Let’s drill into a prayer for today’s Holy Mass.
COLLECT – LATIN TEXT (2002MR):
Familiam tuam, quaesumus, Domine,
continua pietate custodi,
ut, quae in sola spe gratiae caelestis innititur,
tua semper protectione muniatur.
This Collect was in the pre-Conciliar 1962MR, the so-called “Tridentine” Missal, for the 5th Sunday after Epiphany. Let us see the Google… er um… ICEL version we will hear on Sunday in our parish churches and then immediately our slavishly literal WDTPRS version.
ICEL (1973 translation of the 1970MR):
watch over your family
and keep us safe in your care,
for all our hope is in you.
Guard your family, we beseech you, O Lord,
with continual mercy,
so that that (family) which is propping itself up upon the sole hope of heavenly grace
may always be 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 thorough and replete 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” cf. 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. Are you sensing a theme? We need a closer look.
We must make a distinction about pietas when applied to us and when applied to God. When pietas is attributed to God, it means "mercy". But let’s drill at pietas a little more. Pietas gives us the English word “piety”, we have seen before in the last few years but it bears review. L&S says 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.” The heart of pietas is “duty.” Pietas is also one of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit (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 or are godly, and especially to the saints. In loose or common parlance, “piety” indicates fulfilling the duties of religion. Sometimes “pious” is used in a negative way, as when people take aim at external displays of religious dutifulness as opposed to what they is “genuine” practice (cf. Luke 18:9-14).
When we truly grasp the words in today’s prayer we find rich imagery of contrasting images. On the one hand we see a family and on the other a group of dutiful soldiers leaning on their shields or spears, these being for us “the sole hope of heavenly grace”! In fact, we Catholics are both a family, children of a common Father, and a Church Militant, the Body of Christ which is a corps (French for “body” from Latin corpus) marching in this vale of tears towards our heavenly fatherland. Many of us were confirmed by bishops as “soldiers of Christ” and given a blow on the cheek as a reminder of what suffering we might face as Christians: not the first time we have suffered at the hands of bishops, perhaps, and maybe not the last.
By our baptism we are integrated in Christ’s Mystical Body, indeed His 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 other sacraments, we are capable of facing the challenges of daily life and face down the attacks of hell. We ought rather desire to die like soldiers rather than sin in the manner of those who have no gratitude toward God or sense of duty toward Him. In today’s prayer we beg the protection and provisions Christ our King and commander can give us soldiers while on the march. We need a proper attitude of obedience toward God, our ultimate superior, dutifulness our 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.
This is also what it means to belong to a family: there is both a profound interconnection between the members but also an inequality – children are no less members of the family than parents, but they are dependent they are not the equals of their parents. Our 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. The Latin prayers often reflect the Church’s profound awareness of our lack of equality with God. The prayers are radically hierarchical, just as God’s design reveals hierarchy and order. Compare this with prevailing societal norms. Nowadays individual soldiers might be praised but the military is still being looked at by the intelligentsia with suspicion. Rights of individual people are validated, but the family as a unit is under severe attack.
In both the military and in a family (and the Church) there must be order. Yet, children today can take their parents to court for disciplining them. In some places parents are forbidden their rights to protect children who can obtain contraception or even abortions through schools without parental notification. Discipline is dissolving. And yet that very discipline is precisely the protection needed by troops on the march, children in growing up, the flocks of the Church from their pastors, from their commanders so they can attain their goal. Parents, officers and shepherds must fulfill their own roles with pietas also, religious and sacred duty. Holy Mother Church has maintained this Collect for centuries now in this exact period of the year (5th Sunday after Pentecost and 5th Sunday of Ordinary Time). She holds these petitions up to God because the concern constituent elements of who we are. The Church is not afraid to combine images of family and soldiering, the symbiotic exchange of duty, obedience and protection.
Please keep something in mind: the prayer suggests to me a meaning which is founded on the possible military nuances of the vocabulary. It is also possible to emphasize the familial dimension and say, “Watch over your family, …with continual mercy/religious dutifulness,…” invoking more something like the image of a father or mother checking into the bedrooms of their children while they sleep, listening in the night for sounds of distress or need. Perhaps putting the military element in relief helps us to claim both sets of images. These choices are not easy friends. Every time you make a choice in translating, you are going to lose something. Therefore, pray daily for our bishops and those in charge of translating the Latin texts. It is not an easy job. They must make truly difficult decisions, knowing full well that with every choice something important will be lost for someone. However, lest we be smug about the “olden days”, this applied equally to translations in pre-Conciliar hand missals used now by those attending Holy Mass celebrated according to the older books. Something is always lost in translation.