Friday, October 30, 2020

The Orations of All Saints’ Day

The “Wise Order of the Doctors”, from the vaulting of the Chapel of Saint Brice in Orvieto Cathedral, by Luca Signorelli, 1499.
Lost in Translation #23
This year, the Feast of All Saints falls on a Sunday, affording us the opportunity to ponder the mysteries of its Collect, Secret, and Postcommunion Prayer.
The Collect
Omnípotens sempiterne Deus, qui nos omnium Sanctórum tuórum mérita sub una tribuisti celebritáte venerári: quáesumus: ut desiderátam nobis tuae propitiatiónis abundantiam, multiplicátis intercessóribus, largiáris. Per Dóminum. 
Which I translate as:
Almighty and everlasting God, who hast given us under one celebration [the opportunity] to venerate the merits of all Thy saints; we beseech Thee, that with this increased number of intercessors, Thou mayst grant to us the abundance of Thy mercy for which we long. Through our Lord.
The prayer attributes the feast of All Saints not, as a historian might, to Pope Gregory III (d. 741), who in the eighth century replaced a May 13 celebration of the feast of Holy Mary and the Martyrs with an expanded Feast of All Saints on November 1, or to Pope Sixtus IV (d. 1484), who made All Saints’ Day a holy day of obligation for the entire Latin Church, and gave it an octave that was observed until 1955. Rather, the prayer claims that God gave us the feast. It is not unusual for the Christian imagination to prescind from intermediary causes and to focus our gratitude on God as the ultimate and highest cause. The traditional blessing for beer in the Rituale Romanum does as much when it credits the production of beer to God’s “kindness and power” and fails to mention the brewer, and so does Jesus Christ when He credits God the Father rather than a host of natural processes with feeding the birds of the air (Matthew 6, 26). In the case of the Collect, the exclusive focus on God’s role in instituting the feast reminds us of the agency of the Holy Spirit in guiding the organic development of the sacred liturgy. Our liturgical traditions are more than the work of human hands; they are a divine gift for which we should be grateful.
Both parts of the Collect (the subordinate clause and the petition) are wonderfully crowded. The word celebratio technically refers to a festival celebrated in great numbers. Perhaps this is an allusion to the vast numbers that came to Rome for the feast day, so many that the Pope, it has been speculated, transferred the feast from May 13 to November 1 in order to better feed the pilgrims with the bounty from the autumn harvest. [1] But it could also be a reference to the great cloud of witnesses themselves, the Saints rejoicing in Heaven. Either way, the Collect aspires to take advantage of the great number of heavenly intercessors now gathered for the occasion, so to speak, in order to increase God’s mercy upon us.
The Secret
Múnera tibi, Dómine, nostrae devotiónis offérimus: quae et pro cunctórum tibi grata sicut honóre justórum, et nobis salutaria, te miserante, reddantur. Per Dóminum.
Which I translate as:
We offer to Thee, O Lord, the gifts of our devotion, that they may be pleasing to Thee in honor of all the Saints and that, by Thy mercy, they may be salutary for us. Through our Lord.
The interesting word here is justi, which I have translated as “saints.” According to Sr. Mary Ellebracht, the word migrated from meaning a Christian or someone who lived to according to the divine law to “a technical term for the saints in heaven, those fixed in justice.” [2] (This migration in some respects parallels that of sanctus or “holy.”) In any event, the wording, which is also found in the Secret for Several Martyrs, nicely complements the feast’s Offertory Verse from Wisdom 3, 1-3
The souls of the just are in the hand of God, and the torment of malice shall not touch them: in the sight of the unwise they seemed to die, but they are in peace. Alleluia.

The Postcommunion Prayer

Finally, we come to the Postcommunion Prayer:

Da, quáesumus, Dómine, fidélibus pópulis omnium Sanctórum semper veneratióne laetari: et eórum perpétua supplicatióne muníri. Per Dóminum.

Which I translate as:

Grant, we beseech Thee, O Lord, that Thy faithful people may ever rejoice in the veneration of all Thy Saints and may be defended by their unceasing supplication. Through.

In the Collect at the beginning of Mass, the Church prays that this celebration bring an abundance of mercy. In the Postcommunion, the Church prays that the effects of this celebration will last far beyond the close of day. The word used here for being defended is munire, originally a military verb for building a wall (munus) in order to protect. In Postcommunion Prayers, munire is often used to signify the effects of the Eucharistic action on our souls. It is also often paired with verbs of purification, an arrangement that echoes the idea articulated by Our Lord in Luke 11, 21-16, namely, that once you purge a space from a demon, you need to fortify it to keep him and seven of his more wicked friends from reconquering it. Regardless of one’s position on immigration and the morality of a border wall, walls are essential in the spiritual life as a bulwark against evil. The contribution of this Postcommunion Prayer is that it identifies the intercession of the Saints as a part of the wall keeping our spiritual enemies at bay.

[1] Francis X. Weiser, SJ, Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs (Harcourt, Brace, and World, 1958), 307-8. See Gregory DiPippo for other thoughts on the Origin of All Saints’ Day.

[2] Sr. Mary Pierre Ellebracht, Remarks on the Vocabulary of the Ancient Orations in the Missale Romanum (Dekker & Van de Vegt N.V.), 39.

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