Let’s have a glance at the Collect for the penultimate Sunday of the liturgical year, in the Novus Ordo calendar, the 33rd Ordinary Sunday.
Da nobis, quaesumus, Domine Deus noster, in tua semper devotione gaudere, quia perpetua est et plena felicitas, si bonorum omnium iugiter serviamus auctori.
It is possible that tua could be a neuter plural rather than an ablative linking with devotione. It is possible, but I doubt it. Surely it goes with devotione. Words like iugiter and servio are by now old friends, so we can leave them aside.
In other WDTPRS articles I have mentioned “false friends”, that is, words very similar to English cognates but having quite different, even surprising meanings in Latin. Your Lewis & Short Dictionary reveals that in classical usage devotio can mean “fealty, allegiance, devotedness; piety, devotion, zeal.” Devotio also means “a cursing, curse, imprecation, execration, a magical formula, incantation, spell.” It is not too difficult to decide which direction to go in the context of our prayer today! I did an extensive examination of devotio in the WDTPRS piece for the 4th Sunday of Lent. Briefly, devotio can be seen as “a devotion to duty”. Our “devotion” must lead the soul to keep the commandments of God and the duties of one’s state before all else. If we are truly devout in respect to God and devoted to fulfilling the duties of our state, as our state in life truly is here and now, then God will give us every actual grace we need to fulfill our vocations. We are, in effect, fulfilling our proper role in His great plan and thus He is sure to help us.
SLAVISHLY LITERAL RENDERING:
Grant to us, we beseech You, O Lord our God, always to rejoice in Your devotion, for happiness is perpetual and full, if we serve constantly the author of all good things.
I mentioned above how changing the syntax can lose for us something of the impact of the original Latin prayer. Today’s Collect, which is also in the very ancient Veronese Sacramentary as a prayer during July, has a clause beginning with si… “if”. This introduces a conditional statement: we will get Y if we do X. Consider this in light of the the religious attitudes of many today who presume that heaven’s rewards are ours automatically without our having to do anything more than just feel good about ourselves or, in some non-Catholic groups, make a “once for all” affirmation of Jesus as “personal Lord” and so forth.
Note the words perpetua and felicitas in our Collect. When and if you hear the Roman Canon (First Eucharistic Prayer), you will recognize the names of two ancient martyrs, Sts. Felicity and Perpetua. It is hard to imagine that these two words are in this Collect by mere coincidence. As a matter of fact, in the eighth century Liber sacramentorum Gellonensis or Sacramentary of Gellone today’s prayer appears for martyr. Trivia moment: the cloister of the Benedictine Abbey the Sacramentary came from, Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert of the Gellone valley in France, was disassembled during the terror of the French Revolution and rebuilt in “The Cloisters” in New York City. But I digress.
Who are Saints Felicity and Perpetua?
After a lull in the official persecutions of Christians, in A.D. 250 the Emperor Decius determined that Christians were the enemies of the Roman Empire. At that time in the Empire there was widespread corruption and decadence in the aristocracy, the Persians were menacing the Eastern borders and Germanic barbarians were pressing on the North. The economy was a disaster. From the pagan point of view, something had upset both the proper order of society and the relationship of the state with the gods, the pax deorum. A new religion was taking hold in great numbers. Decius issued a decree: under pain of death everyone was to sacrifice to the Roman gods and obtain a certificate that they had done so. The aim was to cut down the leaders of the troublemaking Christian sect. The result, however, was a strengthening of the Church through the blood of martyrs (from the Greek word for “witness”). A new cult of martyrs developed and many were thereby attracted to Christianity.
The whole of the third century was marked by persecutions of Christians, though they were sporadic and often localized. But we know they took place whenever social conditions degenerated enough to warrant a scapegoat. We have documents from that period attesting to the persecution of Christians including the prison diary of a young woman named Perpetua, martyred around 202 in Carthage, North Africa. She was still a catechumen (not yet baptized), but who nevertheless identified herself as Christian. She handed over her still nursing baby and insisted on being put into the arena during a civic festival. After many tried to dissuade her, she got her wish. With great heroism she faced the animals and gladiators. After many torments a young gladiator was sent to finish her off, but he couldn’t bring himself to do it. Finally, Perpetua grabbed his hand and pointed his sword at her own throat. The heroism of Perpetua inspired many people who also began to give strong witness to their faith and were subsequently imprisoned. This is also the fate of a pregnant slave girl name Felicity (Felicitas). Felicity had her baby just before the imprisoned Christians were in their turn all sent to the arena. The acta (trial records and transcripts) and ancient diaries indicate the sort of amazing love these Christian martyrs had for each other in prison. There is a very powerful scene related when Perpetua and Felicity arrange each other’s clothing so as to preserve their modesty even while they were being tortured. They bade each other farewell with the kiss of peace. The kiss of Perpetua and Felicity should remind us today to be dignified and to uphold the solemnity of the moment in Holy Mass if and when the optional sign of peace is invited.
OBSOLETE ICEL (1973):
Father of all that is good, keep us faithful in serving you, for to serve you is our lasting joy.
Pardon me but…. what were they thinking?
Many of the obsolete ICEL prayers bore little or no resemblance to the Latin originals.
NEW CORRECTED ICEL (2011):
Grant us, we pray, O Lord our God, the constant gladness of being devoted to you, for it is full and lasting happiness to serve with constancy the author of all that is good.
FAIL. They eliminated the condition! The Latin says that happiness is perpetual and full, IF we serve God. They eliminated the protasis of an ideal condition. Why? Is the condition too demanding?
As it happens, the 2008 “Gray Book” (draft) version had “if” while the 1998 rejected ICEL version suggested the condition through a paraphrase (“for only through our faithfulness to you…”).