What the Roman Canon Teaches Us about Predestination

The second part of the Roman Canon’s prayer Hanc igitur (“dispose our days in Thy peace; command that we be rescued from eternal damnation and numbered among the flock of Thine elect”) enshrines the truth about human salvation taught by the Fathers, Doctors, and premodern popes of the Church, and thereby excludes the universalist mentality of our age, which assumes that all men will be saved—that salvation is the default position—unless they conscientiously and egregiously reject God. On the contrary, the consensus of Catholic theologians from ancient times until the early twentieth century was that man, due to his inheritance of original sin, cannot enter into the kingdom of heaven unless he dies and rises with Christ in baptism, and that, accordingly, mankind is a massa damnata from whom individuals are rescued by the application to their souls of the fruits of His redemption. Christ came into the world to save sinners from the destruction due to sins, inherited and actual. The sole path to eternal life is to be clothed with Christ, to be incorporated into His Mystical Body, and to die in a state of sanctifying grace. As Scott Hahn says in a lecture on the Gospel of John, “the history of salvation is also the history of damnation”: Christ came into the world for judgment, to cause separation by revealing the truth and exposing darkness. This is why the Roman Martyrology carefully records not only the names of each martyr but the names of their persecutors as well.

Moreover, in utter opposition to Pelagianism, the Church teaches that God, not man, takes the first step in the renewal of our life; that all our sufficiency is from Him (2 Cor 3:5); that no man comes to Jesus unless the Father draws him (Jn 6:44); that we become adopted sons of God by His predestinating purpose (Eph 1:5); that we persevere by His gift, not by our own efforts alone. In short, God must number us in the flock of His chosen ones; He knowingly and lovingly chooses us to be the “rational sheep” of His flock. He does not, as it were, happen to find us there in the sheepfold and express pleasant surprise; He brings us there and keeps us there. All this the Roman Canon succinctly transmits in words as simple as they are sobering, reminding us that the Catholic Church, like her Common Doctor St. Thomas, has always taught and still teaches the doctrine of predestination. The petition from the Hanc igitur is a liturgical distillation of the teaching of the Apostle Paul, as found especially in Ephesians and Romans:

Who hath predestinated us unto the adoption of children through Jesus Christ unto himself: according to the purpose of his will. . . . In whom we also are called by lot, being predestinated according to the purpose of him who worketh all things according to the counsel of his will. (Eph 1:5, 1:11)

For whom he foreknew, he also predestinated to be made conformable to the image of his Son; that he might be the firstborn amongst many brethren. And whom he predestinated, them he also called. And whom he called, them he also justified. And whom he justified, them he also glorified. (Rom 8:29–30)

The liturgy bears witness to the Church’s faith in a number of places, such as the Sequence of the Mass for the Dead (Dies Irae). The Secret for the Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost expresses the doctrine of the Church to perfection: “May this sacrifice of praise that we offer to Thee, O Lord, be for an increase of our servitude [i.e., our service to Thee]: that what Thou hast begun without our merits Thou mayest mercifully bring to completion.” The Postcommunion for the usus antiquior Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus, a relatively recent addition from the sixteenth century (and incorporated into the general calendar in the eighteenth), reads thus: “O almighty and everlasting God Who didst create and redeem us, look graciously upon our prayer, and with a favourable and benign countenance deign to accept the sacrifice of the saving Victim, which we have offered to Thy Majesty in honour of the Name of Thy Son, our Lord Jesus Christ: that through the infusion of Thy grace we may rejoice that our names are written in heaven, under the glorious Name of Jesus, the pledge of eternal predestination.”

But why is this doctrine important to us spiritually?

In modern times, we are constantly being told how good we are and how well-intentioned, and yet how very much we are the innocent victims of the prejudicial environments that formed us, which (of course) entitles us to coddling compensations. We are reassured of the greatness of man, of his dignity and rights. But we are in sore danger of forgetting fundamental truths about our condition. We are fallen beings alienated from God, from our neighbors, even from our very selves. We have no rights to stand on before God; we are like “filthy rags,” as Isaiah says (Is 64:4). We are dependent on the divine Mercy at every moment—for our very existence, for our conversion to good, for our repentance from evil, for our escape from damnation, and above all, for the gift of eternal life in Christ Jesus.

We stand at the edge of an abyss of never-ending misery into which we may fall at any moment by mortal sin, should our life be snuffed out before we have repented of it—if the Lord does not, in His mercy, prevent us from falling or, after we have fallen, grant us the gift of repentance. “Lead us not into temptation.” Lead us not into the abyss. Command that we be rescued from eternal damnation. This is reality, as opposed to the shallow fantasy of egoism, the “broad path that leads to destruction,” with which our contemporary culture envelops us.

We stand, too, at the edge of an upward abyss, that of the never-ending bliss of heaven, into which we are drawn up out of ourselves, in reverse gravity, to the supernatural grandeur of the sons of God. This, too, is a gift we could never have merited; Christ alone won it for us by shedding His Precious Blood upon the Cross, in the one supreme sacrifice that is made present at every offering of the Holy Mass. It is precisely on the verge of making this sacrifice newly present in our midst that we humbly beseech the Lord: Command that we be numbered among the flock of Thine elect. Number us, O Lord, with the good thief to whom Thou didst say: “This day thou shalt be with Me in paradise.”

The doctrine of predestination rightly understood (and not, for example, Calvin’s distortion of it) has as its positive spiritual effects an attitude of deep and abiding thanksgiving for the Lord’s mercies without number, since He died for us while we were yet His enemies, that we might become His friends; a profound humility at having been chosen by God for no beauty of our own but solely that He might make us beautiful in His sight; a sober watchfulness and earnestness, lest our names be erased from the Book of Life; and, most of all, a constant recourse to prayer, that we may be established more and more in Christ and not in ourselves, for it is by “being made conformable to the image of His Son” (Rom 8:29), and in no other way, that our predestination is actually accomplished. In response to so great a mercy, the Church places the words of the Psalmist on the lips of her priests as they receive the Precious Blood, the price of our souls: “What shall I render to the Lord for all the things that He hath rendered to me? I will take the chalice of salvation, and I will call upon the Name of the Lord. Praising I will call upon the Lord, and I shall be saved from mine enemies.” It is therefore of immense importance for nourishing the right faith of the Church that the doctrine of predestination, transmitted pure and entire in the Roman Canon, be present to priests in their offering of the Mass and to the people in their participation in it.

This article is taken from a chapter in The Once and Future Roman Rite: Returning to the Traditional Latin Liturgy after Seventy Years of Exile by Dr. Peter Kwasniewski which is available from TAN Books.

Dr. Peter Kwasniewski is a prominent Catholic professor, author, composer, and authority on sacred liturgy and the Roman Rite. His recent book The Once and Future Roman Rite was published by TAN Books.