Thursday in the 4th Week of Lent

Christ the TeacherCOLLECT
Clementiam tuam, Domine, supplici voto deposcimus,
ut nos famulos tuos, paenitentia emendatos
et bonis operibus eruditos,
in mandatis tuis facias perseverare sinceros,
et ad paschalia festa pervenire illaesos.

This was not in the 1962 or previous editions of the Missale Romanum.  However, the Gelasianum Vetus provides a predecessor of this prayer.

I think we have seen all of the principal vocabulary already, so let’s move along to what the prayer really says.

O Lord we are beseeching Your mercy with this humble prayer,
that you cause us, Your servants,
corrected by means of penance
and polished by means of good works,
to persevere genuine in Your commands,
and to attain unscathed to the paschal celebrations.

Christ TeacherWe should remind ourselves of certain recurring questions when reviewing these ancient prayers.  Again we have the possibility that clementia tua would have rung in the ears of our ancient forebears as a title, "Your Clemency".  This title points also to a divine characteristic, at least from our miserable point of view.  God is merciful and kind.  The words supplex, votum, deposco suggest a very lowly attitude on our part. 

Sermon on the MountThe overarching image is that of God as Teacher, I think.  The prayer is addressed to God the Father, through Christ (Per Dominum…etc.).  Yet Christ as Teacher is a common image in early Christian art.  Our vocabulary also suggests this; we are corrected (emendati) and polished/instructed (eruditi).
This is a finely crafted prayer, beautifully balanced and intricate.  Look at that chain of accusatives stretching through the prayer: (nos & tuos) famulos … emendatos… eruditos… sinceros… illaesos.  These are all descriptions of what God has made us and will continue to make us through His mercy.  Another series threads through the prayer in the ablative: paenitentia… bonis operibus… mandatis.  These are the means by which God made us into the accusatives.  Note also the chiastic parallel in the structure.  Correction and penance connect best with perseverance and commands, which polishing and good works connect best with being attainment and soundness.  A logical sequence is found as well.  First, we see what we are by means of something (corrected/instructed) and then what we are for something (genuine/unscathed).

The Ultimate Teaching MomentChrist is the perfect model of all that is mentioned in the prayer.  He is the perfect exemplar.  St. Augustine, in his monumental City of God is a little cautious about presenting the Lord as being our model and exemplar.  He knows that Christ, the perfect model, presents for us an unattainable challenge.  For Augustine, the lives of the martyrs and other holy men and women are more helpful and realistic models.  In their fully be merely human lives they show us that we fully human but merely human people can live the life to which Christ’s commands and perfect model calls us. 

In looking at this prayer, I got the fleeting impression of the figure of David.  David is the focus of much attention on the part St. Ambrose.  Perhaps digging into Ambrose on David and some of the vocabulary might produce interesting results.

Also, there comes to mind the ancient way of producing written texts.  In rhetorical training orators were taught to approach topics in stages.  They would find the questions and points of interest (inventio) and then arrange things properly (dispositio) and come to a proper way to deliver the concepts (elocutio).  There is a whole raft other terms applicable to this process.  Still, that is a basic scheme.  In our prayer today we see something of the same process in penance, requiring introspection and examination, the proper application of things especially though the guidance of divine commands and teaching, and finally the outward expression of the proper content through fulfillment of God’s commands and the festive joy that we attain.  Also, in writing out texts, there would be a process of drafting and correction (emendatio or castigatio, which we have seen in the prayers for Lent) and also the polishing of the text, sometimes even literally.  To prepare a sheet of vellum or a scroll, it needed to be polished, mistakes were scraped off and the site repolished.

We are works in progess.  God’s works.

In this last phase of Lent let us ask Mary, the great Mother of God who is Mother of the Church and Queen of Martyrs, to accompany us in a special way by her intercession, that we may persevere in our resolve to be conformed to all that Christ and Holy Church enjoins on us.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. martin says:

    “We”, “Us” and “Our” in the ICEL translations

    There is a problem with the use of these pronouns in the Lenten collects, but it is not a theological one. Nor is it, particularly, an excessive weighting of the English pronouns compared with the Latin. English is at a disadvantage to Latin in the matter of being obliged to pronominalise not only in most statements with verbs but also, often, with nouns where (in Latin) the possessor is implicit; but taking week (3) at random, and counting second person plural verb endings in the Latin as importing “we”, I find 18 instances in the Latin against 20 in the English.

    The real problem, then, isnt any excess of reference to ourselves (at least as compared with the Latin), or any conceptual confusion between the Church and the People of God (see below); it is, rather, a question of monotony, and also a loss of reference.

    The problem, as I see it, is that the term “we” is liable to be taken as referring to the particular people gathered at Holy Mass on any given Sunday in any given place. The Divine Liturgy, however, in all places and at all times is the public worship of the Universal Church so that the “we” of public prayers is never just the “we” of the individual congregations, any more than the (now extirpated) “we” in the Creed was an exclusively parochial “we”. In these prayers, “we” are the Church at prayer.

    The ICEL translations simultaneously permitted this misunderstanding to flourish and aggravated the problem of monotony by consistently ignoring variations on “we” deliberately introduced into the Latin. I count the following:

    Tues. (1) familia tua your children
    Wed. (1) populus tuus us
    Fri. (1) fideles tui ignored
    Tues. (2) ecclesia tua your Church
    Wed. (2) familia tua us
    Thurs. (2) servi tui us
    Mon. (3) ecclesia tua your Church
    Sund. (4) populus Christianus us
    Mon. (4) ecclesia tua we, Your Church
    Tues. (4) tui fideles ignored
    Wed. (4) tui supplices us
    Thurs. (4) famuli tui [unknown]

    I have no sure explanation for the preponderance of this alternative usage in the 4th week, but if it were primarily a matter of variety, we would expect the alternatives to be evenly distributed across all weeks. Of course, it would be tedious to have such changes rung every day throughout Lent, but emphasis on the community at prayer (as viewed from different angles) is very appropriate as we near the great solemnity of the Resurrection of the Lord. By contrast, penance and discipline are very much seen as an individual matter; and while the communitarian thrust of the prayers is never ignored, the “we” of the earlier weeks (when we confront and are confronted by our particular response to the summons to repent) is perhaps equivocal in a fruitful way.

  2. Henry Edwards says:

    The problem, as I see it, is that the term “we” is liable to be taken as referring to the particular people gathered at Holy Mass on any given Sunday in any given place.

    Very perceptive point, Martin. And applicable not just to this small sample of Lenten collects.

  3. Henry Edwards says:

    ICEL version:
    Merciful Father,
    may the penance of our lenten observance
    make us your obedient people.
    May the love within us be seen in what we do
    and lead us to the joy of Easter.

    For this English prayer, we need (in my opinion) — aside from the usual question for Martin — only insert a single word in Father Z’s comment on the original Latin collect: “This is not a finely crafted prayer, beautifully balanced and intricate.”

  4. A note about first person pronouns.

    I believe the theology of these orations can be best described by the starting point of Christ speaking to the Father in all the texts. In Mass the texts are sometimes Christ the HEAD speaking to the Father, sometimes Christ the BODY, sometimes Christus Totus. In the case of the priest speaking for the Body, “we” is perfectly proper. You can see a distinction in the ancient Oratio super populum whcih has the same structure as a Collect. However, the priest is speaking very distinctly in his own voice as Christ the Head. He doesn’t refer to “we, us, our” in those prayers.


  5. martin says:

    Henry, I know, has a view about the use of “we” in the ICEL versions and the flow we find there between the Church” and “we”. I thought it was a theological/conceptual point because in his view the ICEL exhibit a confusion between a set and its members. I disagree. There is no relevant theological or conceptual point; the problem, rather, is that the “we” is liable to be taken as having a single exclusive reference to the “we” who are present..

    Henry’s quotation from my own post (rubesco) manages to make me seem to say the opposite of the point i was actually making.

    What i immediately went on to say was: “the ‘we’ of public prayers is never just the ‘we’ of the individual congregations”.

    The “we” of the ICEL versions and the “nos” of the Latin is, for sure, the people in the pews on any given Sunday BUT it is more than that. It is also the “we” of the Church at prayer. If authority were needed for that proposition, see Sacrosanctum Concilium n. 33 :

    “preces a sacerdote, qui coetui in persona Christi praeest, ad Deum directae, nomine totius plebis sanctae et omnium circumstantium dicuntur”

  6. martin says:

    Fr.Z.’s comment crossed with my own. We are the Body of Christ, and our prayers are offered to the Father through Jesus Christ the High Priest. Mentally we add “per Christum Dominum Nostrum” after the prayers of the Mass which do not actually contain that formula (and many do, of course).

    Since the collects refer, on occasion, to Our Lord in the third person (Sunday (2) “Deus qui nobis dilectum Filium tuum audire praecepisti . . ” I have to say, for my part, that the prayers have to be understood as being made by us and not by Christ. Or, rather: they are our human prayers, offered to the Father through the mediation of Christ, present in the assembly in the person of the priest.

    The Council Fathers (SS.n.33) treat of the prayers being spoken “in the
    name of all the Holy People and in the name of those present” without a Christological focus at that point.

  7. Jeff says:

    Does anyone know an online forum where one could ask elementary questions about Latin texts? My wife emailed me Swift’s epitaph:

    Abi Viator
    Et imitare, si poteris
    Strenuum pro virili
    Libertatis Vindicatorem

    after poteris, I don’t really get the grammar, though I kind of get the gist…

  8. Martin: the great majority of these prayers were around a long time before the Second Vatican Council.

    It strikes me that we need to go back to the sources and the context of the prayers. After a few years of doing this series, I think I will stand on my understanding of the “voice” of these prayers, especially in light of the context they come from (Patristic/Late Antiquity), mutatis mutandis, of course.


  9. martin says:

    Fr. Z., you are absolutely right to insist on the primacy of the sources, and one of the most interesting aspects of your daily posts is the reference to the origins of the prayers. Also, I defer to your vastly greater knowledge in these matters and your deep sensibility to them. The Council Fathers, however, were describing the situation as it was before the Novus Ordo.

    The words of the Fathers in SS. n.33 owe something, I think, to Fr. Jungmann who wrote, apropos the collect, that the ecclesial community is really and fully present through those who surround the officiating priest and who are expressly united to him by the “oremus”. He explains himself by saying that the assembly of the faithful grouped around the priest at the altar are not simply the several Christians who happen present but the Church herself in her hierarchical structure, the People of the New Covenant that Christ has brought together and organised: “missarum sollemnium vol. 2 p. 145 in my edition (1952).

  10. Martin: You wrote: “Fr. Jungmann who wrote, apropos the collect, that the ecclesial community is really and fully present through those who surround the officiating priest and who are expressly united to him by the “oremus”. He explains himself by saying that the assembly of the faithful grouped around the priest at the altar are not simply the several Christians who happen present but the Church herself in her hierarchical structure, the People of the New Covenant that Christ has brought together and organised: ”

    However, for me, this changes nothing about what I wrote about the Head/Body/Totus paradigm. As a matter of fact, it seems to support it.


  11. martin says:

    I just cant see, Fr. Z., that prayers which (a) constantly mention our human weakness and are motivated by an awareness of that fact, (b) refer to Jesus Christ in the third person, (c) implore God to grant His assistance to those who are petitioning Him and (d) are offered through Christ’s mediation, can be intelligibly understood as prayers made by Christ, however understood.

    The ubiquitous “we” of the collects is a human “we” referring to a weak and indigent people who stand constantly in need of God’s grace. But the “we” is not just the “we” of those standing before any given altar on any given Sunday, but the “we” of the Church Militant at prayer.

    Henry, at one stage, took exception to an ICEL translation which adopted the Latin reference to “Ecclesia tua” (translating it as “Your Church”), but which went on in the second part of the prayer to mention “us”/”we”. He castigated this as “sloppy thought”. The Council Fathers and the incomparable Fr. Jungmann, however, assert the reality of this human overlay (in which you concur). That was the only point I was seeking to uphold.

    The “populus tuus”, “Ecclesia tua”, “servi/fideles/famuli tui”, “familia tua” in the collects is identical with the “we” who in their brokenness and weakness and failure supplicate God in these same prayers. This “we”, under whatever name, are sinners. If I may make so bold to say it, the Pauline analogy rathers obscures than illuminates this essential truth. If the people are confused over who precisely the “we” of the prayers is, the prayers are utterly pointless.

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