Today’s Collect was not in a pre-Conciliar edition of the Roman Missal but there was an antecedent in the ancient Veronese Sacramentary during the month of September.
COLLECT - (2002MR):
Respice nos, rerum omnium Deus creator et rector,
et, ut tuae propitiationis sentiamus effectum,
toto nos tribue tibi corde servire.
ICEL (1973 translation of the 1970MR):
our creator and guide,
may we serve you with all our heart
and know your forgiveness in our lives.
In your personal copy of the hefty Lewis & Short Dictionary, you will find that respicio means in the first place, “to look back, behind; to look to something.” Thereafter it also signifies, “have regard, turn attention to” and by extension “look at with solicitude; to have a care for, regard, be mindful of.” The imperative forms respice and tribue are very common in Latin prayers.
Keep in mind also that the imperative or “command” mood of a verb in Latin, depending on the context, can have a range of meaning from a command to a heartfelt wish. We are most decidedly not bossing God around by using an imperative.
Propitiatio means “an appeasing; atonement, propitiation”. One of the references L&S lists is from Ambrose’s commentary on the biblical Song of Songs. A. Souter’s A Glossary of Later Latin to 600 A.D. says that it can also mean the propitiatory sacrifice itself. A. Blaise’s (reworked by A. Dumas) Le vocabulaire latin des principaux thèmes liturgiques confirms this. Blaise also says that forms related to propitiatio are often accompanied in various ancient sacramentaries by imperative verbs like absolve, adesto, concede, exaudi, intende, largire, praesta, respice, suscipe, etc.
Be mindful of us, O God, creator and ruler of all things,
and, in order that we may sense the effect of your act of atonement,
grant to us to serve you with our whole heart.
The glorious N. African Bishop of Hippo, St. Augustine (+430), in his autobiographical prayer to God called most often the Confessions, uses the phrase (3, 7): unus et verus creator et rector universitatis, which is strikingly like the first line of the Collect.
Augustine certainly knew the beautiful hymns of Milan’s bishop St. Ambrose (+397). Augustine wrote that he had heard the singing of hymns in the cathedral at Milan before his baptism by Ambrose. He says the words entered into his heart, made him weep and that the tears were good for him. Ambrose provided for the Church down through the centuries a beautiful prayer in song called Deus Creator Omnium. Most ancient volumes for the singing of the liturgical hours contained some version of the Ambrosian hymn, but oddly it was not in the pre-Vatican II Roman Breviary. It is now, however, in the current Liturgia horarum ( sans the sixth and seventh verses) for First Vespers of Sundays during Ordinary Time.
Ambrose’s hymn played a dramatic role in Augustine’s life. After his baptism by Ambrose, Augustine and his mother St. Monnica, his promising but short-lived son Adeodatus (+389), brother Navigius and friends were heading back to N. Africa where they were going to start a monastic community. However, they were stuck for many months in Rome and its port Ostia due to a blockade of the harbor during a time of upheaval. Monnica took ill of a fever and died there in 387. Her dying words were, “Lay me anywhere you wish; all I ask is to be remembered at the altar of the Lord.” In Book IX of the Confessions Augustine explains that when his mother died he was not able to grieve properly for her who, by her prayers, had done so much for him. He tried different remedies, such as hot baths, which were thought in the ancient world to elicit the right emotional response, but to no avail. Then one night, while he was singing the hymn of Ambrose, his tears finally came…. “Deus creator omnium / polique rector vestiens / diem decoro lumine, / noctem soporis gratia… O God creator of all things, ruler of the turning axis of the heavens, clothing day with splendid light, and night with the grace of sleep….” Augustine wept in Ostia.
The great Creator and Ruler of all things sees to our needs with mercy even while He remains our Judge. This ought to be a motivation for many different kinds of tears, not the least of which are tears of gratitude. Recognition of God’s greatness and all that He has done for us, especially in the redeeming work of His Son on the Cross, must move us at all levels of the mind and heart. That recognition must then prompt us to action and service in the love of God and our neighbor made in His image and likeness.
The concept of propitiation is central to this prayer.
Propitiation is a prayerful act of appeasement begging for God’s mercy because we are sinners and for mitigation of the punishments we justly deserve for our sins both in this world and temporal punishment in the next. Propitiation is distinguished from impetration (from Latin impetro, “to accomplish, effect, bring to pass; to get, obtain, procure, especially by exertion, request, entreaty”). Impetration is an appeal to God’s goodness asking for spiritual or temporal well-being for ourselves or others.
So, whereas by impetratory prayer we beg God for benefits, by propitiatory prayer we beg Him more specifically for the benefit of mercy and forgiveness.
Throughout the ages people have raised the question of whether or not it makes any sense to pray to God at all, given the fact that – if God is truly God – then he is omniscient and utterly eternal, not limited by past, present or future. There is no thing that has happened, is happening or could happen that God does not know. God is entirely simple in His perfection and wholly unchangeable. He orders all things to their proper end, which is what we call divine providence. Since God’s will and His knowledge and being are the same, what God knows will come to pass must of necessity come to pass.
Does it make any sense or any difference to offer prayers to such a God?
Various solutions to this problem have been proposed over the centuries.
Among the ancients some held that human affairs are not ruled by any divine providence and so it useless to pray and to worship God at all. Others held that all things, even in human affairs, happen from necessity, whether by reason of the immutability of divine providence, or through the compelling influence of the stars, cosmic or physical forces, or what have you. This view similarly eliminates the utility of prayer. Others held that divine providence indeed rules human affairs and things do not happen of necessity. They thought that God and His providence is changeable, that His will is changed by our prayers and rites of worship.
What we as Catholics have to do, in figuring out what to pray and how, and even why to pray at all, is account for the usefulness and effectiveness of prayer in such a way as to avoid imposing fatalistic necessity on human affairs and also not to imply that any aspect of God is changeable.
We have to ask God for things without treating Him as if He were a cosmic concierge.
St. Thomas Aquinas (+1274) looks into whether it is a fitting thing to pray to God (STh II, IIae, q. 83, a. 2) saying,
“In order to throw light on this question we must consider that divine providence disposes not only what effects shall take place, but also from what causes and in what order these effects shall proceed. Now among other causes human acts are the causes of certain effects. Wherefore it must be that men do certain actions, not that thereby they may change the divine disposition, but that by those actions they may achieve certain effects according to the order of the divine disposition: and the same is to be said of natural causes. And so is it with regard to prayer. For we pray not that we may change the divine disposition, but that we may impetrate that which God has disposed to be fulfilled by our prayers, in other words, ‘that by asking, men may deserve to receive what Almighty God from eternity has disposed to give,’ as (St.) Gregory (the Great) says (Dialogues).”
The same applies to begging for God’s mercy (propitiatory prayer), which we can do with confidence.
In His earthly life Jesus demonstrated that our petitions are effective.
He was moved by His Mother at Cana to change water to wine, by the Syro-phoenician woman to exorcise her daughter, by the Good Thief to remember him in His Kingdom, and many others. We know that the intercession of saints can obtain favors from God. We were taught to pray to God the Father by God the Son Himself.
Our prayer should be raised to God with humility and gratitude for what we know He has disposed in His divine providence.
He grants favors according to what from all eternity He has known about us, our needs and disposition.