Today’s Collect is new to the Missale Romanum in any edition, but it has some connection to the Sacramentarium Bergomense, a 9th or 10th century manuscript in a library in Bergamo, Italy of the Western, but non-Roman, Latin rite used in Milan, the “Ambrosian” Rite.
This prayer has a wonderfully snappy and crisp sound to it when spoken or, even better, sung. The final line has a lovely clausula (rhythmic ending).
People who have for so long been denied the beauty of Latin may find it difficult to conceive of the exquisite delight to be taken in the singing of the tightly woven ancient Latin Collect with its lovely rhythms, its riveting clarity of thought, its force and purity of style. These Latin prayers reveal both the formation behind the minds of their composers and their power to continue that formation in the hearer centuries later. This fact certainly argues both for their preservation in Latin in our churches as well as beautiful and accurate translations of the originals when we are being asked to tolerate the use of the vernacular in our Latin Rite.
COLLECT – (2002MR):
Propitiare, Domine, famulis tuis,
et clementer gratiae tuae super eos dona multiplica,
ut, spe, fide et caritate ferventes,
semper in mandatis tuis vigili custodia perseverent.
The verb propitio means “to render favorable, appease, propitiate” or “look propitiously.” Our form in the Collect clearly has imperative force and resembles an infinitive, but do not be deceived. In later Latin infinitives are sometimes used as imperatives, but I don’t think that is the case in our prayer today. The illustrious Lewis & Short Dictionary shows that in the Biblical Latin of the Vulgate, the passive form of propitio means, “to be propitious” (cf. Vulgate Leviticus 23:2 – propitietur vobis Dominus … may the Lord be propitious to you). So, propitiare looks like an infinitive but is really a 2nd person singular present passive imperative. The sonorous clementer is an adverb from the adjective clemens which, the L&S indicates as “of the quiet, placid, pleasant state of the air, wind, or weather, mild, calm, soft, gentle”.
There is a moral quality to clemens, that is, “of a calm, unexcited, passionless state of mind, quiet, mild, gentle, tranquil, kind” and therefore by extension, “mild in respect to the faults and failures of others, i. e. forbearing, indulgent, compassionate, merciful”. There have been fourteen Popes named “Clemens”, the last being Clement XIV (+1774) and a couple medieval anti-Popes.
Famulus and feminine famula need some attention, since they appear with some frequency in our prayers. These words come seemingly from Latin’s ancient cousin in the Sabellic branch of the Italic language family, Oscan. In Oscan faama means “house.” Behind famulus we have a concept of “people who are in the house.” Ancient houses of the upper classes could be large and have many servants. A famulus or famula was a household servant or hand-maid, slave or free. In some ways they were considered members of the larger family. This explains in part how whole households, including the slaves and servants, converted to Christianity in the early Church.
A fundamental dimension of the word custodia is the idea of hindering free motion. It its therefore “a watching, guard, care, protection”. It means also, “a watching, guarding, custody, restraint, confinement.” In military language it indicates, “persons who serve as guards, a guard, watch, sentinel” and thus also the guard house, the “place where guard is kept.” Vigil (from the verb vigeo) can be an adjective “awake, on the watch, alert”. Someone who is vigil is “wakeful, watchful”. Vigil can be a substantive also, meaning “a watchman, sentinel”. In Italy even today certain types of police officers are called “vigili”. In English, we have the word “vigil”, a watch kept when one would ordinarily be sleeping during the night. Liturgically, a vigil is the evening and night before a great feast day.
In ancient times vigils were moments of fasting and penance. Men who were to be knighted would keep a vigil during the night, fasting and praying, examining their consciences so as to be pure for the rite to follow. The idea is that one must prepare through self-denial and control of appetites and passions, watching and guarding against the attacks of the devil, who is a liar and tempter.
Scripture often gives us images of watches during the night.
For example, at the birth of the Lord we hear in Luke, “And in that region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night (vigilantes et custodientes vigilias noctis)” (Luke 2:8 RSV). Jesus says, “Watch (vigilate) therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But know this, that if the householder had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have watched (vigilaret) and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready; for the Son of man is coming at an hour you do not expect” (Matthew 24:42-44 RSV).
On this theme remember how Jesus used the image of the household servants needing to keep watch so that they would be ready to open the door for the master of the house should he return home in the dead of the night (cf. Luke 12:37-39). St. Paul the Apostle constantly urges Christians to be “watchful” and “vigilant”. In our Collect, it might be possible to say either “vigilant restraint” or “vigilant protection.” The one emphasizes the use of the will to do things in the right measure, which is at the core of virtuous behavior (the three virtues faith, hope and charity are mentioned in the prayer) or also the kind of careful attention we should give to the great and precious gifts we receive from God.
What will you hear in your parish church on Sunday?
ICEL (1973 translation of the 1970MR):
be merciful to your people.
Fill us with your gifts
and make us always eager to serve you
in faith, hope, and love.
Is this what the prayer really says? Let us consider a WDTPRS …
Look propitiously on Your servants, O Lord,
and indulgently multiply upon them the gifts of Your grace
so that, burning with faith, hope and charity,
they may persevere always in your commands with vigilant restraint.
There are various possibilities for translations and it is sometimes hard to make choices between the options. It is not rocket science, but neither is it child’s play.
Back in 1985 the British Association For English Worship published Prayers of the Roman Missal comparing the ICEL versions of selected prayers with their own. The slim spiral-bound publication has a foreword by Christopher Butler, OSB, in which he says: “The search by ICEL for simplicity and immediate intelligibility has sometimes led to a jejune and staccato effect and to the loss of depth of meaning or the sense of mystery present in the Latin text” (p. iv).
Here is the AEW version of today’s Collect: Look mercifully upon your household, O Lord and pour out upon us the gifts of your grace, so that in faith, hope and charity we may always watch and pray and walk in the way of your commandments.
From time to time you readers ask me to smooth out the translation and be a little less “slavish”. These WDTPRS articles are not aiming at providing a version for liturgical use. Our aim here is to put the ICEL side by side with the Latin so that we can all see clearly what was not done in times past and what must be done in the future. Nevertheless, we can try a smoother version. Let’s introduce some archaizing forms so as to remove it from ordinary everyday speech in the manner required by the normative document Liturgiam authenticam.
A smoother version:
Look upon Thy people with gracious forbearance, O Lord,
and clemently shower them with the gifts of Thy grace
so that, inflamed with faith, hope and charity,
they may with measured and vigilant care
ever persevere in Thy commandments.
When I reflect on this Collect, especially in light of the images of “watching in the night” used in Scripture, I think of a great ancient household, a domus or a Roman latifundium. A latifundium was an estate farm with many different buildings and quarters, for family, household servants, and the many workers. The estates were fortified even with walls against attacks by brigands. A house or domus in a city might even have a watch tower. These dwellings were often quite self-sufficient, everyone living there together, perhaps for their whole lives. The householder or the lord of the estate was the head of the larger “family” and would see to the needs of the all people under his care. He was provider, judge, teacher, and protector.
When traveling in Italy you can see remnants of the modern versions of latifundia called fattorie. They would have chapels and resident priests to see to the spiritual needs of the denizens. In our prayer the lord of the estate and paterfamilias is gracious and kind, very patient with us, his workers even though we are sometimes wicked. We beg him to be indulgent and continue to give us gifts.
These are not just any gifts: they are necessary for our survival. Just as workers in the house or on the land must produce good fruits if they are to be able to remain and enjoy a good quality of life, we servants of the Father, famuli, who are named “Christian” after His Son and who are marked even with the family mark by baptism and confirmation, need the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity in order to do our duty in the Lord’s sight. We are completely dependent on Him for everything.
Not only do we need to be vigilant, we need to be attentive to everything we need for fulfilling our vocation in life.
We need to gain the gifts and tools helpful for our salvation.
Otherwise, when the reckoning comes, we will be like the foolish virgins who did not have enough oil for their lamps when they were watching during the night for the arrival of the Bridegroom (cf. Matthew 25).
They were shut out of the feast, left in the dark to drift aimlessly, without a purpose to fulfill.
They had no place to go, no productive work to do, no support or help, no place to belong.
Be vigilant, therefore.