4th Sunday of Advent

What Does the Prayer Really Say? 4th Sunday of Advent

Some feedback. MK of Lake View, NY writes concerning my claim in WDPTRS of 29 November last about the origin of the term “secret” which formerly identified the oratio super oblata (the so-called “prayer over the gifts”) in WDPTRS of 29 November last:

It is true that the in the traditional Mass the priest says the Secret quietly. However, the term Secret doesn’t refer to this. The word comes from the Latin secernere meaning to separate, set apart. It refers to the offerings which have been set apart for the celebration of the Mass.

I am always grateful to those who write with comments of any kind. Some folks have kindly written some excellent points and corrected my errors. This time, however, I beg to differ with MK. In Joseph A. Jungmann’s magisterial book The Mass of the Roman Rite: Its Origins and Development, the history and nature of the so-called “Secret” prayer is explored in depth. Jungmann writes (p. 90):

The first point to clear up is the puzzling problem of how the oratio super oblata came to be said silently. The earliest evidence of the quiet recitation of this prayer appears in the middle of the eighth century in Frankish territory, in the tradition of John the Arch-chanter. We are thus led to the opinion that the name secreta appeared in the North and that it was here created to indicate that the pertinent oration was to be spoken softly.

Jungmann here supplies an expository footnote (n. 6):

This is the explanation given by Fortescue…. Other explanations of the name are pure hypotheses. Ever since Bossuet it has come to be generally accepted – without historical evidence – that secreta = oratio ad secretionem, that is, either at the “sorting out” of the sacrificial gifts (an action which as such had no religious signification beyond this, but only a purely practical one; thus the secret is equivalently oratio super secreta [a merely conjectural form]; or else at the “sorting out”, that is, the dismissal of the catechumens (there is nothing in the contents to show any connection with this act). – Batifol…proposed a derivation of secreta from secernere in the sense of benedicere, a meaning which is nowhere to be traced.

Given Jungmann’s comments, I thank MK but I must decline to agree.

The station church in Rome for today’s Mass is the Basilica of the Twelve Apostles. During this last week, in the older, traditional Roman calendar, the Ember Days were observed on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. From the 17th onward we hear the great “O Antiphons” before the singing of the Magnificat during Vespers. Normally this week is cut short by the celebration of Christmas, for which we have been preparing during Advent.


LATIN (1970 Missale Romanum):
Altari tuo, Domine, superposita munera
Spiritus ille sanctificet,
qui beatae Mariae viscera sua virtute replevit.

Whereas for the last three weeks our super oblata was virtually identical to the secret of the older, traditional, form of Mass, now we seem to have a new prayer.

O Lord, may Spirit Himself,
who by His power made full the womb of blessed Mary,
sanctify the gifts placed upon thy altar.

This presents no real grammatical mysteries. The vocabulary is straightforward. We might examine briefly two words. Your trusty Lewis & Short Dictionary says that viscera means “the inner parts of the animal body, the internal organs, the inwards, viscera (the nobler parts, the heart, lungs, liver, as well as the ignobler, the stomach, entrails.” It also means even in classical usage “the fruit of the womb, offspring, child.” I think I will “womb” rather than “innards.” Repleo is “to fill again, refill; to fill up, replenish, complete” and thus also, “to fill up, make full, to fill.” The historian Justinus (fl. c. 150) uses this verb with virginem for “to get with child” (13, 7, 7). In our prayer today, when considering replevit I think we must say “filled up” or “made full” the viscera, womb of Mary. But if possible, when we hear the prayer we should try to hold in our minds also the “made complete.” We are not only referring to Mary’s miraculous conception of the “Word made flesh” by the power of the Holy Spirit, but also the very last days of her carrying the Lord and bringing Him to light. On this Sunday we hear the prayer just a few short days before Christmas. Mary was great with child, truly repleta…filled up… made complete.

may the power of the Spirit,
which sanctified Mary the mother of your Son,
make holy the gifts we place upon this altar.

ICEL sterilizes the Latin prayer when rendering it into English. The Latin is earthier, more “real” in a sense. Here we have “sanctified Mary” rather than “filled the womb” or somewhat more crudely “innards” of “blessed Mary.” Furthermore, I am not sure why we (or God) need to be told that Mary is the mother of Jesus. We ought to know that. However, given the state of catechesis…. but I digress.

At this point in the Mass we behold the presentation and disposition by the sacred ministers of the gifts of bread and wine on the altar. According to what the rubrics say in Latin (maybe we should have a series of articles called “What Do The Rubrics Really Say?”) the priest turns around from the altar to face the congregation and says (in Latin) “Pray brethren that my sacrifice and yours may be made acceptable in the sight of God, the Almighty Father.” A distinction is made between the sacrifice the priest offers and the sacrifice offered by the people present at the Mass. The Church calls all, however, to active participation in the Mass.

True active participation is to be understood first and foremost as interiorly active participation rather than the shallower understanding of the phrase as exterior or physically active participation (i.e., carrying things, singing, clapping, etc.). While it is true that interior active participation must at times find outward and physical expression, our primary understanding of active participation as Catholics is an interiorly active receptivity. During any liturgy a person can sing, jump around and carry stuff all over the church. That is nothing if there is no interior receptivity. It is possible to be doing all sorts of things and have your mind a thousand miles away. For example, we can be singing something (maybe even in church) and suddenly realize that all the while we have been thinking about what groceries we need or having forgotten to feed the dog. We are outwardly and physically getting all the words and notes right. Interiorly we are not participating in the sacred action of the liturgy.

Human beings are distinguished from brute beasts by an intellect and a free will. We can make a distinction between human actions and acts of humans. The later are things we do without thinking, such as digestion, breathing, and (to a certain extent) other automatic or habitual activities. Human actions, on the other hand, are distinguished from actions of humans by what sets us apart from critters that also do things automatically, by instinct, habit or simple bodily operation. Human actions are shaped more by knowledge and choice. The more we engage our intellect and will in doing something, the more that action is characterized as a human act rather than just the act of a human, hardly to be distinguished from something critters do.

At Mass we must be involved and actively participative as humans – knowing, willing and loving. It is far more challenging to be actively receptive by listening to the Gospel with intense attention than by reading it (aloud or silently via the missalette). If you query many people after Mass about what the Gospel or sermon was about, not very many will be able to tell you with certainty. We need to learn engage our full attention and really participate. It is harder to fix attention, listen, and actively participate in prayer sung by a good choir than it is to sing the hymn with the congregation. Of course there are moments when we are called to both interior and exterior active participation. The congregation has specific responses to make. They should be made with intense focus. That does not mean intense volume, necessarily. It also does not mean the sort of embarrassed mumbling we hear in most parish churches when only a few bother to open their mouths and do something other than stare at the priest like deer looking at the headlights of an oncoming semi. Responses need not be loud but they must be made with at least some desire, intensity and confidence. The “silent spectator” brought on the abuse of the concept of active participation in the first place.

During most of the Mass the faithful are called and challenged to participate actively through willed and active receptivity. We receive the Gospel proclaimed rather than reading it aloud ourselves. We receive forgiveness for venial sins in the penitential rite. We receive Holy Communion and should new take it ourselves. At this point in the Mass, the offertory, we participate actively by giving, by uniting our sacrifices to those of the priest at the altar, alter Christus. We pour forth our sacrifices so that we, like our model Mary, can be “refilled, made complete” by what they are transformed into…the Body and Blood of the living and true God.

I wish you and yours a Blessed and Merry Christmas.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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