2nd Sunday of Advent

What Does the Prayer Really Say? 2nd Sunday of Advent

This Sunday’s prayer must be kept in context. This is a season of preparation for the Lord’s coming. He comes in many ways. One of the ways in which He will come is as Judge. In this Sunday’s Gospel (Matthew 3) the Baptist warns us from the wilderness that we ought to “make straight His path.” Someday we will face Him. He will straighten us out Himself if we have not taken the proper steps ahead of time. This is a fearful thing to ponder. It would be terrifying were it not for the first coming of the Lord and the sacrifice He made for us. During the offertory we raise 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, so distanced from us by our sins but so loving towards us as a Father.


LATIN (1970 Missale Romanum):
Placare, Domine, quaesumus,
nostrae precibus humilitatis et hostiis,
et, ubi nulla suppetunt suffragia meritorum
tuae nobis indulgentiae succurre praesidiis.

This prayer is identical to the Secret of the older, 1962 editio typica of the Missale Romanum which some groups are still able to make use of today through the legislation of the Holy See and the goodness of their local bishops. I suspect that this prayer is quite ancient. It is nice to see that it was retained after the reforms in the same place on the same Sunday of the liturgical year.

Literally translated, our super oblata seems to want the “thees and thous” of a traditional liturgical language. Liturgical prayers in Latin retain a style of address and concepts that are rather foreign to people today. Today’s egalitarianism, laxity and lack of respect for other people’s dignity coupled with the me-my-mine mentality has leeched from our language much of the formality of old. That is a real loss, for with the language went the concepts. Thus, we need a sacral style for liturgical prayers together with accurate translations. We must recover the spirituality behind the prayers. These prayers of the Mass hold up for us a model of formality and intimacy with God as opposed to the raw familiarity that the present translations often convey.

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.

Some vocabulary. That placare looks like an infinitive but it is actually a passive imperative form of placo, a verb meaning “to reconcile” and also “to sooth, assuage, appease”. We have in English the word “placate.” Hostia signifies in your copy of the Lewis & Short Dictionary “a victim, a sacrifice.” A rather complicated word is suppeto. It essentially means “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.” In line three we also find suffragium. A suffragium is “a voting tablet” and therefore it is “a vote, voice, suffrage.” Think of the period of the suffragettes who demonstrated in favor of obtaining voting rights for women. This word also means “a favorable decision, assent, approbation, applause.” A “suffrage” is in ecclesiastical lingo at heart a “recommendation.” It can be an intercessory prayer performed “by way of suffrage.” For example, we ask God for a plenary indulgence in favor of the Poor Souls in Purgatory. A suffrage was also a prayer said at specific times after the recitation of Lauds and Vespers on certain feasts of saints in the older form of the Liturgy of the Hours (Roman Breviary). In this prayer it is plural (suffragia) and means something like “points in our favor.” In other words, we have no (nulla) good marks of our own merits on our side of the column by which we can expect anything favorable from God. “to run or hasten to the aid or assistance of one; to help, aid, assist, succor” is the meaning of succurro. It can also be “to be useful for, good against” It has the root verb curro, “to run”, which is why it has an element of haste. The one being aided is in the dative case (nobis).

One of the features of prayers at the time of the offertory of Mass is the desire to appease God. Often, either from a kind of spiritual laxness or perhaps simply because they were never taught better, people assume automatically that God is pleased with us all the time. Or rather, to avoid the suggestion that God’s mood is changing (impossible), it is assumed that our relationship with Him is just fine or that we are forgiven without any other spiritual consequences. This extends even to when we do acknowledge sins: just say you are sorry and everything is allright again. Again and again I find it necessary to explain to Catholics, even making confessions, that saying you are sorry for a sin isn’t the end of it. We ask for God’s mercy, but we also must pay attention to issues of justice. We need to make restitution. We must do penance. If we don’t do it here, we will do it in Purgatory provided we die in God’s friendship. And when we consider our sins, we truly have a lot of work to do. As a matter of fact, there is nothing that we can do on our own that suffices to merit the great gift of redemption. We are saved by the merits of Christ.

When we look at this offertory prayer today, in the context of a liturgical season during which we should be preparing for the coming of the Lord (and He will come as Judge one day) we mustn’t make the mistake of falling into non-Catholic error. Salvation is indeed a gift freely given by God through the merits of Christ’s sacrifice for us. But salvation is not a free gift, in the sense that we don’t have to do anything else. We must cooperate. What we have through Christ is the free opportunity of salvation. No good works in themselves can merit salvation but we are required to perform good works to merit salvation. On their own they are not enough but with Christ they merit salvation. We do not understand exactly what our good works are worth, what merit they have and how they balance with our sins. It is easy to imagine a celestial accountant “up there” keeping the books on what we do and haven’t done. When translating this prayer I even used the phrase “favorable points of merits.” Nevertheless, how God disposes all things is mysterious to us. All we can be sure of at this point is that we must not become lax in this regard. If we want salvation, God must be appeased by our prayers and sacrifices, our works connected to Christ’s sacrifice. At Holy Mass we can join all that we do to the sacrifice being offered for us to God by the priest. After raising the paten with host and chalice with wine and water the priest prays: “In spiritu humilitatis et in animo contrito suscipiamur a Te, Domine; et sic fiat sacrificium nostrum in conspectu tuo hodie, ut placeat tibi, Domine Deus….In a spirit of humility and with a contrite heart, may we be accepted by Thee, O Lord; and may this sacrifice be so made in Thy sight as to please Thee.”

we are nothing without you.
As you sustain us with your mercy,
receive our prayers and offerings.

As I look at the Latin, I am sympathetic with the poor ICEL translator. The Latin vocabulary is difficult. It is tough to retain the meaning of the original and yet avoid putting it into stilted or strange English. I suppose the translator was trying to convey the meaning of “where no favorable points of merits suffice for us” by “we are nothing without you.” In the Latin I get a sense that we are actively involved even though the worth of what we do depends completely Him. In the ICEL I get a sense that we are not involved to the same extent. This is curious. In previous WDTPRS columns I wrote about how in the Collects (opening prayers) ICEL constantly used the word “help” in a sense that communicates that we can really do all this on our own but it would be great if God gave us a hand. Here, in the super oblata it seems like even the role that man does indeed have in his own salvation is being diminished. I would rather err on that side than the other. On the other hand, we could just translate the Latin itself and get what the prayer really says.

We need to hear what the prayers really say. This is becoming more and more urgent. The Church wants to form us so that we in turn can shape the world around us. In order for the Church to have the impact Christ intended on the corners of the world we inhabit, the translations of liturgical prayers must faithfully reflect what the original text says. As we look around the world in this troubled age, our Mass prayers take on a striking poignancy. As I write this, some scientist has cloned human embryos for the first time. All sorts of clever arguments are made in defense/favor of this. First, they are really small and thus not really human. Then, they argue that we can cure diseases and provide organs for transplants from stems cells taken from them. Also, just as people once thought in vitro fertilization was wrong, but subsequently saw a happy mother with a dimpled babe in arms and therefore in vitro fertilization must be okay, soon people who now think that cloning is wrong will soon see how we can provide cures and organs and they will change their minds about it. In other words the end justifies the means. The people who work on these things make the claim that they are not really dealing with a “human” life but rather some mass of tissue. A familiar argument. There is no consideration of whether the means are evil. They consider only the end. It will come to a point where if you are against cloning, you will though to be against the dignity of human life. Deny cloning and stem-cell use and you thus deny Bob his new eye or Betty a new arm or liver. It will come to a point where you are against life if you deny Fred his new slave – genetically engineered to be stupid but docile, useful for heavy-lifting, dangerous jobs and casual sex. How much do we need today to appease God as a race? How much will we need to appease Him? How crooked shall be that road, personal and societal, that Jesus in His glory will inevitably straighten at His coming?

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.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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