ASK FATHER: Is ‘Alma Redemptoris Mater’ wrong?

16_08_14_Madonna_del_Soccorso_01

When you need help, run to your Mother. She has a lovely big stick to beat the Devil with.

From a reader…

QUAERITUR:

In general it seems that we only ask God to have mercy on us. This is most clear in litanies of the saints, where the response for a saint is ‘pray for us’, but the response for, e.g. ‘Sacred Heart of Jesus’ is ‘have mercy on us’.

However, in the Alma Redemptoris Mater, it seems that we ask Mary to have mercy on sinners. Which of these things am I wrong about?

Mary is, after all, the Mother of Mercy Himself.

The Latin line which interests you, at the end, is … Virgo… peccatorum miserere.

That miserere is an imperative from the deponent verb misereor, which in the first place means, “to feel pity, have compassion, pity, compassionate, commiserate”.   Misereor can take a genitive “object” (it’s not really an object, but it works out that way, it’s like saying “take pitying notice of X”).  So, what the Latin says is really, “have pity on sinners… be compassionate in regard to sinners… and, therefore, intercede with Your Divine Son, who alone is the font of mercy but who will always listen to His Mother’s plea.”

So, asking Mary to have mercy on us is a way of asking her to have compassion for us.   She has mercy on us in her manner of having mercy, while Christ has mercy on us in his manner.  Sometimes words in Latin have different meanings depending on to whom we apply them.  For example, when we speak of pietas in regard to us, we think of piety and dutifulness, but when we apply it to God, we think of His mercy towards us.

That’s what’s going on.

Don’t worry, the Latin hymn we have sung from Compline of the 1st Sunday of Advent in Holy Church for so many centuries all the way through Candlemas, penned by Hermannus Contractus (Herman the Cripple +1054), perhaps based on earlier writings of the Fathers, is not heretical.

mary mother of mercy

This detail from a painting by David, makes the point I’m making.

Here is one of my favorite settings, by Palestrina, at about the tempo which I prefer. Well sung.

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About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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4 Responses to ASK FATHER: Is ‘Alma Redemptoris Mater’ wrong?

  1. Lisieux says:

    When I became a Catholic, years ago now, I worried about the Salve Regina: how could our Lady be ‘our life, our sweetness and our hope’ when Jesus was our life and our hope? (I didn’t worry about ‘sweetness’, seeing our Lady as adding a bit of flavour to salvation, so to speak.) Eventually I came to realise that Catholicism, unlike the evangelical Protestantism I’d come from, was three-dimensional – something you’ve explained very clearly above.

  2. JARay says:

    I love the works of Palestrina and I do so agree with your assesment of the version which you have offered to us Father.

  3. Elizium23 says:

    This is providential good news. I had been concerned about the Novena to St. Joseph, in the very orthodox Lumen Christi Missal, which had quite a few “Have mercy on us” invoking St. Joseph himself. It was an offhand comment on Catholic Answers Forums that caused me to doubt the correctness of begging mercy from someone who is not God… but I also knew that mercy is an altogether human quality as well, and I would just as readily ask mercy from my pastor or my mother. So thanks for clearing it up definitively. I am quite the rigorist and the Evil One often tells me I am sinning when there is no such danger. God bless you on this happy day of St. John the Evangelist.

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