundation: on the one hand, on the free, divine acceptance of these prayers (II-II, 83.11 ad 1um en 83.15), for there is no question here of any kind of right, but of an entreaty. But on the other hand a reason may be given in support of this entreaty, and the merits of the saints may be the reason why their prayers are heard: they can intercede for us, because they merited this during their previous life (III Sent. 18.1.2 ad sum, II-II, 83.11 ad 5um).
The hearing of a prayer, the granting of a wish, is, however, strongly influenced by the personal dignity of the suppliant. Therefore we also try to obtain the favorable reception of certain prayers by asking some influential person to put in a good word for us. Holy Scripture gives us a beautiful instance of this:
Bethsabee made her way to king Solomon, to speak to him of Adonias’ request; the king rose to meet her and bowed low, then he sat down on his throne again, and a throne was brought for her, the king’s mother, to sit down at his right hand. “There is a light request,” she told him, “that I would make of thee; pray do not disappoint me.” “Make thy request, mother,” said he; “I will not turn a deaf ear to it.” (III Kings 2:19-20)
The saints had to earn that personal dignity. They received sanctifying grace for nothing but they had to increase it by their merits: they therefore had to merit to become holier. And consequently they also earned heaven, that is the consummation of their sanctity and the impossibility of losing it. The complete development of their supernatural personal dignity will now render their intercession for us more powerful with God, and all the more powerful the higher they have merited to be ranked in heaven.
The merits earned by the saints in this life are thus in a certain sense the cause of what these saints now obtain for us by their intercession. But in other words and concretely: when St Anthony obtains by prayer the conversion of a sinner, we find a double causality with respect to this conversion on the part of St Anthony. The impetratory force of his prayer is the cause of this conversion, because God grants it on account of his petition; but St Anthony’s merits also make their influence felt, because they are the cause that enables that impetratory prayer to achieve its effect.
For the sake of clarity, we should stress that St Anthony never merited the conversion which is the object of his intercession, but he merited that his prayers should be heard. The causality of his merits with respect to this conversion is no causality of merits as such, but it attains the conversion only through his prayers. Therefore we are wont to explain or interpret as prayer the merits of the saints, on which its impetratory power is based. Hence we may say that the saints are our intercessors in two ways: first, by their prayer in the strict sense, in so far as they offer to God’s judgment their desires for our salvation and all that contributes to it; and secondly by prayer in its extended meaning, that is by their merits, which, while not prayer, are understood as such, for they are always in God’s sight, supporting the prayers of the saints (IV Sent. 45.3.2).
In this way God hears the prayers of the saints on the one hand by his own free sovereign acceptance of them, and on the other hand on account of the merits that these saints now praying have obtained during their life on earth.
We have pointed out in that in the sight of God all human merit is borne and supported by the merits of our divine Savior. Everything, therefore, that is granted to us on the intercession of the saints is seen to be finally nothing but the completion of the merits of the Passion of our Lord. Not only because Jesus himself merited for us the very object of these saints’ prayer, but also because he supports with his own merits those of the saints on which the impetratory power of their intercession depends. Hence it is not only the Church militant, but also the Church triumphant that is praying through Christ our Lord.
* * * * *
While Jesus, the High Priest of the New Covenant, was still a traveler on earth, he did not only suffer for our salvation but he also prayed for it. He was not bound to pray, for, as we said, prayer is ultimately the expression of an impotent longing. But Jesus, the divine Person, could himself bring about whatever he wanted, with his human will. Nevertheless it was not always possible for him to fulfill his human desires, and this is true especially of his ardent longing for our salvation. Hence although he did not need to pray, because as God he could accomplish everything himself, it was indeed possible for him to pray, because he could not do so as man. Therefore he did not consider it beneath him to make the simple prayer of impetration—undervalued nowadays by so many of the devout—the cause of our salvation. And in making that prayer, he humiliated himself by accompanying it with all the exterior appearances that accompany our prayer also. He prayed on his knees (Luke 22:41), lying prostrate (Matt. 27:39), with loud cries and tears (Heb. 5:7).
Does Jesus still pray in heaven?
There are theologians who regard it as contrary to the Majesty of the Lord seated at the right hand of God to say that he prays either silently or explicitly. So that they do not allow any prayer to Jesus in the proper sense of the word, but exclusively something which they interpret as prayer: Jesus’ bodily presence in heaven.
This interpretation seems to me utterly superfluous and impossible. In any case what is in the nature of things a silent prayer, and thus prayer in the proper sense, cannot also be prayer in an interpreted sense.
Contrary to everything that we all rightly expect to happen to us at our resurrection, Jesus willed to keep his sacred wounds in the hands, feet and side of his risen body. The Apostle Thomas was allowed to put his hand into the wound in the Lord’s side and his finger into the wounds of his hands and feet (John 20:24-29). There was a valid reason for Jesus’ keeping those open wounds in his glorified body. The presence beside the Father’s throne of a human nature thus glorified and yet pierced would be a sign for God: “so that as he has raised human nature so high in Christ, he might also be merciful to those for whom the Son of God had taken human nature” (III, 57.6).
Here we have very clearly to do with a case of the prayer that we described above as silent. Far more eloquent than the silent prayer of the beggar is that silent prayer for us, implicit in the presence before God’s throne of Jesus’ glorious but pierced human nature.
And this is all the more conclusive when we reflect that these wounds are in their very nature a sign of Jesus’ decided will to receive what he has a strict right to obtain by virtue of these wounds inflicted on his human nature, a right based on the merits of his Passion. This presence is simply and naturally a silent but intensely eloquent declaration, written in blood and tears, of Jesus’ desire for our salvation and for all that can lead to it. And therefore no sound reason can be produced against our admitting likewise an explicit prayer. Of course it may be incompatible with the Majesty of our Lord, seated on the right hand of the Power of God, to throw himself down in the dust now or to pray with great outcry and tears (vide St Gregory of Nazianzen, Migne PG 36; 122 and St Augustine, Migne PL 35: 1898), but it is not in this that the essence of prayer consists. The essential part is the human desire directed to God; which seems to be the minimum that Scripture teaches us:
Of those other priests there was a succession, since death denied them permanence; whereas Jesus continues for ever, and his priestly office is unchanging; that is why he can give eternal salvation to those who through him make their way to God, he lives on still to make intercession on our behalf. (Heb. 7:23-25)
The sanctuary into which Jesus has entered is not one made by human hands, is not some adumbration of the truth; he has entered heaven itself, where he now appears in God’s sight on our behalf. (Heb. 9:24)
Who will pass sentence against us, when Jesus Christ, who died, nay, has risen again, and sits at the right hand of God, is pleading for us? (Rom. 8:34)
Little children, the purpose of this letter is to keep you clear of sin. Meanwhile, if any of us does fall into sin, we have an advocate to plead our cause before the Father, in the Just One, Jesus Christ. (I John 2:1)
So that Scripture is speaking here of the sole priest, who remains unique because there is no reason for him to have successors in the priesthood, because he, unlike the High Priests of the Old Testament, is not prevented by death from continuing to exercise his priestly function: he is always living in order to come forward on our behalf. He is doing that now, he is our advocate and intercessor now, even after, contrary to all expectation, we have sinned again.
Consequently we need not limit to the general causality of suffering the appeal with which the Church ends all her prayers, we may also relate it to its application to individual men by our advocate and intercessor, the ever unique and eternally active High Priest of the New Covenant: an appeal thus to Jesus’ own deep human desire for our salvation, and for all that conduces to it, which he directs to God with his human intelligence, so that the Father may fulfill with him and with the Holy Spirit these desires of Jesus’ Sacred Heart….
Gate of Heaven
We said that God’s dear saints merited during their earthly lives to be heard now, but that they did not merit the graces they beg for us.
It is said of Mary, on the contrary, that she merited for us all that Jesus merited.
Hence, just as no grace is actually gained for us by anyone unless it has been merited by Jesus, in like manner no one actually gains any grace for us, unless it was merited by Mary. Just as Jesus’ merits are directly related to the object no matter who has prayed for it and got it, so Mary’s merits are also directly concerned with it.
The relation of Jesus’ and Mary’s merits on the one hand and that of all the rest of the saints on the other is thus exactly the inverse: all the saints have merited to be heard, but none of them has merited the object obtained by prayer; Jesus and Mary on the contrary have indeed merited that object, no matter who prayed for it, but they did not merit to be heard.
What personal dignity ought Jesus to have merited that could have added anything to all the inalienable dignity he possessed from the moment of his Incarnation? So he did not merit being heard. Therefore at the closed grave of his friend Lazarus he prayed: “Father, I thank thee, for hearing my prayer. For myself, I know that thou hearest me at all times” (John 11:42).
The parallel with Mary is evident. For however many and great were the graces and privileges given to her, none was greater than that of her being chosen as Mother of God. We have already drawn attention to it: what is in the case of other saints their final cause, namely the Beatific Vision in heaven, is in Mary’s case merely a means to something higher, for all the graces bestowed on her, even the highest of all, have to serve this one purpose: to raise her in the worthiest possible way to be the Mother of God and related to the two other Divine Persons. The honor of the Blessed Trinity is directly concerned in this.
What then should Mary have been obliged to merit, that could have added anything to this supernatural person’s grandeur? She is heard because she is the Mother of God, just as Jesus is heard because he is the Son of God. Hence neither Jesus nor Mary merited being heard.
At the same time this throws a reasonable light on some people’s view; they think that Pius XII’s well-known words about Mary’s merits should be understood as implying that Mary at the foot of the Cross had merited gaining all graces for us now: ultimately that would have meant that she had merited being heard. It is not so. Like Christ, she is always heard for her own unearned, personal dignity of Mother of God.
Hence Mary is like Jesus in this and differs also from all other saints: she did not merit being heard, but she did indeed merit the object itself of her own and of other people’s intercession. Here I must draw a conclusion. We saw in the last paragraph that Jesus’ presence alone before the Father’s throne is a silent prayer, because his human nature is a sign of his desire for our salvation and all that conduces to it. Well, besides Jesus, Mary is the only human being whose whole human nature, body and soul, has been assumed into heaven. In that human nature she bore, together with Jesus, the bitter redemptive Passion, and although she received no material wounds her glorified humanity is none the less a sign of her brave and motherly longing for our salvation and all that leads to it. So that her presence in heaven with soul and body is also a silent prayer.
To this is added as well Mary’s explicit prayer. Jesus is a divine Person who can indeed pray in his human nature, but is not obliged to pray. But Mary must pray for her wishes to be fulfilled.
According to the saying “unknown is unloved,” it is clear that for those whom we do not know intimately we cannot make intimate wishes, but can pray for them in general only. Hence the intercession of the saints must not be understood as though every saint prayed for all human beings separately. For those whom they do not know individually they can pray in general only, just as we too pray for the conversion of sinners in general and only especially for those we know as individuals. So that there is a close connection between the knowledge that the saints in heaven have of men and things, and their intercession. We must beware of the mistaken idea that their special kind of felicity would enable the saints to know all men individually with each one’s personal interests.
To understand a truth, to have judgment, to know, all this is part of the perfection of our intellect, but to have knowledge or not of particular things which are indeed thus, but might just as well have been otherwise, has nothing to do with the perfection of our mind. I quote two telling remarks from St Thomas:
It does not belong to the perfection of my intelligence to know what you want or what you think, but exclusively to know what is truth. (I, 107. 2)
It does not belong to the perfection of my intellect to know things at a distance that do not concern me. (de Ver. 9: 5 ad 6 um)
To know the truth is to be able to judge; to know things and happenings can be at best erudition, but is often no more than ballast. Only with regard to things that concern me do I need to know anything. The nature of happiness—the plenitude of all good—does not involve knowledge by the saints of all kinds of individual people, things, facts and events: that is all ballast, which has nothing to do with their perfection, or with happiness: truth alone can perfect them. Happiness does indeed bring with it the fulfillment of all reasonable desires; hence they will know the particular things and events that concern them, for it is entirely reasonable for a man to desire to know what concerns him.
And doubtless a part of this will be that a saint knows the prayers made to him in people’s hearts or by their lips. Consequently, in their blessed Vision of the Godhead the saints will know all prayers we address to them (II-II, 83.4 ad 2um) although it does not follow from this that they will support all those prayers by their intercession. They pray only for those things that they know will be granted by God through their petition. There will always be many persons and interests left, for whom or for which the saints do not pray separately, because they know nothing about them. And even when they do know of them, they do not always lend them the support of their own prayer.
We have said that the saints in heaven know only what concerns themselves personally about things, people, facts and events on earth, and this is true for Mary also, but the application of this rule to her produces a different result. It limits the knowledge and hence the impetration of the other saints, but in her case it opens wide the field of her intercession. She is the Mother of God and the companion appointed by God and his Christ for the Mediator. She is called to come forward with Jesus as his helpmate both in the general redemptive causality and in the application of it to individual men. She is thus personally interested in the whole work of salvation. It is extremely reasonable that she should wish to know what the fruits of the work of redemption are, and this not only in general but in particular cases. It is thus her part not only to know what are the needs and wants of individual men but also how to satisfy them. And so Pius XI prays as follows:
O loving and pitiful Mother, who didst stand compassionately by thy dearly beloved Son as Coredemptrix, while he consummated the redemption of the human race on the altar of the cross . . . preserve in us, we pray, and daily increase the most precious fruits of the redemption and of thine own compassion. (Osserv. Rom. 9.iv.35, p. 1)
As regards the power of Mary’s intercession, the difference from that of other saints is, if possible, even greater than as regards the field covered by her good offices. For the power of prayer depends on the one hand on its free and sovereign acceptance by God, and on the other hand on the merits of the saints. But as we said, Mary, in order to be heard, has only, like Christ, to appeal to the fact that she has already merited what she is asking for. Consequently, God is already bound—not to Mary, but to himself—to hear and grant her prayer. For which reason it is impossible to refuse her. What is true for Jesus is true for her also: her intercession is the fulfillment of her merits. What she merited for men as general, although subordinate, dependent and accidental cause, is applied by her intercession to individual men. Her merits and intercession belong together, just as her share in reconciliation and mediation of grace belong together. And because, in contrast with other saints, she did not earn the right to be heard, but is always heard on account of her personal, unearned dignity of Mother of God, therefore her prayer is always absolutely acceptable to God, though both this acceptability and the power of her intercession are based again eventually on the merits of Jesus Christ, our Savior and hers. . . .
St John Damascene testifies:
O Mary, whose mediation is never refused, whose prayer is never denied . . . through you we obtain, as long as we linger in this crumbling world, the means to do good works, and we are released from our sinful actions; through you we shall attain after our death to our high and eternal God. (Migne PG 96: 647)
And St Anselm:
Therefore I seek your help as being the best and most powerful, after your Son’s, that this world can offer. . . . What all others can do with you, you are able to do alone without the others. . . . I seek you thus, I take refuge in you, and do help me in all this, I beg it of you humbly. If you do not speak, no one will help. But if you pray everyone will pray, everyone will help. (Migne PL 158:943/4)
Leo XIII summarized this splendidly in writing:
However many souls there may be occupying places among the inhabitants of heaven, which of them would dare to vie with the great Mother of God in obtaining grace? Who is better able to see in the eternal Word under what anxieties we are bowed and what we need? Who can be more sure of a favorable answer from God? Who can be compared with her in loving, motherly care?… Therefore the Church cries to her urgently, using the same words with which she appeases God: “Have pity on sinners.” (Augustissimae Virginis)
We have already quoted the words of St Albert the Great:
The Blessed Virgin is very properly called Gate of Heaven, for every created or uncreated grace that ever came or will ever come into this world came or will come through her…. Likewise all good that ever came from heaven to earth and vice versa passed through her hands. (Mariale 147)
This is why Christendom found for her who as creature is wholly powerless, the all-embracing name of “Suppliant Omnipotence.”
This article was excerpted from A Complete Mariology, Blackfriars, 1958.