5th Sunday of Ordinary Time: Super oblata (2)

What Does the Prayer Really Say?  5th Sunday of Ordinary Time

Once upon a time, papal documents were composed in Latin.   The Pope would either write them himself or provide points which his Latin secretaries would then draft and polish.   For example, when Leo XIII (+1903) wrote his milestone Rerum novarum (1891) the composition was entirely in Latin.  The notebooks from its composition reveal great care to create a clear and elegant text.  Nearly everything, with notable exceptions like Pius XI’s Mit brennender Sorge (1937), was composed in Latin until the time of Paul VI and the Second Vatican Council when tremendous pressure was placed on the Holy See to produce translations in various languages.  It was necessary to correct the slapdash versions issued by journalists and others who were at times engaging in misinformation.  The speed at which the texts were expected forced a shift from composition in Latin to the vernacular.  It is easier to write in one’s native tongue, obviously, and so documents got longer – and not always clearer.  Under the pressure to get the texts out, the quality of texts and translations diminished.  The exponentially increasing speed of the media creates problems.  In this light, Pope Benedict in this year’s Message for World Day for Social Communication said, “Daily we are reminded that immediacy of communication does not necessarily translate into the building of cooperation and communion in society” (emphasis mine). 

Accurate translations are difficult to produce.  They are extremely hard to produce with both accuracy and speed.  Translation was a factor in the delayed release of the Pope Benedict’s first encyclical Deus caritas est (DCE).  While it was downplayed in the 25 January press conference for the release of the encyclical, Pope Benedict himself had stated during a general audience with a wistful “finally” that, in part, translation difficulties delayed its publication.  Holy Father wrote in German, working probably with the collaboration of others at Castel Gandolfo, the summer residence, from September onward.  While the first part is vintage Ratzinger, some think the second part was based on an unfinished work of the late Pope John Paul II.  The Latin translators in the Secretariat of State would have preferred to work directly from the German original (which sure makes sense) but they were instead constrained use an Italian translation.  However, the Italian text was in some ways not up to par and so a redrafting was necessary.  In addition, there were those in the halls of power who made observations about content.  Thus, the encyclical itself went through a revision and there were delays. 

Here is another thorny problem with translations.  The final, official version of any document of the Holy See must be in the Acta Apostolicae Sedis, the authoritative instrument of promulgation.  When a document is initially released in its various language versions, Latin in the newspaper L’Osservatore Romano and usually also English, German, Italian, French, Spanish and Portuguese, it is then subject to reaction and feedback from the world.  When the official version, the second Latin version appears in the Acta the Latin is usually different from the first version.  However, nobody ever retranslates the previously released vernacular versions!   So, usually when people are quoting a text, they are quoting something issued long before the real text is issued in the Acta after changes were made.  The Latin version of Deus caritas est (DCE) is available on the Vatican’s website and L’Osservatore published it on its front page even though on the night before, on the L’Osservatore website, the preview of the front page showed it in Italian.  Someone must have made some phones calls!  As far as I know, the Latin won’t be published in booklet form, that is, until the Acta.

What about the English translation of DCE?  One odd phrase got my attention.  In DCE 3: “… doesn’t the Church, with all her commandments and prohibitions, turn to bitterness the most precious thing in life? Doesn’t she blow the whistle just when the joy which is the Creator’s gift offers us a happiness which is itself a certain foretaste of the Divine?”  Ehem… “Blow the whistle?”  At first we might think this is sports imagery.  The Italian says “innalza forse cartelli di divieto… raise perhaps forbidden signs…” which to the incautious might sound like a reference to a soccer referee holding up a penalty card.   But the referee’s card is a “cartellino”, not a “cartello” of a certain color, not a “cartello di divieto”.  Is it traffic imagery?  In German, which is what Benedict wrote in, we read, “Stellt sie nicht gerade da Verbotstafeln auf… Doesn’t she put up forbidden signs precisely there…”.  A “Verbotstafel” could be a traffic sign, a non-smoking sign or other indication.   It’s generic.  In Latin we have the same thing, “Nonne fortasse nuntios prohibitionis attollit Ecclesia ibi omnino…”  You might have expected here a neuter plural nuntia prohibitionis, since a nuntius is usually the bearer of the news.  However, nuntius can also mean, “command, order, injunction”.  So, “blow the whistle”?   I wonder where those ICEL translators wound up after all.

Domine Deus noster
qui has potius creaturas
ad fragilitatis nostrae subsidium condidisti,
tribue, quaesumus,
ut etiam aeternitatis nobis fiant sacramentum.

This prayer was in the 1962MR during Passiontide and in the Veronese Sacramentary in the month of September in amongst prayers suggesting fasting (admonitio ieiunii).  One wonders if the people who put together the 1970MR sensed the need to salvage something of the ancient tradition of preparatory Sundays before Lent (e.g. Septuagesima).  There is a touch of military imagery in this prayer through words like subsidium and sacramentum (originally meaning an oath taken by soldiers).

 We need to look at vocabulary in order to understand what the prayer really says.  Our worthy Lewis & Short Dictionary shows potius is from the rarely declined potis, “able, capable; possible.”  We often see the comparative form potior, which is “preferred, better, preferable” and in the superlative potissimus (declinable) and thus the comparative adverbial form potius signifying “rather, preferably, more.”  Potissime and potissimum are superlatives for “chiefly, principally, especially, in preference to all others, above all, most of all.”  Potius is imbedded in has…creaturas which helps us to determine that it means “above all” or perhaps “above or in preference to all others.”  The verb subsideo gives us the substantive subsidium originally meaning, “the troops stationed in reserve in the third line of battle (behind the principes), the line of reserve, reserve-ranks, triarii.”  By extension it also means “support, assistance, aid, help, protection.”  Condo, cóndere, condidi, cónditum gives us “to bring, lay or put together” in the sense of “establish, build, construct, compose, describe” and, strangely, “hide”.

O Lord our God,
who made these creatures above all others
unto a support of our frailty,
grant, we beseech Thee,
that they may become for us the sacrament also of eternity.

 ICEL (1973 translation of the 1970MR):
 Lord our God,
may the bread and wine
you give us for our nourishment on earth
become the sacrament of our eternal life.

 ICEL decided to break down hae creaturae… “these creatures” into bread and wine.   I can understand why they did that, but I think it usurps both our intellect and imagination.  Furthermore, there is rich material for preaching and teaching in the word and concept “creature”, which is used in the Latin liturgical tradition for something about to be sanctified.  For example, in the pre-Conciliar Rituale Romanum, the source for various sacramental rites and blessings, there is the rite for blessing holy water.  As in the rite for baptism, water was to be infused with salt.  Both the salt and water had to be exorcised first.  So, the priest would solemnly speak directly to the salt as if it were a living thing, making signs of the Cross, “Thou creature of salt, I purge thee of all evil by the living + God, by the true + God, by the holy + God…  Be thou a purified salt for the health of believers, giving soundness of body and soul to all who use thee.  In whatever place thou art sprinkled, may phantoms and wickedness, and Satan’s cunning be banished.  And let every unclean spirit be repulsed by Him Who shall come to judge the living and the dead, and the world by fire.”   To exorcize the water the priest prayed, “Thou creature of water, I purge thee of evil….  Mayest thou be empowered to drive forth (the envious foe) and exile him together with his fallen angels….”  In the newer, post-Conciliar Missale Romanum, in an Appendix containing the rite for blessing water sprinkled during the penitential rite of Holy Mass, the priest still calls water creatura, but he no longer exorcizes it or speaks to it directly. 

 This image of the thing to be blessed as a living creature was once common. For example, on the feast of St. John the Evangelist there was a special blessing for wine: “…Bless, + O Lord, this creature draught that it might be a helpful medicine to all who drink it.”   On Epiphany the priest could bless gold, incense and myrrh, first exorcizing them and calling them all “creatures.”   The creature oil was always exorcized and blessed.  Just as a living person had to be exorcised before being baptized, so too anything intended for God and His special sanctification.  The more important and precious a thing was, the greater the need for it to be pure at its offering.  God then sanctifies and takes it apart from ordinary things unto His own.  Consequently, the bread and wine being prepared at the offertory of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass are of great importance.   They will be taken by God to be transformed into Jesus Christ Himself.   One can understand why in the reforms of the liturgy greater emphasis was placed on the offertory procession, restoring ancient practice of bring things from our daily life to the altar for their sanctification.

 Water, salt, oil, bread and wine… these are simple things from daily life.  They are simple but of profound, even critical, importance.  We cannot live without them.  In the holy rites of the Catholic Church we would speak directly to the things to be consecrated as if they were living things, so intimately were they bound together with how God supports our very lives.   Our Blessed Lord during His earthly life instituted the seven sacraments we enjoy today.  Knowing that we are human creatures and not angelic creatures, he gave us outward signs with these sacraments so that we could understand when the invisible and interior reality was being conferred.  He thus took simple, but vastly important created things from our ordinary lives and raised them to a new sacramental reality.  Even the need to tell our troubles to a friend, so common but so important for our well-being, he raised to a sacrament.  The longing of a man and woman to be together, instituted as a holy union from the beginning of our race, was elevated making of the very bodies of the spouse something new and holy.  The struggle at the end of life or when we are in mortal peril was taken by Christ and given back to us as a sacrament and the daily and common yet life-supporting substance oil was his vehicle for giving us grace.

 A word like creatura, given a decent and beautiful translation and some sensible and timely liturgical catechesis, can create a sense of wonder about what is happening during the Eucharistic Prayer.  It reminds us that we too are creatures, made in the image and likeness of God.  Today’s

Super oblata through the word creatura indicates that we are being drawn in to a hallowed nexus of the creaturely with the Creator.  The solemn language of the moment drapes, as it were, the altar and its appointments, the priest/mediator, and particularly (potius) the creatures of the bread and wine to be consecrated, with a mysterious cloak, reminiscent of the cloud that would descend upon the mountain and the tent when YAWEH God would speak face to face with Moses.

 In our liturgical prayers we need to have a sacral style, removed from daily language.  They must be beautiful, evocative, striking and solemn.  Is that what the translators and the bishops are going to provide for us?


About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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