…omnium circumstantium…

Someone asked me about the Latin phrase from the Roman Canon (1st Eucharistic Prayer) "omnium circumstantium".  This is one of the points surely to be addressed in the meeting of the bishops as they prepare to vote on the draft translation. 

A few years back I wrote my WDTPRS columns on the Eucharistic Prayers, but I haven’t posted them online on this blog yet.  In any event, here is something I wrote about omnium circumstantium:

Circumstantium is an active participle of circumsto, which means “to stand around in a circle, to take a station round; and, with the accusative, to stand around a person or thing, to surround, encircle, encompass.”  The people who are circumstantes are those who are “standing around”, not in a sense of being idle, but of location.  In more ancient manuscripts this was circum adstantes.   Standing for the whole Canon was the practice for the first thousand years or so.   As our understanding of the Real Presence grew and deepened, the practice of kneeling developed.  This is not some historical encrustation that needed to be scraped off of the Mass in a desire to return to the “pristine” way of liturgy.   Circum means “around” but that does not mean that in the ancient Church people literally stood in a circle about the altar.  In Roman basilicas the altar was between the presbytery, the large semicircular part of the apse where the clerics, especially priest(s) were properly situated, and the nave, the proper place of the faithful.  Often there is found a semi-circular area in front of altars which was the entrance to the crypt below and the remains of martyrs were found.  The most famous of these is the “Confession” of St. Peter’s Basilica.  If there were transepts, the people were then on three sides of the altar, but in no way standing around the altar in any close or proximate way.  

Memento, Domine” – The Memento of the Living

Memento, Domine, famulorum, famularumque tuarum N. et N. et omnium circumstantium, quorum tibi fides cognita est, et nota devotio, pro quibus tibi offerimus: vel qui tibi offerunt hoc sacrificium laudis pro se suisque omnibus: pro redemptione animarum suarum, pro spe salutis, et incolumitatis suae: tibique reddunt vota sua aeterno Deo, vivo et vero.

Be mindful, O Lord, of Your household servants and handmaids N. and N., and of all the bystanders here whose faith and recognized vocational devotion is completely known to You, for whom we are making this sacrificial offering to You: and who assuredly also are offering to You this Sacrifice of praise for themselves and for all of their own loved ones: on behalf of the redemption of their own souls, for the hope of their own salvation and well-being: they also offer back their own solemnly promised sacrificial offerings to You Eternal God, Living and True.

I will add that in the source we call Blaise/Dumas we find under circumsto "se tenir debout autour (de la table de la sainte sacrifice)"

I went on the hunt for some new information about this word and I found a fascinating thing.  In Blaise/Dumas, which is a very important source, I found that circumstantes and circumadstantes is used similarly to other terms to denote the Christian people at the liturgy in general, and so it is like terms from the NT and Fathers such as populi tui, fratres dilecti a Deo, dilectissimi, sanctitas vestra

What is this all about?  It means that circumstantes might simply – rather can mean simply refer to the baptized people who are present and participating without any reference to where they are located in the church.  This is an important point for anyone considering what it means in the context of the Eucharistic Prayer.  I think my version of "bystanders" gets at that pretty well, though perhaps there is a touch of passivity echoing in the modern sound of the word which doesn’t please me.   Maybe we can say… "and of all the participants here whose faith and recognized vocational devotion is completely known to You,…"  Given the use of circumstantes as a "generic" way to talk of those present, this works.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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


    I bet Little Rita would be interested in this post. Take a look at “Stand and Deliver.”
    That’s Rocco, doing his part to stand ‘n stir the pot.

  2. Jeff says:

    Thank you Father, for a fascinating essay! I hope you’ll be able to post the Eucharistic Prayers and the Exultet soon.

    Do you have any hopes–even distant ones–of doing the Prefaces?

    Little Jon:

    Well, I think Rocco made a decent and plausible point. That’s why I asked Fr. Zuhlsdorf what he thought. After all, as Rocco quoted it, the ICEL team appeared to be conceding that they were NOT giving a straight translation–though perhaps for the best of reasons.

    Fr. Zuhlsdorf’s philological observations are fascinating and beautiful. My guess is though, that he would regard the position that one ought to include the notion of physical standing in the translation of this phrase as at least an arguable one…

  3. Jeff says:


    The “Little” Jon was inadvertent, believe it or not! I read “Little Rita”–which I did find objectionable if it applied to Rocco–and then I thought of Little Jo[h]n, because of the character in Robin Hood and apparently typed it on automatic pilot!

    No delete post features here, unfortunately!

    Sorry. Though I hope the inherent Sherwoodian allusion to noble and manly brigandage takes the sting out.

  4. I think it is important to remember that right after the references to circumstantes or astare in the rubrics of the Missale Romanum people are to kneel. In the USA they kneel earlier, specifically because the US bishops requested this exception from Rome and Rome consented. In any event, neither of the Latin verbs refer really refer to physical location around the altar nor the physical posture of being on your feet. They are all about being “upright”, so to speak, in the sight of the Lord and His altar. That is to say, being there actively receptive and participating as a baptized member of the faithful.

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