WDTPRS 5th Sunday of Easter (2002MR) – eternity and sempiternity are different

Sunday’s Collect for the Ordinary Form was not in a previous edition of the Roman Missal. A precedent is found in the Sacramentarium Bergomense.

Omnipotens sempiterne Deus,
semper in nobis paschale perfice sacramentum
ut, quos sacro baptismate dignatus es renovare,
sub tuae protectionis auxilio multos fructus afferant,
et ad aeternae vitae gaudia pervenire concedas.

Almighty eternal God,
perfect in us always the paschal mystery,
so that those whom You deigned to renew by means of sacred baptism,
may under the aid of Your protection bear many fruits,
and that You will grant them to attain unto the joys of eternal life.

may we whom you renew in baptism
bear witness to our faith by the way we live.
By the suffering, death, and resurrection of your Son
may we come to eternal joy

Almighty ever-living God,
constantly accomplish the Paschal Mystery within us,
that those you were pleased to make new in Holy Baptism
may, under your protective care, bear much fruit
and come to the joys of life eternal

BoethiusPerfice as the imperative “perfect” has the force of “bring to completion”. It could be perceived as “perfect” in an instant of time, by a sudden and all embracing act, or it could be construed as being an ongoing process of perfection, of bringing to completion. In a way the Paschale Mystery itself (remember that mysterium and sacramentum are pretty much interchangeable in these contexts) reflects this same problem of our perception of time and God’s work in time, or outside of time, or beyond time. The Paschal Mystery is both completed and not completed. Our redemption is “already” completed, but “not yet” completed. As Christians we live in this pilgrim life, this earthly continuum, in a constant state of “already but not yet”.

We have some time to look at the word sempiterne.

This is a vocative form of sempiternus, a, um. In philosophy and theology (mostly indistinguishable in ancient times through late antiquity) there has been constant effort to figure out time and God’s relationship to time. In this prayer sempiternus is simply the equivalent of aeternus, “eternal”. Scripture has innumerable references to God being aeternus and it is associated with God’s unchanging nature. There are some 50 or so prayers in the Ordinary Form missal which begin with today’s formula and many that start with aeterne Deus.

Even though the words are pretty much interchangeable in our prayers, eternity and sempiternity are really different concepts.

Eternity can be thought of different ways.

First, eternity can be completely independent of time. Something eternal in this sense is entirely outside of time. St. Augustine, who was a Neoplatonist in this sense, thought of God this way.

Another eternity is everlastingness. It has no beginning or end. This is what we call sempiternity. That is to say, it exists at “all points in time”.

This is a great simplification of a millennial discussion, but it can give you a quick glimpse into this language of prayer.

The Greeks, from Parmeides to Plato to Plotinus all wrote about eternity. Christian ideas of eternity were explored by authors like St. Augustine (+430), Boethius (+c.526), Eriugena (+c.877), St. Anselm (+1109), St. Thomas Aquinas (+1274).

When we say in these prayers that God is sempiternus we do not thereby believe as Catholics that God is “everlasting” in the sense of being in time, that is all points of time, but without beginning or end. God is eternal in the sense of being beyond time, entirely transcending time.

Finally, there is in this prayer a reference to John 15:16:

Non vos me elegistis sed ego elegi vos et posui vos ut eatis et fructum adferatis et fructus vester maneat ut quodcumque petieritis Patrem in nomine meo det vobis… You have not chosen me: but I have chosen you; and have appointed you, that you should go and should bring forth fruit; and your fruit should remain: that whatsoever you shall ask of the Father in my name, he may give it you.”

By the way, in the 1970 editio typica of the Missale Romanum the Collect is:

Deus, per quem nobis et redemptio venit et praestatur adoptio,
filios dilectionis tuae benignus intende,
ut in Christo credentibus
et vera tribuatur libertas et hereditas aeterna.

In other words, the Collect was changed for the 2002 edition.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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

    This is a really helpful distinction and one that has confused me for awhile. How does this understanding of sempiternum apply to Heb 10:12 “hic autem unam pro peccatis offerens hostiam in sempiternum sedit in dexter a Dei”?

  2. yatzer says:

    Is that also related to *saecula saeculorum* ?

  3. Mojoron says:

    Prayers and Psalms often fail to use syntax and punctuation in order to leave the reader on this side of pulling their hair out. In one of the collects: Father,
    may we whom you renew in baptism…. Should it be: Father, May we, whom you renew in baptism,…. or should it be left alone?

    Depending on which translation of the bible is read, formulations of words can sometimes be difficult to ascertain the meaning(s). That is why I prefer the KISS translations: Keep it simple, stupid.

  4. acardnal says:

    And yet ICEL in all of its brilliance still used “ever-living” in its 2011 translation instead of “eternal” God. Dumb.

  5. kay says:

    Thank you for this Father Z.
    It was beautiful to read.

  6. Regarding why ICEL 2011 consistently chose to translate “sempiterne Deus” as “ever-living God” rather than “eternal God”, it occurs to me that this post may suggest a possible rationale.

    According to every dictionary I’ve checked, the word “eternal” has in English the connotation of going on in time without end, rather that of existing apart from time in the Augustinean sense of God existing outside of time.

    So I wonder whether ICEL wanted a different word than “eternal” to suggest “ever existing” independent of time, for which “ever-living” might have come to mind as perhaps suggesting the idea, but less abstruse than “ever-existent”.

  7. robtbrown says:

    Great stuff from Fr Z. If I might add a few comments:

    1. Generally, pagan philosophy did not posit a beginning or end to Time. Platonism thought matter always existed but forms emanated from the Demiurge (cf Porphyry’s Tree). Aristotle thought the whole shebang always existed. Generally, they are cyclical concepts of Time

    2. From Jewish thought comes the concept that Time is linear, having a beginning and end.

    3. In pagan understanding there is no such concept as God as Final Cause, thus no such thing as Providence, only fate (the Fatum.

    4. Eternity, therefore, in pagan thought can only be considered Infinite Time. As Fr Z pointed out, in Christian thought, they are not. NB: Balthasar seems to confuse the two (cf Dare We Hope).

    5. The quick diptych is:

    Eternity–without beginning and end (simultaneous present). Only God qualifies.
    Aeviternity–with a beginning but without end. Angels and Man.

    6. Those who have the Beatific Vision participate in God’s Eternity.

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  9. Venerator Sti Lot says:


    It is good to see ‘aeviternity’ added to the discussion!

    3. needs more explanation: consider, for instance, Andrea Falcon’s article on “Aristotle on Causality” with its attention to ‘final cause’ in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. And consider the Latin word ‘providentia’ as used by Stoics (Seneca’s ‘De Providentia’, for example). In sum, you invite us to consider how Patristic thinking (in the first place, chronologically) about ‘final cause’ and ‘providence’ differs from pagan.

    Fr. Z,

    Do you see a wordplay between ‘sempiterne’ in the vocative phrase and ‘semper … perfice’ in the clause that follows?

    I admire ‘constantly’ for ‘semper’, with its suggestion that the ‘semper’ prayed for reposes in God’s ‘constancy’.

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