Here is something I wrote for the paper. This is the sort of thing that eventually brought this blog into existence.
What Does the Prayer Really Say? 27th Sunday after Pentecost (6th after Epiphany) (1962 Missale Romanum)
November is especially given to prayer for souls in Purgatory. Visits to cemeteries and Requiem Masses are appropriate. Catholics must recover a devotion and discipline of prayer for the dead.
I have an impression many people never pray for the dead. Go to your garden-variety funeral and you get little or no sense that they are there to ask God to be merciful, to forgive the departed the temporal punishment due to sin. Instead, you find a pseudo-canonization, and often a vulgar one at that. If you pray in a certain way long enough, people’s beliefs change. Today you see mostly white vestments and hear people talk about how wonderful the deceased was. It is, of course, necessary that Christians remember the dead with charity and connect death to the resurrection. Otherwise, what is this Christianity thing all about? But first things first. Before celebrating, let us beg for mercy. We need to return to a true sense of prayer for the dead and the use of black vestments.
There is a slow shift away from white for funerals and Requiem Masses. For the most part, however, priests willing to use black have been hesitant. Mindful of the tetchiness they will surely get from some congregants, they sometimes timidly edge toward violet as a compromise or transition color. Understandable, I suppose. I am mindful of their circumstances.
But something in the air has changed. I have received from all over the USA and many other countries many photos of priests saying Mass for All Souls in black vestments… in the Ordinary Use, the Novus Ordo. Perhaps this is a fruit of a recovery of desire for continuity, reinforced by Summorum Pontificum.
But what really caught my attention was an item written by His Excellency Most Reverend R. Walker Nickless, Bishop of Sioux City, Iowa, for their diocesan paper.
Black is a traditional color of the Church’s vestments that may be worn on All Souls Day. It can also be worn at Masses for the dead. As a liturgical color, black symbolizes mourning and penitence, sorrow and solemnity. This is exactly the spirit we are trying to cultivate on the Feast of All Souls, when we pray for the salvation of the dead. It is appropriate, then, to use the external symbols suitable to help us cultivate the proper internal reality. Black vestments help us to remember to pray for all the dead, not just our own beloved dead. Black vestments help remind us of the inestimable worth of the divine gift of life, in this world and in the next. This year, for this feast, I will be wearing black vestments. Hopefully, this sign will remind us of our need to face death with all its pain and mourning, but also remind us of the resurrected life to follow.
We need a “Bring Back Our Black!” movement among laypeople. Be willing to ask for black for your funerals. Be willing to purchase vestments for the parish, after consulting the priest. In many places the black was thrown into the trash. “Bring Back Our Black!”
As we approach the end of another liturgical year, a strange thing happens in the Church’s traditional, pre-Conciliar calendar. After the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost, the Sundays left over after Epiphany, after Christmas, are finally dusted off and prayed until the liturgical year is concluded. So let us examine the Collect for this 27th Sunday after Pentecost in the traditional, Extraordinary calendar of the Roman Rite, the texts for which are revived from the 6th Sunday remaining after Epiphany. This Collect survived the snipping and cutting of the Consilium under the late Annibale Bugnini to live on in the Novus Ordo editions of the Missale Romanum as the Collect on the 7th Sunday of Ordinary Time. Thus, it remained roughly around the same time of year after Epiphany, or would have had the Sunday texts in the Extraordinary Use not been transferred to the end of the Season of Pentecost to fill out the liturgical year.
Praesta, quaesumus, omnipotens Deus:
ut, semper rationabilia meditantes,
quae tibi sunt placita,
et dictis exsequamur et factis.
Those of you who have over the course of the years tuned your Latin ears to the sound of prayers have probably already guessed that this prayer is ancient. Its brevity, style and vocabulary so suggest. And you are right, of course. You find this prayer in the Liber Augustodunensis (Autun), Engolismensis (Angoulême) and Gellonensis (Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert).
Note the et…et construction, which every first year Latinist knows means “both… and”. It provides a parallel structure in that clause, lending to it a nice rhythm when spoken and especially when sung. Very nice here is the spiffy separation of et dictis…et factis by the verb. Right away we see the connection between the two neuter plurals rationabilia… placita.
Grant, we beg, Almighty God:
that we, meditating always on rational things,
may fulfill those things which are pleasing to You
both by words and by deeds.
What do people hear during Mass with the Novus Ordo on the 7th Sunday of Ordinary Time? Here is the lame-duck version from old incarnation of…
ICEL (1973 translation of the 1970MR):
keep before us the wisdom and love
you have revealed in your Son.
Help us to be like him
in word and deed.
Our Collect may have a connection with John 8:28-29 when Jesus gives a warning to unbelieving Jews:
So Jesus said, “When you have lifted up the Son of man, then you will know that I am he, and that I do nothing on my own authority but speak thus as the Father taught me. And he who sent me is with me; he has not left me alone, for I always do what is pleasing to him (quae placita sunt ei, facio semper).”
Our old companion the Lewis & Short Dictionary discloses that exsequor can mean “to follow, go after, pursue” as well as “to follow up, prosecute, carry out; to perform, execute, accomplish, fulfill” and also “to go through with in speaking, to relate, describe, say, tell.” Any of those meanings could be argued in this prayer. Rationabilis is an adjective meaning “reasonable, rational”. I will make a choice for “rational” here, partly because of an association I make between this prayer and another I know. I saw rationabilia in some authors contrasted with animalia. Reason distinguishes us from the brutes.
When I was studying philosophy, at the beginning of all the classes we would recite a prayer of St. Thomas Aquinas (+1274):
Concede mihi, misericors
Deus, quae tibi sunt placita,
ardenter concupiscere, prudenter
investigare, veraciter agnoscere,
et perfecte adimplere ad laudem
et gloriam Nominis tui. Amen.
Grant me, O merciful God,
to desire eagerly, to investigate
prudently, to acknowledge
sincerely, and perfectly to fulfill
those things that are pleasing to
Thee, to the praise and glory of
Thy Name. Amen.
Here we have total submission of man’s higher faculties to the God who gave them to us as gifts. This prayer says to God, “have authority over me so that I can be more who I am supposed to be.”
We are creatures made in the image and likeness of God. We are made to act like God acts, using our gifts and powers of intellect and will. These faculties are wounded because of Original Sin, but they still separate us from irrational animals. Thus, we can distinguish between acts of humans (such as breathing and digesting) that are not much different than what brute animals do except that a human does them, and human acts (like painting, writing this column, repairing a car, conversing, choosing to love) which involve the use of the higher faculties. So, we must be interiorly engaged and focused with mind and will on the action we, as agents in God’s image, are carrying out.
This is important for our understanding of what “active participation” in the liturgy means. Many fall into the trap of thinking that “active participation” requires carrying things around, clapping, singing, etc. But we can do all those things and actually be mentally a thousand miles away, thinking about the grocery list, pondering what the score of the ballgame is. We have all caught ourselves whistling without realizing we were doing it. Conversely, we can sing and sing, getting all the words and notes if someone was observing, but actually be thinking about something else. Sure, we are doing something “actively”, but we are not acting as humanly as we ought. That is not the kind of participation we need at Mass: distracted, disengaged.
Our task in liturgical participation is to be actively receptive during the sacred action of the liturgy. Watching carefully and quietly, attending to the spoken Word with active receptivity, truly engaging excellent sacred music with thoughtful concentration is far more active than distracted singing, poor reading, or carrying things around. It is actually quite difficult to listen. It takes real desire. When our minds and wills are engaged to listen we participate actively. We submit and receive what Christ, the true actor in the Mass, gives us not as passive animals, but as engaged and actively rational receptive images of God.
It looks passive to the ill-informed observer. It isn’t.
Consider that last phrase in the Collect in this light. Christ came into this world to save us from our sins and to teach us who we are. He did this by His words and deeds. Those words and deeds save us and instruct us as to how we are to act as images of God. In paragraph 22 of the Second Vatican Council’s Gaudium et spes, often attributed to the future John Paul II, we read that (my emphases):
The truth is that only in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light. For Adam, the first man, was a figure of Him Who was to come, namely Christ the Lord. Christ, the final Adam, by the revelation of the mystery of the Father and His love, fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear. It is not surprising, then, that in Him all the aforementioned truths find their root and attain their crown.
In everything Christ said (dicta) or did (facta) He reveals us to ourselves. His words and deeds are saving and revealing. In the incarnation the perfect invisible image of the invisible Father, the Son, became man, the perfect visible image of the Father. Christ then showed us who He is in His words and actions and, thereby also revealed the invisible Father to us, His images. Thus, His words and deeds have saving value and teaching value. They are even, in a sense, rationalibilia we can meditate over.
In our intellectually arrogant post-modern, post-Christian world there has been in many circles a nearly complete divorce between faith and reason, authority and intellect. Faith is seen by some today as the intellect’s idiot cousin. It is obligatory to question authority. That model for man’s relationship with Truth can lead only to a black pit of despair, an emptying of the content of every word and every deed, rendering pointless everything that is human – both suffering and joy alike. His Holiness Benedict XVI has been writing eloquently about our present situation for years, before and since his election.
We are who we are because God made us to be so. We must engage our minds and wills, bring to completion by faith what reason can glean, and submit to proper authority with active receptivity. In order to be truly human during our pilgrimage in this world, we need reminders of this together with the grace of God.