An excerpt from this week’s article:
In the TLM, the “Prayer over the gifts”, in Latin Super oblata in the Novus Ordo, is called the Secret because it was spoken by the priest in a low voice inaudible to the congregation.
Remember that prayers for Mass are addressed by the priest primarily to God, not the congregation. Only a shallow sense of “active participation” drives people to think they must hear everything, see everything, do everything that pertains to the priest’s own words and gestures.
Anecdote: For years I said Holy Mass in Latin every morning in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Anyone in the Basilica could attend Mass simply by following priests as they exited the sacristy and headed to one the many altars in the basilica or the crypt below. One day after Mass an irritated American woman reproached me with the fact that she couldn’t hear everything I was saying, that my voice was sometimes too low. I explained that, not only didn’t I want to disturb the other Masses going on, some of the prayers are to be said silently. Not satisfied, she advanced that she had the right to hear them. After some patient backing and forthing I responded, “Ma’am, I really wasn’t talking to you. The prayers of Mass are said to God.” The priest and the congregation have different roles at Mass. They offer sacrifice in different modes. The silence of the Secret and other priestly prayers underscores the difference in the priesthood flowing from baptism and the priesthood of Holy Orders.
We must place our Secret in context in the Mass. Mass begins with an entrance procession followed by a prayer that is “proper”, that is, changing with the day. The “ordinary” parts of Mass are always the same. This is the pattern before our great orations: procession (entrance, gifts, Communion) – proper oration (Collect, Secret, Postcommunion).
At the offertory in the ancient Church there was an elaborate procession. The subdeacons and deacons brought forward from the congregation bread, wine, money, other food and objects for the poor as sacrificial offerings. By the time the ancient Sacramentaries developed (e.g., “Veronese”, “Gelasian” etc.) orations were fixed for the same Sundays each year in a cycle. The offertory prayers logically had vocabulary for gifts and sacrifices (e.g., dona, sacrificia, munera, oblationem).
Secrets follow the general structure of a prayer of petition: we offer things up so that God’s favor will come down on us. You will see that these prayers are normally in the first person plural: we. The priest, even though he is inaudible, speaks as mediator for the whole congregation.
Keep in mind that today’s Secret is in the very first Mass of a new liturgical year. It is now the season of “the Coming”, Advent. It is a time of muted joy in anticipation of remembering liturgically the First Coming of the Lord as an infant at Bethlehem. Advent is also, more significantly, a reminder that the Lord will have a Second Coming. Like lightning across the heavens Christ will come from the East as just Judge and King of fearful majesty. During Advent Holy Church dons purple vestments, in parallel with Lent before Easter. From ancient times all feasts had penitential vigils. Advent purple is an outward sign of our joy-infused penitential preparation for both Comings, though especially for our sacramental veneration of the Word Incarnate, the Christ Child.
Ancient Roman prayers are distinguished by brevity. They are dense, often with technical philosophical vocabulary and allusions to Scripture, which the better educated would have recognized. A single word would suggest a thousand. The Latin spoken in the liturgy in the early Church was truly not the “vernacular” spoken by the common folk.
Note the alliteration at first of “s” and “t” and then of “f/v” followed by “p”. Watch at the end for hyperbaton, the separation of words which belong together. Remember! You won’t hear this! But Father will.
Haec sacra nos, Domine, potenti virtute mundatos,
ad suum faciant puriores venire principium.
Like sap from the root, this oozes the ancient.
Many ancient sacramentaries have this Secret, but there is a variation of sacra and sacrificia. When sacra is used, the Secret appears on the 4th Sunday before Christmas (they counted backwards). When sacrificia appears, it’s on Friday of 4th Week of Lent. This oration survived the scissor and paste wielding liturgical experts of Fr. Bugnini’s Consilium, to survive, with sacrificia instead of sacra, as the Super oblata for Friday of the 4th Week of Lent. On that day day Novus Ordo Mass goers will witness the near destruction of the original in the lame-duck version by
ICEL (1973 translation of the 1970MR):
may the healing power of this sacrifice [sacrificia]
free us from sin
and help us to approach you with pure hearts.
Our not yet outworn Lewis & Short Latin Dictionary shows that a principium is an “origin”. Potens, a participle from possum used as an adjective, is “strong, mighty, powerful”. A conceptual parallel is in virtus, “strength”, “the sum of all the corporeal or mental excellences of man”. The ancient Romans used the phrase “Deum virtute … by the aid or merit of the gods, i.e. the gods be thanked”. Sacra, neuter plural from sacer, is the term for the “secrets, mysteries” of religious rites. Publica sacra were the Romans’ official rites of divine worship. Thus, sacra were also the holy things used in the rites.
May these sacred mysteries, O Lord,
make us, cleansed by mighty power, come purer unto their Source.
Principium calls to mind not only that we are at the beginning of a new sacred cycle, but that everything happening around the altar has its true origin in Christ.
The priest, wreathed in smoldering fragrance, is still. He raises his hands in ritual gesture.
This is an encounter with mystery in its deepest sense, the very One from whom and toward whom go all life and good things. It embodies every higher impulse of man to be pure in the presence of the divine which is mighty beyond our ken.
In hushed tones as if each word were too precious, too potent, for you he whispers “HAEC SACRA” over bread upon the linen corporal, wine in the chalice on the altar.