2nd Sunday of Advent – Station: Holy Cross in Jerusalem

What Does the Prayer Really Say? 2nd Sunday of Advent – Roman Station: Basilica of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem

Last week I wrote: “WDTPRS thinks there will soon be a significant change at the (Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments – CDWDS) to facilitate their harmonious collaboration with the Holy Father. Stay tuned.” Here is the disadvantage of writing for a weekly publication. It turns out the day after that issue went to press His Excellency Domenico Sorrentino, now former secretary (#2) of the CDWDS, was moved (keeping his title of Archbishop) to the Italian Diocese of Assisi-Nocera Umbra-Gualdo Tadino. There will soon be a new secretary. That will be a telling appointment. So why was this change made? Backed up by Pope Benedict’s second motu proprio document, Sorrentino will ostensibly have the privilege of locking down the zany socio-political hijinx of the Assisi Franciscans who until now have been fairly independent of the local bishop. We wish him well.

However, according to the well-informed here in Rome, Archbishop Sorrentino was moved also because of a divergence of opinions with the former head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith who is now named Benedict. The catalyst was partly the infamous pro multis issue. His Excellency apparently was partly responsible for the insertion of an embarrassing line into the ailing John Paul II’s final Holy Thursday Letter to Priests (no. 4) that seemed to some to bolster support for retaining the translation “for all” and its equivalents in vernacular translations. At the time, I was unsure what John Paul was saying and I even raised the question of whether or not WDTPRSers had received a response to the letters that had been written far and wide. Clearly there was something odd about that paragraph. It was a stretch to find a good way to read it. I think we got someone’s response, but not the Pope’s! I wrote about this at length in last year’s article for the 2nd Sunday of Easter (31 March 2005 issue). In light of the personnel shift, we can now read that paragraph a different way: I didn’t dare write it at the time but it was a salvo in the ongoing war over pro multis. In this light it is useful to repeat what Pope Benedict wrote some time ago: “The fact that in Hebrew the expression ‘many’ would mean the same thing as ‘all’ is not relevant to the question under consideration inasmuch as it is a question of translating, not a Hebrew text here, but a Latin text (from the Roman Liturgy), which is directly related to a Greek text (the New Testament). The institution narratives in the New Testament are by no means simply a translation (still less, a mistaken translation) of Isaiah; rather, they constitute an independent source” (emphasis added – in Joseph Ratzinger, God Is Near Us: The Eucharist, The Heart of Life (Ignatius Press, 2003), pp. 37-8, n. 10).

Placare, Domine, quaesumus,
nostrae precibus humilitatis et hostiis,
et, ubi nulla suppetunt suffragia meritorum
tuae nobis indulgentiae succurre praesidiis.

This was the Secret for this same Sunday in 1962 editio typica of the last Missale Romanum before the Second Vatican Council. If the ancient and elegant sound of this prayer made you think that it was in Gelasian Sacramentary you were right on target.

For you Latin students, placare looks like an infinitive but it is actually the passive imperative of placo, “to reconcile” and also “to soothe, assuage, appease”. Think of English “placate.” Hostia, in your dog-eared copy of the Lewis & Short Dictionary, is “a victim, a sacrifice.” The complicated suppeto means essentially, “to be at hand or in store, to be present” and then by extension, “to be equal to or sufficient for; to suffice, to agree with, correspond to any thing.” A suffragium is “a voting tablet” and therefore “a vote, voice, suffrage” (as in “suffragettes”, who wanted voting rights for women) and also “a favorable decision, assent, approbation, applause.” In ecclesiastical lingo a “suffrage” is a recommendation or intercessory prayer as, for example, when pray for the Poor Souls in Purgatory. The plural suffragia means something like “points in our favor.” In other words, we have no good marks of our own merits (nulla meritorum suffragia) on our side of the column by which we can expect anything favorable from God. Succurro means “to run or hasten to the aid or assistance of one; to help, aid, assist, succor”. It can also be “to be useful for, good against”. Its root curro, “to run”, lends succurro an element of haste.

Our Super oblata today simply screams for the “thees” and “thous” of older liturgical language.

Be Thou appeased, O Lord, we beseech Thee,
by the prayers of our humility and by our sacrificial offerings,
and, where no favorable points of merits suffice for us,
succor us by the helps of Thy indulgence.

This Sunday’s “prayer over the gifts” must be kept in context. This is a season of preparation for the Lord’s Coming. The Baptist warns us from the wilderness that we ought to “make straight His path” for someday we will face Him. If ahead of time we have not taken the proper steps, He will straighten us out Himself. This is a fearful thing to ponder. Indeed, were it not for the First Coming of the Lord and the Sacrifice He made for us, our impending judgment would reduce the thoughtful soul to abject terror. During the offertory of Mass the priest, on our behalf, raises to God the elements to be consecrated together with all our gifts of praise and prayers of need. We seek to please and appease God, whom we distance from us by our sins.

A note about my choice this week to use “thee” forms. “Thee” forms of address were actually the familiar forms, while “you” was formal. This distinction of formal and informal died out in English, but here in Europe we pay attention to formal “Lei” in Italian and the familiar “tu”, German “Sie” and “du”, French “Vous” and “tu”. The proper or improper use of these forms can establish, support or damage a social situation. Today, unless you are a Quaker, “thee”, “thy” and “thine” sound formal or courtly probably because they are archaic. Precisely for this reason, I think, “thee” forms work well for liturgical prayer. Why?

Today’s egalitarianism, laxity and lack of respect for other people’s dignity together with a dominant “me-my-mine” mentality have leached formality both from our language and also our treatment of each other. Latin prayers of Mass retain a courteous style lost on most English speakers today. This is a real loss, too! When we lose language we lose concepts. The philosopher of language Ludwig Wittgenstein (+1951) said, “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world” and “What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.” We have lost so very much in the present ICEL translations. Are the powers-that-be who are preparing the new translations going to give us something substandard again? Versions leached of the original content?

Moreover, the CDWDS document Liturgiam authenticam states that we need accurate translations but also a sacral style for our liturgical prayers. Let us recover the spirituality communicated by the style of the prayers! Latin prayers of the Mass give us a model of “formal intimacy” with God, a “daring familiarity”, opposed to the raw familiarity conveyed in the present ICEL translations and street speech. Of course, it is unrealistic to think that the American and other Anglophone bishops are going to adopt “thee” and “thou”, which is sad. As a matter of fact, I picture a few of them now chuckling over this quaint suggestion with knowing wags of their purple-beanied heads. Fine! So far, Reverend sirs, and with due respect, your translation balance sheet isn’t exactly bleeding lots of black ink, is it? Check out our most beloved Catholic prayers which we learned at mother’s knee: “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed by Thy name…”; “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee…”; “…and do thou, O prince of the heavenly host…”; “Bless us, O Lord, and these Thy gifts…”; “…never was it known that anyone who fled to thy protection, implored thy help, or sought thy intercession…”. What do people remember? What prayers do they love? What style sounds like “church” and like “prayer”? In lieu of old fashioned English, I suppose we could have more Novus Ordo Masses in Latin. Imagine… Latin Masses for Catholics of the Latin Church! People could bring whichever “hand missal” with whichever translation they preferred, one with daringly familiar older language or else …

ICEL (1973 translation of the 1970MR):
we are nothing without you.
As you sustain us with your mercy,
receive our prayers and offerings.

Hmmm … Maybe not so much the ICEL version.

Is something missing? A constant feature of Latin “prayers over the gifts” is the desire to appease God. People today often assume God is automatically pleased with them all the time. Many of us assume our relationship with God is just fine or that we are robotically forgiven the peccadilloes we “struggled with” without further consequences. Being sorry for a sin, even confessing it and receiving sacramental absolution, isn’t all there is to being forgiven. We ask for and obtain God’s mercy but we also must pay attention to justice. We must make restitution. We must do penance. If we don’t do penance in this life we will do it in Purgatory – if we die in God’s friendship. When we consider our past sins we truly have a lot of work to do. Furthermore, nothing we do on our own merits the great gift of redemption: we are saved by the merits of Christ who makes our good works His own.

Salvation is a gift freely given by God through the merits of Christ’s Sacrifice, but salvation is not a free gift in the sense that we don’t have to do anything to obtain it. We must cooperate. Christ died “for all”. “Many” will be saved, thanks be to God. We have through Christ the free opportunity of salvation. Good works cannot merit salvation in themselves, but we are required to perform good works to merit salvation. In today’s translation I used the phrase “favorable points of merits” but never imagine God as a celestial accountant “up there” keeping books on what we do or haven’t done. Salvation is not based on a ledger’s bottom line. How God disposes all things is mysterious, though He has revealed something of His plan through the Catholic Church. Until our final judgment God alone knows what our good works merit and how they balance against our sins. In fact, the Church hazards to offer indications of only “partial” or “plenary” indulgences for works we perform. The only thing we can be sure of is that we must not become lax or presumptuous. If we want salvation, God must be appeased by our prayers, sacrifices and works, which all must be joined to Christ’s Sacrifice. At Holy Mass we join all we do and are to the Sacrifice being renewed in God’s sight by the priest. The priest raises the paten with host and then the chalice with water tinged wine. He prays: “In a spirit of humility and with a contrite heart may we be accepted by Thee, O Lord; and may this sacrifice today be of such a kind in Thy sight as to please Thee.” Place yourselves and your needs in that chalice, on that paten, to be transformed.

We need to hear what the prayers really say. This is becoming more and more urgent. Holy Church must form and sanctify us so that we, in our turn, can shape the world around us. In order for the Church to have the impact Christ intended on all corners of the world, the liturgical translations must reflect faithfully and beautifully what the original texts really say.

Hey ICEL! Hey CDWDS! Hey BISHOPS! Give us sound and beautiful translations! Need some help? Drop me a line.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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