The Lenten “Prayer over the People” during Holy Mass: a beautiful custom revived

A wonder Lenten tradition is upon us, to remind us of how important Lent is.  Entering Lent, we enter a mystery, a sacramentum.  We need special graces to carry out our Lenten discipline.

The Latin 2002 Missale Romanum restored the ancient custom of the Oratio super populum at the end of Mass.  It had been heinously stripped out of the Novus Ordo by the liturgical engineers through the implementation of BugniniCare.  In the Novus Ordor now, or Ordinary Form, you hear these prayers each day during Lent.  In the older form of the Roman Rite they occur every day of the week but Sunday.

What’s up with this prayer?

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. 427 ff).  Jungmann emphasizes that, at Mass ends, 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.

By the time of Pope Gregory the Great (+604) the Oratio super populum was only used in the Lenten season, probably because Lent is a time of greater spiritual combat requiring more blessings.

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 (+555) 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.

Let’s see the Oratio super populum for Thursday after Ash Wednesday in the Ordinary Form, the 2003 Missale Romanum.

Oratio super populum (2002MR):

Qui populo tuo, omnipotens Deus,
notas fecisti vias vitae aeternae,
per eas ad te, lumen indeficiens,
nos facias, quaesumus, pervenire

The phrase lumen indeficiens is what catches your eye and ear right way.  Light unfailing!  This is from Scripture, Ecclesiasticus 24:6: ego in caelis feci ut oriretur lumen indeficiens et sicut nebula texi omnem terram.  Latin Fathers such as Cyprian of Carthage, Maximus of Turin, and Augustine of Hippo worked with this phrase. It also winds up in old prayers, for example in the Liber sacramentorum Augustodunensis and Gellonensis.  In the later it is part of a blessing for a lamp, candle or lantern, right after a fascinating blessing for soap!  But I digress…


Almighty God, who made the paths
of eternal life known to Your people,
grant us, we implore, to come by them
to You, the unfailing light


Almighty God,
who have made known to your people
the ways of eternal life,
lead them by that path, we pray,
to you, the unfading light

The image we get from this prayer is that God is the light which illuminates our way through the obstacle strewn paths of this world.  He lights our way lest we lose our footing and fall into the abyss where there is no light at all.

Through out the history of salvation, God has shown man the way to come to him.  We knew many things by interior lights before the fall.  After the Fall, God gave us commandments and symbolic actions which foreshadowed the clearer realities that would come in their due times.  In the fullness of time the One who is Light from Light came into the this world to dispel the darkness we made.

He is not only Light from Light, eternally, but, in time, He is the Way.

At the end of Mass you are sent back out into the daylight to continue to carry out your vocation.

You need the light that God offers you in the teachings of the Church to guide your footsteps.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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

    I don’t see light unfailing in the NABRE, but I see it in the RSVCE (verse 3). I guess all translations limp.

  2. padredana says:

    Rubrical Question regarding the restored prayer of the people: If one is offering Mass ad orientem (as I do every morning), and the Missal is on the Altar (I have no server), what is the best way of following the rubric “with hands outstretched over the people?” Any thoughts?

  3. frbkelly says:

    padredana, your situation is mine as well.
    What I do is to pick up the missal as I turn around to face the people and hold the book with my hands outstretched as I pray the prayer and blessing. I don’t know if this is the best, but it works.
    I do much the same thing for the collect but that I do from the chair.

  4. SpesUnica says:

    Do it from the chair and get a tall Missal stand/easel. Or better yet recruit one of the people you’re praying over to serve.

  5. frbkelly says:

    SpesUnica, your suggestion of praying the prayer over the people from the chair is a valid one, and perhaps even what the missal envisions, but as I have come to realize from daily Mass without a server (I suspect padredana has also come to this realization), the move back to the chair after communion is a bit awkward.
    It makes much more sense to pray the postcommunion from the altar and give the closing blessing from there as well. The missal explicitly says that the whole Mass can be offered from the altar. The chair need not be used.
    There is something that is just _right_ about giving the closing blessing from the altar where the Lord’s Sacrifice has just been offered and received.
    On the whole, I find myself preferring my solution to either of the two proposed. If there were someone at Mass able/eligible to hold the book for the prayer, then there could have been a server for the Mass as well.

  6. SpesUnica says:

    How do you “hold the book with your handS outstretched?” Is one hand not holding the missal? Maybe I’m not very imaginative. I thought you meant hold it with one, the other outstretched.

    I very much dislike holding the book during any of the presider’s prayers. I don’t like not being able to do the orans or put out both hands when saying the blessing. I personally think it looks like I’m giving “half a blessing” or blessing “with one hand tied behind my back.

    But if we’re being picky about rubrics in the first place, then I think finding a server ranks much higher than trying to figure out what to do when you don’t have one. The Missal doesn’t have a rubric for what to do without a server because the missal presumes there is always at least a server. Do you do all the readings, too? Can the lector pull “double duty?” Of course the Directory on the Ministry and Life of Priests, iirc, notes that a priest can celebrate Mass alone for as little reason as wanting to celebrate Mass every day so you are “everyone,” but that’s a little different.

    I usually don’t have a server for daily Masses, either, but those are versus populum, so the missal stand is just on the altar while I’m facing the people from the “far side.” I’ve never said Mass ad orientem without a server. I guess in a pinch I would say the Prayer “over the people” still in orans facing the altar and only turn for the actual cruciform blessing. Either option (yours or mine) would look at least a bit silly, I would think.

  7. Stephen Matthew says:

    I never hear these prayers. Ever. (Unless a go visit the local abbey or seminary.)

    Many priests (and even some bishops) don’t know what to do with these prayers or why they were added to the missal.
    Around here it was understood that these prayers are like the optional solemn blessings, they can be used if you want to use them, but are not required. So, because it would make the end of mass longer, omitting is the rule of the day.

    I know I am being lazy to ask this rather than look it up, but if there are to be announcements made, those are made before the prayer over the people, yes? or is it post-communion prayer, prayer over the people, announcements, and then final blessing?

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