WDTPRS: Quinquagesima

An excerpt from the column for this Sunday:

In our traditional Roman calendar this Sunday is Quinquagesima, Latin for the symbolic “Fiftieth” day before Easter.  Today is one of the pre-Lenten Sundays which prepare us for the discipline of Lent. The priest’s vestments are purple. No Alleluia. The prayers and readings for the pre-Lenten Sundays were compiled by St. Gregory the Great (+604).   After the Second Vatican Council the Consilium’s liturgical reformers under Annibale Bugnini and others eliminated these pre-Lent Sundays, much to our detriment.

Preces nostras, quaesumus, Domine, clementer exaudi:
atque, a peccatorum vinculis absolutos,
ab omni nos adversitate custodi.

This prayer is found in the ancient Liber Sacramentorum Augustodunensis and the L.S. Engolismensis.  I cannot find this prayer in any form in the post-Conciliar editions of the Missale Romanum.  Of course you won’t find Quinquagesima either.

The ponderous Lewis & Short Dictionary reminds us that absolvo means “to loosen from, to make loose, set free, detach, untie” or in juridical language “to absolve from a charge, to acquit, declare innocent”.  The priest uses this word when he absolves you of the bonds of your sins.  Vinculum is “that with which any thing is bound, a band, bond, rope, cord, fetter, tie”.  This bond can be literal, as in physical fetters, or it can be moral or some sort of state.  You can be bound in charity or peace, or bound in damnation or sin.  In the case if sin, in liturgical prayer we find a form of vinculum or its plural with “loosing” verbs such as absolvo or resolvo or dissolvo.  In ancient prayer the state of sin conceived as a place in which we are bound.  The bonds must be loosed so that we can escape and be free.  In the whole of the post-Conciliar Missal I don’t believe the combination peccata absolvere is found, but it is in ancient collections.  One finds the phrase with some additional term such as “bonds” or “ties” of sins.


We beseech You, O Lord, graciously attend to our prayers:
and, having been loosed from the fetters of sins,
guard us from every adversity.

What is the first thing an enemy does to you, once you are captured?  He renders you powerless to do your own will.

The Sacrament of Penance is the great gift.  In all good will we must strive to live without mortal sin.  But we fall.  We pray to God to protect us from the dire consequences of sin, including the attacks of the Enemy, which on our own without God’s help we cannot resist.  Among the benefits of the Sacrament of Penance, along with being freed from the chains of sins, is a strengthening to resist sin in the future. 

Haec hostia, Domine, quaesumus, emundet nostra delicta:
et ad sacrificum celebrandum,
subditorum tibi corpora
mentesque sanctificet.

This prayer was in the ancient L.S. Engolismensis.  It didn’t survive the Consilium for the newer missal.

Subdo is “to put, place, set, or lay under; to bring under, subject, subdue”.  After Mary and Joseph found the young Jesus in the Temple, Our Lord went with them and was “subject” them (Luke 2:51).  Subdo is used to describe also the state of a wives to their husbands. This verb, in the participial form acting like an adjective, describes the state of the servants of God.  Very often our prayers describe us as servi or famuli or members of the familia of God.  That fam- root goes back to the household servants on an estate, totally under the law and care of their master.  We call those under someone’s mastery, “subjects”.

O Lord, may this sacrificial offering cleanse away our sins,
and may it sanctify the bodies and minds of  those subject to You
unto the Sacrifice now to be celebrated.

Human beings are both body and soul.  The wounds to our human nature from the Fall of our First Parents affected us both spiritually and physically.  The whole human person needs healing. Therefore, the Word took up all of our human nature, perfect human body and soul, so that the whole of man could be redeemed.  At Mass there is also an inward component and an outward physical expression.  Both must be active, each in their own proper manner and moment.  The key in both cases is that we who are active participants nevertheless remain the subjects of the Lord, in the sense that we are entirely dependent on Him.

Paradoxically, we who are subjects in the sense of being beneath and dependent, by willing subjection become our own subjects, in the sense of being aware and willing actors.  In grammar a subject is the thing in an active sentence which acts on an object.  Because humans are God’s images, we are made to be subjects of our own determinations.  We mustn’t be turned into unwilling objects.  When we yield to God, however, in our state of being His “subjects” we are even more our own “subjects”.  As Pope Benedict reminded us in his inaugural sermon in April 2005,

… If we let Christ enter fully into our lives, if we open ourselves totally to him, … do we not then risk ending up diminished and deprived of our freedom? … No! If we let Christ into our lives, we lose nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing of what makes life free, beautiful and great. No! Only in this friendship are the doors of life opened wide. Only in this friendship is the great potential of human existence truly revealed. Only in this friendship do we experience beauty and liberation.

Quaesumus, omnipotens Deus:
ut qui caelestia alimenta percipimus,
per haec contra omnia adversa muniamur.

This prayer was in the ancient L.S. Engolismensis with a slight insertion mentioning the martyr St. Gordianus as well as the L.S. Gellonensis for the feast of St. Vincent, the martyr. It does not appear in the post-Conciliar Missale Romanum.

Perceptive as you are, don’t precipitously perceive percipio as “perceive”, though that is one of its meanings.  Words have contexts.  Percipio is also “to take wholly, to seize entirely” and then by extension “to perceive, feel” and “to learn, know, conceive, comprehend, understand.”  I think “grasp” is good, but not in the sense of “seize” (as some of the less perceptive do when they “grasp” Holy Communion in the hand). We saw munio last week.  In these pre-Lent prayers, Holy Church is truly readying our defenses for the coming struggle.

Neuter alimentum is nourishment, food itself. In Italian we still call a grocery store an “alimentari”. In biology we speak of the alimentary canal.  Alimentation is the process of giving or receiving nourishment. Alimentum can also mean the recompense given for the rearing of children.  Think “alimony”.  These stem from the verb alo, “to feed, to nourish, support, sustain, maintain”.  L&S adds the interesting note that nutrire usually designates sustenance from meat.


We entreat You, Almighty God:
that we who grasp the heavenly sustenance,
may be fortified through them against every adversity.

We can work with “grasp”.  St. Paul teaches that we must exercise our perception, our powers of discernment, when approaching the Body and Blood of the Lord lest we eat and drink our own condemnation (1 Cor 11).  We must grasp who we are and grasp the Eucharist.  But we must be ready also to conform our intellect and will to reality and God’s plan rather than grasp it by clinging.  St. Paul also reminds us of the Lord’s own self-emptying, explaining that Christ restricted his glory, set aside His divine dignity, and took instead the form of His servants (Philippians 2).  In His perfect death to self, even to death on the Cross, he grasped salvation for the whole human race.  Remember: this Postcommunion was also in Masses for martyrs.

Bring this paradigm of self-emptying/being filled to your own grasping of yourself, the sacred action of Holy Mass, and reception of the Eucharist.  You lose nothing of who you are when you abandon willfulness.  God gives you greater freedom by your submission.

These prayers of the pre-Lenten Sundays are meant among other things to help us ready with stores our interior fortresses before the spiritual battle of lent.  We must empty out what doesn’t serve and be filled with that which does.  Prepare yourselves for Lent’s discipline.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. DAJL says:

    I’ve been struck by these reflections on the pre-Lent prayers, and how paschal they are. Even on the cusp of this season of heightened penitence and renunciation, this post-communio’s insistence on per-capio-ing Christ the caelestium alimentum, on feeding on Him thoroughly, that is, as our only sustenance, throws us forward, not to the “suffering” of Lent, but to the Resurrection. Just in case any of us have forgotten where this road leads…

  2. EDG says:

    Very interesting and very beautiful. Can we pleeeeze go back to the old calendar? It was wondrously made indeed. The structure led one through what could be called an altogether different “layer” of time.

  3. Jim says:

    The Eastern churches also have pre-lenten Sundays: the Sunday of the Prodigal Son; the Sunday of the Last Judgment; and Forgiveness Sunday. The Latin church abandoned ancient tradition when it eliminated Septuagesim, Sexagesima and Quinquagesima Sundays.

  4. Jim says:

    PS: The Latin church also abandoned a true discipline of fasting. Only a vestigial remnant remains.

  5. Of course we don’t do the “Gesimas” anymore and I find that by about Lent III I am telling myself that I really must make a better Lent than I am doing.

    I wonder if there is any conection.

  6. Dr. Eric says:

    Mr. O’Rourke,

    I feel that you are onto something there.

  7. Henry Edwards says:

    In the whole of the post-Conciliar Missal I don’t believe the combination peccata absolvere is found

    Let’s see. ….. We don’t find “absolution from sin” mentioned anywhere in the new missal. ….. In religious education, the kids are taught about self-esteem rather than sin and quilt. ….. The cover of a first communion booklet says “My Friend Jesus”. ….. A graduate of 12 years in Catholic schools says she’s never heard that pre-marital sex is a sin. ….. The typical Catholic cannot remember a sermon saying anything is a sin. ….. A parish of two thousand has “reconciliation” scheduled one hour a week, but there’s rarely a line, whereas everybody goes to communion, necessitating a dozen EMHC’s at Sunday Mass. ….. A higher percentage of Catholics than non-Catholics votes for a pro-abortion candidate. …..

    What explains all this?

  8. Nancy McClintock says:

    It’s phychologically jarring and spiritually stressful to go straight from
    ordinary time on Tuesday, wham! into Lent on Wednesday. The same thing
    happens in reverse at Pentecost. From Pentecost Sunday, the glorious
    culmination of Eastertide, the soul crashes down into ordinary time the very
    next day, without the cushion of an octave to fill the hollow until Trinity
    Bring back Pre-Lent.
    Bring back the Octave of Pentecost.
    Bring back the Ember Days.

  9. Jonathan says:

    I grew up in the Church of England, and the pre-Lentern Sundays were definitely part of the calendar. I remember when I was a choirboy, the Vicar of our parish church took the Christian education of us quite seriously, and gave us a lecture on these pre-Lentern Sundays. He wrote up the names of the Sundays on the board using abreviations, “sept” for septuagesima, “quin” for “quinquagesima”, and you can guess what he put up for “sexagesima”. It produced such an effect on us that I remember to this day the agony of containing the mirth within us. I have also always wondered whether the Vicar was simply unworldly, or was having a private joke on us too.

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