Tuesday, November 05, 2013

The Prayers at the Foot of the Altar - Spiritual Reflection by Msgr. Wadsworth

Over at the Chant Café, Ms. Kathy Pluth has posted a wonderful spiritual conference given Msgr. Andrew Wadsworth before Juventutem DC's Mass on All Souls' Day.

One of the requirements of membership in Juventutem is to pray for the sanctification of youth, and the prayers at the foot of the altar provide a wonderful text for this very purpose. In his reflection, Msgr. Wadsworth gives not just an introduction to the history of the prayers' inclusion in the missal, but also a beautiful meditation on the texts themselves.

Given that this morning of recollection has been sponsored by the newly-formed chapter of Juventutem DC, I thought it might be appropriate to offer a few thoughts on the name ‘Juventutem’ and its obvious reference to Psalm 42 which is to be found in the prayers at the foot of the altar that occur in the Traditional Latin Mass. In most Masses in the Extraordinary Form, Psalm 42 is said in its entirety. In almost all Masses at least verse 4 of this psalm is said. In Sung Masses, it is not heard as the prayers at the foot of the altar coincide with the singing of the introit and the kyrie. In Masses during Passiontide and in Requiem Masses (such as this morning’s Requiem Mass for All Souls), the psalm is omitted but the antiphon retained.

Although commentators often disagree in their explanation of the origins of certain features of the liturgy, it would seem that historically, this penitential act has occupied its place at the beginning of Mass, at the foot of the altar, from the time when the Roman liturgy was spreading into Gall-Frankish territory. The psalm did not gain an entrance into many rites of Mass, however, even through the later Middle Ages and for a considerable time after. In the liturgies of religious orders such as the Carthusians and Dominicans Psalm 42 did not appear in their rite of Mass when these orders were established in the 13th century. Even when it was inserted, only a single verse was recited, Introibo ad altare Dei. Even when the psalm itself is omitted, the antiphon is said once.

This wonderful psalm expresses perfectly the sentiment which should animate the priest as he approaches the altar. It expresses a very great truth – the priest is powerfully attracted to the altar. A priest belongs at the altar and there is no place where he is more conscious of the reality of his priesthood than when he stands at the altar. The altar of God, however, is an awesome and holy place, yet there the priest stands, an unworthy servant of the Most High. He might call to mind the words of St. John Chrysostom: ‘When the priest calls upon the Holy Ghost and offers the tremendous Sacrifice: tell me in what rank should we place him? What purity shall we require of him, what reverence?’”

As a priest approaches the altar for the celebration of Holy Mass, he longs to ascend there to perform his sacred duty, to draw near to the Lord and to be united to Him. St John Chrysostom continues: “By the words iuventutem meam the priest may indeed, also, acknowledge that from his early days God has been his delight and bestowed on him a thousand joys.”

These are very beautiful thoughts but this psalm clearly expresses mixed emotions and demonstrates something of the divided heart that is so much a part of our human condition. It contains a sort of lament but one which includes a vow to give thanks in the Temple. Even when we are anxious and things are not going as we planned, we can purpose to praise God despite the way we feel. This primacy of will over emotions is one of the early lessons of the Mass and an essential one for anyone who wants to find happiness in the Church. It runs so very counter to all of the counsels of this age that suggest that our feelings are the greatest guide to reality. In truth, they are the least reliable guide and should often be mistrusted or even ignored.

Read the rest here.

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