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.
We have been cheated of the beauty of our Catholic worship in Latin, which is our common patrimony. These prayers, from our forebears, are our inheritance. They lay quiet in manuscripts, but, even after a vast gap of time in human reckoning, they glitter even today.
However, now that we have, far and wide, abandoned our past, slammed the door on our common treasury, switched off the light of learning, it will be more and more difficult for future generations to grasp these tightly woven ancient Latin Collects with their lovely rhythms, their clarity of thought, their force. Translation doesn’t do them justice.
I am reminded of the present controversy surrounding the infamous paragraph 299 in the 2002 GIRM: if you don’t know Latin, if you don’t use Latin as a priest in the Latin Church, in the Roman Rite, you are effectively cut off from the wisdom of our forebears.
That said, here’s some vocabulary.
Famulus and feminine famula appear frequently in our Latin prayers. Famulus is probably from Latin’s ancient cousin, the Oscan *faama, “house.” A Latin famulus or famula was a household servant or hand-maid, slave or free. They were considered members of the larger family.
Custodia is “a watching, guard, care, protection” and has the military overtone of “guard, sentinel”. Vigil is “wakeful, watchful”, and, like custodia, can also be “a watchman, sentinel”.
Liturgically, a “vigil” is the evening and night before a great feast day. In ancient times vigils were times of fasting and penance. Men who were to be knighted kept a night’s vigil. They were watchful against the attacks of the world, the flesh and the Devil. They fasted, prayed, and examined their consciences in order to be pure for the rites to follow.
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 watchfulness.
OBSOLETE ICEL (1973):
Lord, be merciful to your people. Fill us with your gifts and make us always eager to serve you in faith, hope, and love.
Can you believe that? THAT is how our Latin original was rendered! THAT is what people heard in their churches for Mass for decades!
CURRENT ICEL (2011):
Show favor, O Lord, to your servants and mercifully increase the gifts of your grace, that, made fervent in hope, faith and charity, they may be ever watchful in keeping your commands.
Scripture often gives us images of watches during the night.
At the birth of the Lord shepherds “were keeping watch over their flock by night (vigilantes et custodientes vigilias noctis)” (Luke 2:8). Jesus said, “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). Our Lord explains that servants should keep watch in order to open the door for the master of the house even if he returns in the dead of the night (cf Luke 12:37-39).
St Paul constantly urges Christians to be “watchful”.
In 1 Peter 5:8 we read sobering,
“Be sober, be watchful. Your adversary the Devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour”.
The Enemy is seeking you! (1 Peter 5:8)
You, dear friends, are described as prey whom the Enemy might devour.
In the ancient Roman countryside there were great estates (cf. latifundium) having many buildings for family, household servants, the various workers, storage, etc. These dwellings were often self-sufficient, and were surrounded with walls against attacks by brigands. Even into Renaissance times, a great house in a city (domus) might be fortified with watch towers. The householder or the lord of the estate was the head or father of the larger “family”. Kind or cruel, the paterfamilias was judge, protector and provider to everyone under his care.
Simple ancient famuli had to work to produce good fruits in order to survive with a good quality of life and a safe place to belong. Sophisticated modern famuli, marked with the family name “Christian”, marked permanently with the family seal through baptism and confirmation, must produce fruits according to our vocations.
When life’s reckoning comes, will we be locked outside like the foolish virgins?
The foolish virgins, too, watched all night for the arrival of the Bridegroom, but they didn’t take care to have enough oil for their lamps. They were locked out of the house, outside in the dangerous night with no place to go, no work to do, no purpose to fulfill. They no longer belonged. When the Bridegroom came, they were not ready. When they returned from obtaining their tardy oil, the door was closed in their faces. They pounded. They plead. From the other side of the door they heard the Bridegroom say those terrifying words:
I do not know you.
“Vigilate… Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour” (Matthew 25:13).
When you hear the priest pronounce this Collect, beg our Lord – so gracious and patient with us even when we are lazy and sinful – to continue giving us gifts of faith, hope and charity we need for the very survival of our souls.
If you prepare for bad times and disasters that can occur in respect to worldly things, how much more important is it to prepare for hardship or attacks, and that final moment of reckoning, in the spiritual plane?
After many centuries these orations still communicate the profound intellectual formation and the faith of their composers, our Christian family ancestors.