WDTPRS: Laetare Sunday Prayer over the people: “walking in the shadow of death”

Something that will slowly but surely become – again- an annual exspectation, is the traditional “Prayer over the people” at the end of Mass during Lent.

They were restored to the Ordinary Form with the Latin 3rd edition of the Missale Romanum in 2002.  With the implementation of the corrected ICEL translation, people will have now experienced this Lent and last.  In the older form of the Roman Rite, they are used every day of the week but Sunday.  In the newer form of the Roman Rite they are included on Sunday.

The priest says this prayer after the Post communio.  It is introduced by the phrase, Humiliate capita vestra Deo…  Humbly bow your heads to God.

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The origin of the Oratio super populum is complex and hard to pin down.  Turning to Fr. Joseph A. Jungmann’s monumental two volume The Mass of the Roman Rite: Its Origins and Development we find a history of this prayer at the beginning of the section concerning the close of the Mass (II, pp. 427ff).  Something Jungmann emphasizes that caught my attention is the fact that we are at a “frontier” moment, the threshold of the sacred precinct of the church and the world.  When properly formed we want the influence of our intimate contact with the divine to carry over into the outside world.  The use of this prayer is very ancient, found in both the Eastern liturgies of Syria and Egypt and in the West.

By the time of Pope Gregory the Great (+604) this was only in the Lenten season, probably because this is perceived to be a time of greater spiritual combat requiring more blessings.  Indeed it was extremely important for those who were not receiving Holy Communion, as was the case of those doing public penance before the Church, the ordo poenitentium.

How important was this prayer to the Romans?  In 545, when Pope Vigilius (537-55) was conducting the station Mass at St. Cecilia in Trastevere, troops of the pro-Monophysite Byzantine Emperor Justinian arrived after Communion to take the Pope into custody and conduct him to exile in Constantinople.  The people followed them to the ship and demanded “ut orationem ab eo acciperent… that they should receive the blessing prayer from him”.  The Pope recited it, the people said “Amen” and off went Vigilius who returned to Rome only after his death.

Unlike the Postcommunio, the object of the prayer is usually not “us”.  With exceptions, of course, the priest usually prays for and over the people, usually not including himself as he does in the prayer after Communion.

Here is today’s prayer.

Tuere, Domine, supplices tuos, sustenta fragiles,
et inter tenebras mortalium ambulantes
tua semper luce vivifica,
atque a malis omnibus clementer ereptos,
ad summa bona pervenire concede.

(Cf. 2 Cor 4 – “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light” and Isaiah 9:2, a text usually associated with Christmas).

This is an ancient prayer, found in the Veronese Sacramentary in the month of April, though a chunk was cut out for the 2002MR: “sustenta fragiles, purga terrenos et, inter mortalium tenebras mortales ambulantes,

Defend, O Lord, your humble ones, sustain the fragile,
and by your light always breathe life into
those walking amidst the shadows of mortal things,
and grant them, having been mercifully snatched away from all evils,
to attain to the highest of all goods.

Look upon those who call to you, O Lord,
and sustain the weak;
give life by your unfailing light
to those who walk in the shadow of death,
and bring those rescued by your mercy from every evil
to reach the highest good.
Through Christ our Lord

I have in mind especially those who are in harm’s way.

Military personnel, first responders, people in very hazardous jobs which serve the common good.  They serve in the shadow of death.  May God send His holy angels to protect them from spiritual and temporal harm.

We are all – every one of us – walking everydayamidst the shadows of mortal things“.

If we are not very careful, we will become entangled in those mortal, passing things to the point where they become mortally deadly for the soul.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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

    As you mention Pope Vigilius, Wikipedia has the interesting comment that he was nominated as Pope by his predecessor Pope Boniface II according to a procedure approved by the Roman clergy, but the practice (not the choice) was so unpopular that Pope Boniface renounced the procedure. The elected successor to Pope Boniface, Pope Silverius, was forced into retirement (as a monk), and then Pope Vigilius was named!

  2. JabbaPapa says:

    hmf — not sure about your literal version, sorry.


    Tuere, Domine, supplices tuos, sustenta fragiles,
    et inter tenebras mortalium ambulantes
    tua semper luce vivifica,
    atque a malis omnibus clementer ereptos,
    ad summa bona pervenire concede.

    I’d say :


    Listen, Lord, to your Faithful, give strength to our cripples,
    And in the darkness of our mortal wanderings
    May Your Eternal Light enliven
    Even all of we who crawl as cowards away from our evils,
    And accept our desire for Your Ultimate Goodness.

    [That’s another way, I suppose.]

  3. JabbaPapa says:

    ah — my last line should read :

    And let us reach into Your Ultimate Goodness.

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