WDTPRS: 14th Sunday after Pentecost

Here is an excerpt of what I wrote for the paper this week.  You can subscribe to an e-version of The Wanderer.


Today’s prayer survived the snipping and pasting of the Consilium and the late Rev. Annibale Bugnini’s liturgical experts to be used on Tuesday of the 2nd week of Lent.


Custodi, Domine, quaesumus,
Ecclesiam tuam propitiatione perpetua:
et quia sine te labitur humana mortalitas;
tuis semper auxiliis et abstrahatur a noxiis,
et ad salutaria dirigatur.

Propitiatio, in its fundamental meaning, is “an appeasing, atonement,  propitiation”.  The dictionary of liturgical Latin Blaise/Dumas also gives us a view of the word as “favor”.  This makes sense.  God has been appeased and rendered favorable again towards us sinners by the propitiatory actions Christ fulfilled on the Cross.  We have renewed these through the centuries in Holy Mass.

Mortalitas refers, as you might guess, to the fact that we die, our mortality.  Inherent in the word is the concept that we die in our flesh.  So, you ought also to hear “flesh” when you hear mortalitas

Labitur is from labor.  This is not the substantive labor but the verb, labor, lapsus.  It means, “to glide, fall, to move gently along a smooth surface, to fall, slide”.

Auxilium, in the plural, has a military overtone.  There is also a medical undertone too, “an antidote, remedy, in the most extended sense of the word”.  Pair this up with noxius, a, um, which points at things which are injurious or harmful.  There is a moral element as well or “a fault, offence, trespass”.

Salutaria is the plural of neuter salutare which looks like an infinitive but isn’t.  Our constant companion the Lewis & Short Dictionary says the neuter substantive salutare is “salvation, deliverance, health” in later Latin.  The adjectival form, salutaris, is “of or belonging to well-being, healthful, wholesome”.  Think of English “salutary” and O salutaris hostia in the Eucharistic hymn by St. Thomas Aquinas (+1274). 

When this word is in the neuter plural (salutaria) there is a phrase in Latin bibere salutaria alicui … to drink one’s health” or literally “to drink healths to someone”.  In Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet during the famous “Queen Mab” speech Mercutio declares that a soldier dreams, inter alia, of “healths five fathom deep,” (I, iv) and in Henry VIII  the King says to Cardinal Wolsey, “I have half a dozen healths to drink to these” (I, iv).

Wine and health are closely related in the ancient world. In the parable of the Good Samaritan the good passerby pours oil and wine into the wounds of the man who was assaulted (Luke 10:25-37). St. Paul wrote to St. Timothy: “No longer drink only water, but take a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments” (1 Tim 5:23). 

Apart from its resemblance to blood, it is no surprise that Christ should choose this healthful daily staple as the matter of our saving Sacrament. 

Wine was often safer to drink than water in the ancient world, though it was nearly always mixed with water to some extent. To drink uncut wine, merum in Latin (from the adjective merus “unadulterated”, giving us the English word “mere”) was considered barbaric. Cicero (+43 BC) and others hurled that accusation at Marcus Antonius (+31 BC) who was a renowned merum swiller.

Catholics sing the word merum in the hymn of the Holy Thursday liturgy, Pange lingua gloriosi, by St. Thomas Aquinas: “fitque sanguis Christi merum… and the wine becomes the Blood of Christ”. In sacramental terms, there is a link between wine and health in the sense of salvation. During Holy Mass, we offer gifts of wine with water to become our spiritual “healths” once it is changed into the Blood of Christ. These archaic and literary references help us drill into the language of our prayers.

Let’s drill some more.  Did you know that the index finger was called digitus salutaris, and that the ancient Romans held it up when greeting people? We don’t do that very often these days.  I believe modern usage, at least on roadways, more commonly employs a different finger. The special designations of fingers in Latin are pollex (thumb); index or salutaris (forefinger); medius, infamis or impudicus (middle finger); minimo proximus or medicinalis (ring finger); minimus (little finger, “pinky”).  The priest, during Mass, always held the consecrated Host only between his thumb and the digitus salutaris.  One way to harm a priest, our mediator at the altar and in the confessional, was to chop off his index fingers.  Priests were forbidden to say Mass without special permission from the Holy See and those fingers were clearly understood by those who hate the Church, priesthood, and the Eucharist as being especially important. 

Let’s push this a little more. 

The adjective medicinalis, “medicinal, healing”, comes from the verb medeor or medico, the original meaning of which has to do with “to heal” by magic. The verb traces back to the stem med– or “middle”.  So, medicus, “doctor” is associated with “mediator”.  We can think of this in terms of the English word “medium”, who is a mediator with the spirit world.  The Latin poet Silius Italicus (Tiberius Catius Asconius Silius Italicus +101) called magicians medicum vulgus (Punica, III, 300). The ancients saw what we call the “ring finger” as having magical powers.  This is reflected in the name digitus medicinalis, the “medicinal/magic” finger.

One of the most important Patristic Christological images in the ancient Church is Christus Medicus, the “Physician”. St. Augustine does amazing things with this image, and Christus Mediator.  He is the doctor of the ailing soul.  He is the only mediator between God and man.   

Guard your Church, we beseech You, O Lord,
with perpetual favor,
and since without You our mortal flesh slides toward ruin
by means of your helping remedies let it be pulled back from injuries
and be guided unto saving healths.

We all know the image of the slippery slope.  Once you are on this slope, scrabble and scratch as you can, you can’t get a purchase. 

You slide and slide, faster and faster. 


Our fallen nature and our habitual sins drag us onto the slope from which we cannot save ourselves.  In the sacraments and teachings of Holy Church, Christ extends the fingers of His saving hand. 

He draws us back from a deadly slide.

Watch how the old incarnation of ICEL ruined the imagery in the lame-duck version we still hear in our churches today.

ICEL (1973 translation of the 1970MR):
Lord, watch over your Church,
and guide it with your unfailing love.
Protect us from what could harm us
and lead us to what will save us.
Help us always, for without you we are bound to fail.

There are different ways to do this, but I wanted to place in evidence the image of health and the flesh and medicine.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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

    Pathetic! Ideology over substance. What say you, Bishop Trautperson? Tom

  2. Andy says:

    Fr. Z,
    You mentioned you may stop the blog, or change the focus. Please continue to do these posts! They are not only informative, but serve to show what ICEL has wrought upon us, in terms of poor translations!

  3. mpm says:

    Fr. Z,

    I note that in my “pocket lexicon” there is a verb, which I assume to be
    related to labor, labi, lapsus sum: labo, labare (regular) which means
    “to totter, wobble”. First, the wobble, then the slide.

  4. Fr. Z: Labitur is from labor. This is not the substantive labor but the verb, labor, lapsus. It means, “to glide, fall, to move gently along a smooth surface, to fall, slide”.

    Neither of the two 1962 and two pre-1962 Latin-English hand missals which I checked catches the “slippery slope” connotation of labitur. Instead, each of them chooses the “fall” translation. For instance, instead of your literal translation

    and since without You our mortal flesh slides toward ruin

    that is both smoother and more evocative, the St. Andrew Daily Missal (for instance) has

    and because the frailty of man without Thee cannot but fall

  5. Flambeaux says:

    Magnificent and lucid. Thank you, Father.

    Is there any chance you or The Wanderer (whomever owns reprint rights) would consider compiling an omnibus volume your WDTPRS articles? That would be a great gift to the Church.
    [I’m working on it.]

  6. Mary Conces says:

    I think the old ICEL prayer is a nice, useful, simple prayer on its own.( I know, it isn’t on its own, but purports to be a translation.) But your stimulating translation brings out the poetry of the original. That’s what I have always liked about reading your explanations. They are the work of a priest, as well as a translation. Their purpose is to “teach, preach, and sanctify”, not just to carp at organizational deficiencies. If you are called to work as a priest in another way, I, too, hope that compilations of your past work will be available.

  7. kaneohe says:

    Father Z, please put me on the “pre-order” list for any book you publish!

    You bring enlightement and depth to our faith and prayers that is sorely lacking. THANK YOU!!

    Grace and peace!

  8. Mitch says:

    The 1962 version is more poetic and evocative of certain images and metaphors. I think part of the mystery of what Mass use to be as opposed to now where lay people’s response is,”We know what they are saying”. I did have to read the 1962 version twice in order to absorb the imagery and full meaning of the text but that to me is active participation. Reading, praying and forming imagery to the texts. I am curious why did they change so much in the 70’s?. Was it really necessary and just to go over almost every prayer and change its’ translation? What was in the minds of the people doing this? Why were some left and others mutilated or altered in such fashion? How did they decide this? After reading so many examples it just looks like they looked at every word and looked for a watered down way to say it, or at least to rearrange it. Was this the standard or rules by which they worked? I am from the NO generation, although attend the TLM, and am wondering if there was that much clamouring over translations in 1973 as is now on the proposed (and parts approved) changes to the liturgy? Or is it simply the availability of accessing everyone’s opinion via the net?

  9. GREG says:

    I enjoyed the comparison of the CHURCH and sailing
    the seas. Also the musical word alliteration.I would
    like to read that post again.Thank you Fr.Zuhlsdorf.

  10. Geometricus says:

    Mitch – I like to give the benefit of the doubt to those folks back in the seventies and assume that they were doing what they thought best for the souls under their care, no matter how misguided and WRONG they were. I would think if they were here they would tell us that they were making the prayers more understaaaandable because if the text of the prayers is toooo haaaaard, then we poor blighted souls who have trooooouble understaaaaaanding might wander away for the Church discouraged and miss out on all the great community and social services the Church has to offer the Modern World.

    Of course the average pew-warmer was not really aware of translations. They only knew it was English and that the Church was “changing.” Those in the know perhaps took a “wait-and-see” attitude regarding the poor translations, while there were others who immediately decried the loss of the richness of liturgical language. Unfortunately they were voices crying in the wilderness. The ‘up-to-date’ hipsters were having their day, not only in the Church, but in many parts of society.

    When I look back on all the silly stuff _I_ believed in college, I wince. It helps me to look with more mercy on those souls who made similarly bad decisions regarding the liturgy.

    Remember, someday you may look back at some of the decisions you are making now and shake your head. “Why O why did I do that? It seems so obviously wrong and shallow now.”

    It shows how important it is that we are basing our decisions on time-tested, proven principles, also known as Tradition.

  11. Geometricus says:

    I have always likened Fr. Z’s work to the restoration of the frescoes in the Sistine Chapel [unless you are one of those who think it was better before the restoration].

    Once you find out what the prayer really says, it is engaging, fresh, exciting, vivid, often earthy, sometimes even frightening, always challenging and more real than the pale ICEL translations. It seems the ICEL translators were like the “improvers” of Michaelangelo’s work, covering bodies with loincloths and such to reflect the sentiments of a particular age. Fr. Z.’s explications of the words and grammar show us what was “underneath” the shellac and grime of the post-concilar period and give us a glimpse of the true surprising and vivid colors of the Latin original.

  12. An American Mother says:

    Splendid work!

    This is the kind of layered, informed commentary that makes studying another language truly worthwhile.

  13. In partibus infidelium says:

    Keep, we beseech thee, O Lord, thy Church with they perpetual mercy;and, because the frailty of man without thee cannot but fall, keep us ever by they help from all things hurtful, and lead us to all things profitable to our salvation; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. Thomas Cranmer’s version is free from heresy, in poetic and memorable English, and says all that needs to be said. It can be sung without difficulty.

  14. An American Mother says:

    For prayers in English, Cranmer cannot be equalled.

    He is clear without being dull, forceful without being overbearing, and beautiful without being weak. And his ear for the rhythm of English is true and musical.

    Bearing in mind that I am a retread Anglican, I still think we could do far worse than use Cranmer as a starting point, basically undoing the changes he made to the old English missals but keeping the bones and sinews of his translation.

    (I’m smiling a little here as I look back and see that I unconsciously used his doubles and triples . . . though not as masterfully!)

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