What Does the Prayer Really Say? Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time
ORIGINALLY PRINTED IN THE WANDERER in January 2001
This Collect appeared in the pre-conciliar 1962 Missal, the so-called Mass of the Council of Trent, on the Fifth Sunday after Epiphany, at the same time of year it appears since the reform mandated by the Second Vatican Council. Obviously the Church deemed that what this prayer had to say was so important that it was retained after the reform.
LATIN (1970 Missale Romanum)
Familiam tuam, quaesumus, Domine, continua pietate custodi,
ut, quae in sola spe gratiae caelestis innititur,
tua semper protectione muniatur.
The repetition of the ending –tur gives this prayer a nice crisp sound. Note also the separation of tua…protectione by semper, which gives it an elegant turn.
O Lord, we beseech you to guard your family with continual religious dutifulness,
in order that that (family) which is propping itself up upon the sole hope of heavenly grace
may be always defended by your protection.
Custodio means “to watch, protect, keep, defend, guard.” It is common in military language. Innitor, a deponent verb, means “to lean or rest upon, to support one’s self by any thing. Innitor also has military overtones: the great Lewis & Short Dictionary provides examples from Caesar and Livy, describing soldiers leaning on their spears and shields (e.g., scutis innixi … “leaning upon their shields” from Caesar, De bello Gallico 2.27). Munio is a similarly military term for walling up something up, putting in a state of defense, fortifying so as to guard.
Innitor provides a bit of a puzzle. Innitor, classically at least, is a deponent verb (i.e., it has passive form but active meaning) it mostly goes with the dative and ablative and has appeared with the preposition in and the accusative case. But in our prayer in is followed by ablative. That might suggest that in sola spe gratiae caelestis stands by itself. If that is the case, innititur (which is deponent) forces us to render the clause something like “that family which is propping itself up in the sole hope of heavenly grace” rather than “which is leaning upon the sole hope of heavenly grace.” There is a subtle difference between those two phrases. On the other hand, this use of innitor might not be classical at all. Like all languages over time, Latin broke down and simplified. What were once appearing only as deponent verbs, came to be used in both active and passive forms so that it is not inconceivable that innititur is really passive in meaning too, and not just in form. That would give us something like, “that (family) which is being propped up in the sole hope of heavenly grace.” On the other hand, consider the following. This prayer was in both the 1570 edition of the Missale Romanum as well as the editio princepsMissale Romanum of the printed in Milan in 1474. In that period of Renaissance humanism there was a fascination with and adherence to classical forms. It could be that the prayer had its origin in some period of more decadent Latin and it was assumed without changes, but I am guessing that innitor retains here its deponent character and thus has an active or indeed reflexive meaning. In fact, the meaning is probably reflexive, given the context: the family is “propping itself” up. I think the other possibilities above are quite acceptable too.
Another word we must pick at for a while is pietas. L&S reveals that pietas is “dutiful conduct toward the gods, one’s parents, relatives, benefactors, country, etc., sense of duty.” It furthermore describes pietas in Jerome’s Vulgate in both Old and New Testament as “conscientiousness, scrupulousness regarding love and duty toward God.” At the heart of the word is “duty.” Pietas is also one of the seven gifts of the Holy Ghost (cf. CCC 733-36; Isaiah 11,2), by which we are duly affectionate and grateful toward our parents, relatives and country, as well as to all men living insofar as they belong to God are godly, and especially to the saints. In loose or common parlance, “piety” indicates fulfilling the duties of religion. Sometimes this is used in a negative way, when people are taking aim at external display of religious dutifulness as opposed to what they think should be “genuine” fervor.
What we get after all this digging are seemingly contrasting images: on the one hand family and on the other a group of dutiful soldiers leaning on their shields or spears (our shield or spear here being “the sole hope of heavenly grace”!). In fact, we children of a common Father, marching in this earthly life towards our heavenly fatherland (patria or “fatherland” was often used to describe heaven, where we really belong) comprise what for so long was described as the Church Militant. So many of us were described by the bishops who confirmed us as “soldiers of Christ.” By our initiation and integration in Christ’s Mystical Person, the Church, we are given the gifts and fruits of the Holy Spirit. Through the sacramental graces that flow from baptism and confirmation, nourished by the Eucharist and healed and strengthened with the others sacraments, we are able to face the challenges of daily-living and face down the attacks of hell so much so that we would rather die like soldiers than sin like those who have no gratitude and sense of duty toward our Father God. In our prayer we have striking imagery of the sort of protection the soldier of Christ relies on from his commander while on the march. We who are soldiers must have the proper attitude of obedience and dutifulness towards our heavenly Father and earthly parents, our heavenly home and our earthly country, our heavenly brothers and sisters the saints and our earthly siblings and relatives, our heavenly patrons and worldly benefactors, and so forth. In return, God gives us what we need to live as He wants us to live. This is what it means to belong to a family: there is a profound interconnection between the members while there remains an inequality – children are no less members of the family, but they are not the equals of parents. This prayer gives us an image that runs very much contrary to the prevailing values of the last few decades, a period in which the military has been denigrated and the family as a coherent recognizable unit has been systematically broken down. Children today sometimes take their parents to court for disciplining them. And yet that very discipline is tantamount to the protection given by a commander to the troops on the march so they can attain their goal. Holy Mother Church by this prayer, maintained for centuries now in this exact period of the year (5th Sunday after Pentecost and 5th Sunday of Ordinary Time) holds these things up as constituent elements of who we are. The Church is not afraid of images of family and soldiering, the symbiotic exchange of duty, obedience and protection.
watch over your family
and keep us safe in your care,
for all our hope is in you.
Above, I made an argument for my translation of a phrase based on the prevailing humanism of the period in which the first Roman missals were printed. Here I will not rule out the possibility that this ICEL translation was influenced by its own time period, the late 1960’s, when the military was very unpopular amongst many activist churchmen and when the family as a coherent building block of society was beginning to break down. Frankly, I find this ICEL version hard to justify. Sure some of the bits and pieces of the Latin original are in the ICEL version, but it seems to have lost the real point of the collect. Considering the fact that this prayer was already in the pre-conciliar Missals, and therefore in the so-called hand missals of the average Joe in the pew, how could they not do better than this unless they made a conscious determination not too? If we look at, for example, the Saint Andrew Bible Missal printed in 1963 we find this prayer (from the 5th Sunday after Epiphany) translated: “Lord, we pray you to guard your family with your constant loving care, because it relies only on the hope of your heavenly grace. May it be defended by your protection…” Pretty good, really, though I prefer not to break the Collect into two sentences (a real temptation). In the Saint Joseph Continuous Sunday Missal of 1957 we read: “We beseech You, O Lord, in Your unceasing goodness, guard Your family; that we who lean only upon the hope of Your heavenly grace, may always be defended by Your protection…” See how these translators kept the active meaning of innitor discussed above?
I very much like the fact that this year we hear this prayer in church in such proximity to the transfer of power in the executive branch in the United States of America to the administration of George W. Bush. You might just want to review his inaugural address and think about this prayer. At any rate, the ICEL translators had a perfectly good precedent for this Collect. Pray daily for our bishops and those in charge of translating the Latin texts. It is not an easy job.