WDTPRS – Trinity Sunday: Explain the Trinity? No problem!

At some point we wind up taking a stab at explaining the Trinity to someone.  Results vary.

Today, to get at the mystery of the Most Holy Trinity, let’s use the final prayer at Holy Mass in the venerable, traditional form of the Roman Rite as a crowbar.

Here is the Postcommunio of the Feast of the Most Holy Trinity in the 1962MR.

POST COMMUNION (1962 & 2002MR):

Proficiat nobis ad salutem corporis et animae, Domine Deus noster, huius sacramenti susceptio, et sempiternae sanctae Trinitatis eiusdemque individuae Unitatis confessio.

There is a pleasant rhyme herein of susceptio and confessio, three syllable words preceded by words of four syllables and both deserving a little closer inspectio.

The indomitable Lewis & Short Dictionary indicates that a susceptio is “a taking in hand, undertaking” and “an acceptance”. This is a substantive derived from the verb suscipio. The deponent verb confiteor gives us the noun confessio, which means in its basic meaning “a confession, acknowledgment” and thus also “a creed, avowal of belief” and more specifically in the Latin Vulgate “an acknowledgment of Christ” (Rom 10:10, Heb 3:1) and therefore in the early Church “an acknowledgment of Christ under torture; and hence, “torture, suffering for religion’s sake” (Lactantius, De mortibus persecutorum 1).

A review of vocabulary is important, and can provide new insights into the deeper meaning of a prayer.  The structure or word order can give clues as well.

Today we have one main verb proficiat, coming from proficio (“to profit, derive advantage” and “to be useful, serviceable, advantageous, etc.,”) an old friend of WDTPRS vets. This verb has two subjects, susceptio and confessio. Susceptio is further specified by huius sacramenti (“reception of this sacrament”) and confessio is delineated in two ways, Trinitatis (“of the Trinity”) and Unitatis (“of the Unity”).

Often in Latin we will have a sentence structure of noun and then, frequently at the very end, main verb, with many other clauses and material in between which can be pealed open like layers of an onion. Here, the verb is out front as the very first word and the final subject noun is the last word.

For me, this structure emphasizes the nouns susceptio and especially confessio and the intimate relationship between them as well as the concepts that are attached to them, that is, the intimate bond at the moment of Communion between our reception of Christ’s Body and Blood with our confession of a God who is Triune – Three distinct divine Persons having one indivisible divine nature.

Furthermore, the theme of distinct elements in indivisible unity is even carried into the effect we hope for from the act of Communion in Mass: “health” of both “body and soul”. Latin salus is “a being safe and sound; a sound or whole condition, health, welfare, prosperity, preservation, safety, deliverance” and also in Christian contexts such as the Vulgate “salvation, deliverance from sin and its penalties. It can be rendered as both “health” and “salvation”.


Lord, God,
we worship you, a Trinity of Persons, one eternal God.
May our faith and the sacrament we receive
bring us health of mind and body


May the reception of this sacrament, O Lord our God, and also the confession of our faith in the holy everlasting Trinity and of the undivided Unity of the same, profit us for the salvation of body and soul.


May receiving this Sacrament, O Lord our God,
bring us health of body and soul,
as we confess your eternal holy Trinity and undivided Unity

Hmmmm…. you decide.

We have pairs of terms in this Latin prayer which underscore relationships: corpus and anima, susceptio and confessio, Trinitas and Unitas. Each element is necessary for and balances the other.

Humans are by God’s design persons comprised of both body and soul (corpus et anima). By contrast, angels are persons having only a soul but no body. The temporary separation of our body and our soul results in death. Their reunion at the end of time produces the resurrection of the flesh.

God loves us so much that he provides sustenance for both constituent elements.

In Holy Communion we have a food which our body transforms into what it is (flesh and blood) and which transforms our souls in to what It is (more perfect images of the Triune God after the Person of the Risen Christ).

For us to participate in this mysterious exchange of transformations we must both inwardly and outwardly conform to the transcendent reality we seek to embrace and be embraced by.

HENCE, before we can receive the transformed and transforming Host in Communion, we must be in an authentic communion of faith both with a larger group of believers and partakers (called the Church) and we must be interiorly disposed to receive the invisible benefits that the outward signs and actions portend. We must make a true confession and profession of faith consistent with our interior landscape. We must also be physically disposed, which is why we are asked to fast before receiving the Eucharist.

And now the moment you’ve been waiting for….

In the mystery of the Unity and Trinity of God we believe that, from all eternity and before material creation and even outside of time itself, the One God who desired a perfect communion of love expressed Himself in a perfect Word, containing all that He is. The Word God uttered was and is a perfect self-expression, also perfectly possessing what the Speaker possesses: being, omniscience, omnipotence, truth, beauty, and even personhood. So, from all eternity there were always two divine Persons, the God who spoke and the Word who was spoken, the God who Generates and the God who is Generated, true God with and from true God, Begetter and Begotten, Father and Son. There was never a time when this was not so. These two Persons eternally regard and contemplate each other. From all eternity they knew and loved each other, each offering the other a perfect gift of self-giving. Since the self-gift of these perfect and divine Persons, distinct but sharing one divine nature, can be nothing other than a perfect self-gift, perfectly given and perfectly received, the very Gift between them also contains all that each of the Persons have: being, omniscience, omnipotence, truth, beauty, and even personhood. Therefore, from all eternity there exist three distinct divine Persons having one indivisible divine nature, Father, Son and the perfect self-gift of love between them, the Holy Spirit.

This is a foundational, saving doctrine we believe in as Christians. At the core of everything else we believe in and hope for, we will find this mysterious doctrine of divine relationship, the Triune God.

By baptism we images of God are brought into a new relationship with this Triune God.

We become the adoptive children of the heavenly Father, members of the Son our Lord Jesus Christ in the Mystical Person of the Holy Church which He founded. The Holy Spirit makes of us His dwelling so that all the divine Persons are present to us and in us, informing all that we are, do and say. Our membership in the Church opens the way to an eternal relationship of glory and praise with the Trinity.

The promise and token of this eternal reward is how we, as members of a Church of believers professing a common Faith, can take into our bodies, and thus into our souls, the already transformed Body and Blood of the Second Person, the one who unites in His divine Person both the eternity divinity of God and the finite two-fold nature of man.

For this to have taken place, and to make it possible for us to “return back” to the Father, the Second Person “went forth” from the Father in a new way, this time in the context of time and space.

In taking us up in our human nature, He made an act of self-empyting. In filling us with divine gifts in Holy Communion, Christ renews (not re-sacrifices) His Sacrifice, His giving forth and His taking back up again.

In Holy Mass we are asked to “take up and give forth” (susceptio et confessio). In our confessio we make an exterior expression, giving forth outwardly what we are within.

“I confess (confiteor) to almighty God…” is just a scratching of the surface, though an important one.

BotticelliFor St. Augustine, in his great prayer and autobiographical “giving forth” (The Confessions), the word confessio carried layers upon layers of meaning. As we learn from the magisterial Augustinus Lexicon, for Augustine confessio simultaneously, and in a fluid way, bore three main concepts: confession of sin, praise of God, and profession of faith.

For Augustine all created things in the universe, even inanimate things, both give witness to God and give Him glory:

Respondent tibi omnia: Ecce vide, pulchra sumus. Pulchritudo eorum confessio eorum… All things respond to you, O God: ‘Behold! See! We are beautiful!’ Their beauty is their hymn of praise/demonstration that you are God/admission that they are not God” (s. 241, 2 – PL 38: 1133).


Are we beautiful at Mass?

What we do outwardly in our bodies, and what we do interiorly in our souls, must conform to the Trinity in whose image we are made.

Receiving Holy Communion is a profound statement of who we are and what we hope to be. The act of reception must be consistent with who we are and what we are about in life. That act of reception must inform and transform all other acts which, in their turn, are a living “confession”, bearing witness, giving praise, and recognizing our true status before God which can often involve confession of sins.

Similarly every act of praise and testimony of the Church in her liturgy should reflect beautifully and accurately all that the Church professes and longs for.

Every liturgical gesture, church building, vestment, and musical prayer, must be like a gift simultaneously coming forth from the Sacred Heart of the Son and given to us for our benefit as well as a response we make to the glory of the Triune God who gives them.

“Their beauty is their praise.”

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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

    For Fr. Z newcomers . . . A truly classic “What Does The Prayer Really Say?” post, combining doctrine, patristics, and Latin grammar and vocabulary to unpack layers of meaning in the dense syntax of a typical ancient Roman oration. For WDTPRS old-timers, redolent of the halcyon pre-internet days when the print Wanderer was where it was at, and its weekly WDTPRS column on literal liturgical translation first opened our amazed eyes to the riches buried in these ancient collects, which for decades had lain hidden in the mendacious original English translation of the missal.

    [Thanks, Henry. Those were the days!]

    Fr. Z's Gold Star Award

  2. Chris Garton-Zavesky says:

    Have you seen the Lutheran Satire on the Most Holy Trinity?

  3. Unwilling says:

    How explain the singular verb with two feminine subjects? [Not a problem!]

  4. Fr. Vincent Fitzpatrick says:

    This book about the Trinity, by Dorothy L. Sayers, should be read by every living human being:


  5. Matt R says:

    I find it hard to talk about the Trinity for more than thirty seconds without running into one heresy or another. It reminds one that theology is often negative before finding a postive statement of belief.

    The prayer from 2011 is obviously passing on more of the Latin text, but confession of the Trinity is what brings about the profit to body and soul. It does not merely set a tenporal condition for when we receive healing, which is the natural reading of the text. That’s problematic, since one will primarily encounter this prayer at Mass.

    Your version is very faithful to Latin grammar; I personally translate any coordinating conjunction other than “et” as “and also,” “and even,” or in some other way which is emphatic and seemingly redundant. Moving the phrase to follow the address of the Lord our God, with the same participial form as in the opening phrase. would have worked.

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  7. Eugene says:

    Dear Father it just happens I an reading the CCC at this time and I am in the section of the explanation of the creed and the Trinity. This post is truly a powerful aid to my poor understanding of this most sublime mystery.
    God bless you

  8. Doug says:

    Post; responses; the words of men. For clarity, simplicity and truth, I prefer God’s word, the Bible, ‘the book we Catholics gave you’. May I use it here?
    John 17:3, NJB: “And eternal life is this: to know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”
    Two, not three; both are “gods”, or powerful ones [John 10:35; Ps 82:1]. Only one, not three, is called the “true” God. And we need knowledge of both, not ‘all three’, to get the eternal life we all crave.
    And I have all this on the best authority.

  9. Poor Yorek says:

    Keep it Simple:

    Q: What are you, Lord? A: God (I Am Who Am)
    Q: Who are you, Lord? A: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

  10. Louis Tully says:

    Not trying to be dense here, honest question:

    How does this explanation avoid an infinite regress? I mean, wouldn’t the Son have perfect self-knowledge of Himself, which would then also have to include personhood, etc.?

  11. Doug says:

    Good work, Poor! Your proof is acceptable. You’ve proved that you do believe in the Trinity!

  12. Filipino Catholic says:

    I am reminded of a bit of mathematical manipulation that might be relevant here (credits to Fisheaters for the original use of it). The objection raised was the idea explicitly denied in the Quicumque Vult (in the phrase “…there are not three Gods…”) — how can 1 + 1 + 1 = 1? Change the operators: 1 x 1 x 1 = 1.

  13. Doug says:

    Maths operators, yes. Language? It trips over itself using the + operator, which is the only one relevant here. Please note that, in any other topic of discussion, such tripping would be a sign of fallacious reasoning or lack of language skills.

  14. Doug says:

    Louis, try this quote from Jesus, from the NJB.
    “But as for that day or hour [of the end], nobody knows it, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son; no one but the Father.” Mr13:32.
    So unless Jesus lied to us, there was at least one point in history where he denied a key quality of the Trinity: Co-equal, co-powerful, co-eternal. If, at any time, any one of the three was NOT almighty God then the three-in-one; one-in-three disappears.

  15. gaudiumcumpace says:

    Here is a beautiful explanation of the Holy trinity:
    The Holy Trinity
    God gives to the just man not only his grace, but also himself, so that God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit really dwell within the soul of the just, as in their Temple, and adorn it with their presence, and shower it with their gifts, as I demonstrated at length
    (in Hosea) on the words, It shall be said to them: you are the sons of the living God.
    The Holy Trinity comes to the three faculties of the soul, which he created after his own image, that he may dwell within them, renewing in them his image, which has been disfigured by concupiscence. To the Father is appropriated memory, because he from fruitful memory conceiving all things, produced the Word, and begat the Son. To the Son is appropriated the intellect, because by understanding he was begotten, as it were the word of the mind, the idea, image, and pattern of all things. To the Holy Spirit is appropriated the will, because he himself proceeds by the action of the will, i.e. the love of the Father and the Son, as it were the love and bond of union of both.
    The Father therefore reforms the memory when he blots out of it the appearances of vain, foul, and forbidden things, and brings into it the appearances of divine things, so that it should remember only God, his worship and his love, piety and the other virtues. The Son reforms the intellect, so that it should think only of the things that pertain to salvation and holiness. The Holy Spirit reforms the will, so that it should love and desire the same. Therefore a holy soul continually reflects that it is a temple of the Holy Trinity.
    -Father Cornelius A Lapide.

  16. Filipino Catholic says:

    There is I think an extremely controversial and contentious passage that invariably crops up sooner or later when the Trinity is discussed: the infamous Comma Iohanneum (I John 5:7-8), which reads “And there are three who give testimony in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost. And these three are one. And there are three that give testimony on earth: the spirit, and the water, and the blood: and these three are one.” (Douay-Rheims, Challoner). I can already hear the accusation of ‘ROMISH ADDITIONS’ being readied for the slinging.

    The matter of Mark 13:32 is likewise also uncomfortable, but it seems that it has not stopped previous generations of Catholic theologians from trying to explain it without having to deny the Trinity. It can of course be done, but again, they will be dismissed as the words of men, but then if there is Scriptural text that can be read in support of the Trinity, the same will be read against it (e.g. Matthew 28:20). It has been done since the early days, as attested to in a letter of the 2nd-century martyr Ignatius (more words of men) to the church of Philadephia: “When I heard some saying, If I do not find it in the ancient Scriptures, I will not believe the Gospel; on my saying to them, It is written, they answered me, That remains to be proved.” So what then is the point of trying to prove/disprove the Trinity from Scripture if neither side is going to budge an inch anyway?

  17. Doug says:

    Your information on the controversy of 1 John is out of date. In the latter part of the 18th C. Edward Gibbon initiated a long discussion of it in the pages of the London Times. As a result of the scholarship done at that time, no one but the hardest-core fundamentalists believes any more that the passage belongs in the Bible. See why in the excellent footnote in your NJB.
    Your comment on Mr 13:32 reveals perhaps more than you intended. Trinitarian theologians do indeed “try” to explain it, but can’t without having to deny the _verse itself__, never mind the dogma.
    There are about two dozen scriptures that are used to “prove” some part or other of the Three Persons. [Only the spurious 1 John specifies all three and sets them equal.] Mt 28 is popular.
    First, notice that the sentence is in the imperative: ‘Go, teach.’ A teaching is in the declarative: ‘The Trinity is _____.’
    Second, it begs the question, ‘What is/are the personal names/s of the Three Persons? Scripture says the Father’s name is Yahweh, Isa 42:8. The Son, as even Satan knows, is Jesus, Mt 4:4,6. The personal name of the Holy Spirit Person is … not found. Common sense asks for one name or three, but God’s word gives us exactly the wrong number.
    My own personal opinion – the word of Doug – is that there is no Trinity because in some 1500 pages of God’s word about himself He fails to use the word even once.

  18. Doug says:

    Rejoicer, I see something in Lapide that disturbs me, even coming from a medieval mindset.
    When he mentions that God’s image has been “disfigured by concupiscence”, I suspect he’s referring to the belief that sex is somehow beneath a person of God. The corollary is that we were destinrd for God’s realm, Heaven. The 5th C. scholar Jerome taught even that celibacy is preferred to matrimony.
    If these things are true, then Yahweh’s first command to man is dismisses by men.
    The first commandhas nothing to do with illegal trees, it is “Be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth and subdue it.

  19. Doug says:

    Rejoicer, I see something in Lapide that disturbs me, even when coming from a medieval mindset.
    When he mentions that God’s image has been “disfigured by concupiscence”, I suspect he’s referring to the belief that sex is somehow beneath a person of God. The corollary is that we were destined for God’s realm, Heaven. The 5th C. scholar Jerome taught even that celibacy is preferred to matrimony.
    If these things are true, then Yahweh’s first command to man is disregarded by men just as the second one was. We know how that turned out.
    The first command has nothing to do with illegal trees, it is, “Be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth and subdue it.” Gen 1:28, NJB.
    If Lapide, who is very well regarded by scholars, can’t teach me Yahweh’s clearly stated purpose for man, how can I trust him to explain ‘divine mysteries’?

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