4th Sunday of Advent: SUPER OBLATA (2)

What Does the Prayer Really Say? 4th Sunday of Advent – Roman Station: Basilica of the Twelve Holy Apostles

ORIGINALLY PRINTED IN The Wanderer in 2005

On 5 December I attended the annual conference on sacred music held by the Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments (CDWDS). His Eminence the Prefect, Francis Cardinal Arinze, presided and outgoing, indeed already out, Secretary Archbishop Domenico Sorrentino was moderator. Since the election of a Pope Benedict there has been a profound shift in “attitude” about sacred music. In the past, defenders of Gregorian chant and polyphony were nearly shouted down by the old-guard of musicians and liturgists pushing “lowest common denominator” music, the sort useful for what they think “active” congregational participation ought to be. In a nutshell, the old guard holds that chant and polyphony are too hard and that people are too thick; we can neither listen well nor grasp the music. In their passé view, “active” participation means that everyone must be singing. At this year’s conference proponents of what the Council asked for (chant and polyphony – therefore well trained choirs to which the congregation listens) spoke of the contemplative dimension of liturgy without which any liturgy inevitably dead-ends in a merely human experience. This doesn’t conflict with congregational singing, of course. This year, proponents of a rebirth of chant and polyphony dominated and were received by the participants with relief and enthusiastic applause. So much did this conference emphasize Latin chant and polyphony that Cardinal Arinze himself pointed out that settings of vernacular texts can also qualify as sacred music. Even during a discussion of inculturation, a speaker from Cameroon emphasized how chant and Latin, wide-spread and much desired in his country, also inculturates by underscoring our membership in one Catholic Church. The theology of Pope Benedict, writing as Cardinal Ratzinger, was at all times felt in this year’s meeting. There was a strong sense of how liturgy must lead to an experience of the supernatural: whereas spoken texts can take the participant only so far toward an experience of the supernatural, music and silence transcend the spoken word’s limitations and lead to an encounter with the true Word who is both the Father’s Song and perfect Singer.

Cardinal Arinze kindly spoke with me during a break at the conference. As always he recognized WDTPRS immediately and said with regret that he lacks the time to read all the articles. He observed that in the USA some people are resisting the work of the Congregation and the project of preparing new translations. While speaking positively of the present work of ICEL he seemed less than pleased with the pace at which the USCCB is “reviewing”. He even suggested that other conferences of bishops might just have to leave the USA behind.

In the lefty Commonweal (2 December 2005) there is an informative and super whiny piece by John Wilkins, former editor of the really left-leaning English Catholic tabloid The Tablet. Wilkins takes a sour grapes look at the rise and fall of the defunct progressivist ICEL, its “fruits”, its reshaping and reincarnation, and the present attitude of the Holy See about liturgical translations. Wilkins’ descriptions of the dramatis personae leave no doubt as to his position. In Wilkins’ melodrama there are mustache twirling villains and gallant victim heroes. The gentle collaborators of ICEL are enlightened, endearing and oh so wronged by the snarling, hand rubbing black hats from Rome who lashed them down to the railroad tracks. Augustine Cardinal Mayer, once Prefect of the CDWDS, arrived like “a threatening cloud on ICEL’s horizon”. Bishop Maurice Taylor, former chairman of ICEL, “brokered a compromise”, but Francis Cardinal George (who came “from Rome”… Booooo!) , delivered “warnings”. Cardinal George “spoke vehemently” to the board of ICEL as he delivered the “bombshell”, but Archbishop Hurley was “frank and formal”. The older ICELers were dedicated to “collegiality”, but Rome imposed “a distressing departure from the spirit of collegiality in favor of authoritative imposition”. Cardinal George “rebuked” and Cardinal Medina Estévez delivered accusations, but Bishop Taylor was “a lamb among wolves” who nevertheless had the poise to speak “courteously”. Rome “ruled out ecumenical cooperation”, but the old ICEL gang, was “pioneering”. Cardinal Medina “stomped all over them, like a schoolmaster confronting unruly pupils”, but John Page, having a case of the vapors, sat by “with tears streaming down his face.”

You get the idea. Dimwitted Rome sure is mean, wah wah wah! If we were smart, we would go back to the old way of thinking about liturgical language, which is precisely what today’s players on the stage, such as His Excellency Donald W. Trautman, chairman of the USCCB’s Committee on Liturgy (BCL), have strongly advocated. Imagine a meeting between Bishop Trautman and Cardinal Arinze, maybe on neutral turf – perhaps in Casablanca: “Why, Your Eminence, I’m shocked, shocked, to find there is resistance going on in this Committee!” In any event, Wilkins stops whining long enough to present interesting issues, for example, the utility of a “timeless” liturgical style versus one that changes with the times, and also equivalence of meaning opposed to equivalence of words.

During this last week before Christmas we hear from 17 December onward the haunting “O Antiphons” before the singing of the Magnificat during Vespers. The images in the O Antiphons parallel the verses of Veni, veni Emmanuel. Our Advent preparation is nearing its fulfillment.

Altari tuo, Domine, superposita munera
Spiritus ille sanctificet,
qui beatae Mariae viscera sua virtute replevit.

For the last three weeks our Super oblata (“prayer over the gifts”) was identical to the Secret of the pre-Conciliar Missale Romanum, but not this prayer: the Novus Ordo version streamlines it by snipping out some lofty sounding words. It is an ancient prayer, however, found in various sacramentaries of yore, including the Bergomense.

Our prayer presents no real grammatical mysteries and the vocabulary is straightforward. Your trusty The Lewis & Short Latin 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 stick with “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.” For replevit, in this prayer, we should say “filled up” or “made full” the viscera, womb of Mary. If possible, however, try to hold in your minds also the dimension of “made complete.” We are not only referring to Mary’s miraculous conception by the power of the Holy Spirit of the “Word made flesh”, but also the very last days of her carrying the Lord and bringing Him to light. Ille is a third person demonstrative giving emphasis to what it points at, in this case Spiritus. Ille can be tricky to convey in English and it can be rendered in different ways. We should avoid making the Holy Spirit sound impersonal, as “that Spirit” might do, even though ille is stronger than “the Spirit”.

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

ICEL (1973 translation of the 1970MR):
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. The Latin is earthier, more “real” in a sense. ICEL has “sanctified Mary” rather than Latin “filled the womb” of “blessed Mary.” Furthermore, I think we (and God) know already that Mary is the Mother of God’s Son.

This Sunday we hear our prayer “over the gifts” just a few short days before Christmas. Christ came into the light of the world “in the fullness of time” (Gal 4:4) and fulfills the many prophecies foretelling His Coming. Mary, in a sacramental/liturgical view of the season, is great with child, truly repleta…filled up… made complete. In our Sunday Mass, the priest has by now placed our gifts of bread and wine on the altar. Before he says today’s prayer, the rubrics indicate (in Latin) that the priest should turn around away from the altar, face the congregation, and say (in Latin), “Pray brethren that my sacrifice and yours may be made acceptable in the sight of God, the Almighty Father.” The way the priest offers the Sacrifice and how lay people offer their sacrifices are different. However, all are called to active participation.

True “active participation” is first and foremost interiorly active participation, not the shallower understanding of the phrase as only exterior or physically active participation (i.e., carrying things, singing, clapping, etc.). Interior active participation leads to outward, physical expression, but our first understanding of active participation is interiorly active receptivity. There is nothing “passive” about it! During any liturgy a person might sing, walk about or carry stuff, but those actions are meaningless without interior activity. You can do all sorts of things with your mind a thousand miles away. Have you ever caught yourself humming or singing (maybe even in church) and suddenly realized all the while you were thinking about groceries or feeding the dog? To the onlooker you got all the words and notes right, but interiorly you weren’t there at all.

Human beings are distinguished from brute beasts by higher intellect and a free will. We make a distinction between “human actions” and simple “acts of humans”. “Acts of humans”, such as digestion, breathing, and some other automatic or habitual things, we do without much thought or will. Critters act mostly by instinct, habit or brain stem impulse. “Human actions”, by knowledge and choice, distinguish us from critters. 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 neutral act of a human, hardly distinguished from what critters do.

At Holy Mass we must participate actively as humans can, knowing, willing and loving. We do this by engaging the mind and will to be receptive, actively, especially through listening. It is more challenging to listen with active receptivity to the Gospel or good sacred music or the prayers, with intense attention, than it is to follow along in the missalette or pronounce them aloud. After Mass ask people what the Gospel or prayers were about. How many remember? It would help if the texts you had to listen to and pronounce were beautiful and accurate. Still, responses should be made with confidence and desire. The “silent spectator” at Mass brought about the liberal abuse of the concept of active participation and led to maligning participants of the older “Tridentine” Mass as being “passive”, regardless of their intensity of interior participation.

We are called to both interior and exterior active participation. The congregation has specific responses to make, and they should be made with intense focus rather than unengaged mumbling. You need not shout, but simply staring at the priest like a deer in the headlights or letting your mind and eyes wander away is not acceptable. Practice giving full attention and really participating.

Here is a thought for your participation at Mass. During most of the Mass you are called upon to participate actively by receptivity: you receive the Gospel rather than reading it aloud; you receive forgiveness for venial sins in the penitential rite; you receive (not take) Holy Communion. When today’s prayer “over the gifts” or Super oblata is spoken by the priest, you participate actively by giving, by uniting your own sacrifices to those of the priest at the altar who is alter Christus. The priest (Christ the Head) invites and you (Christ the Body) respond. Pour forth your sacrifices. Put them on the paten and into the chalice, so that you, 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, the Christ Child who is Coming.

We are now preparing to receive actively the Christ Child. I wish you and yours a Holy and Happy Christmas.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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