Friday, May 28, 2021

The Confessional Collect of Trinity Sunday

Jean Bourdichon, The Holy Trinity, miniature from the Grandes Heures of Anne of Brittany, Queen consort of France (1477-1514)
Lost in Translation #56

The Collect for the Feast of the Most Holy Trinity is:

Omnípotens sempiterne Deus, qui dedisti fámulis tuis in confessióne veae fídei, aeternae Trinitátis gloriam agnóscere, et in potentia majestátis adoráre unitátem: quáesumus, ut, ejusdem fídei firmitáte, ab ómnibus semper muniámur adversis. Per Dóminum.
Which I translate as:
Almighty and eternal God, who didst grant to Thy servants, in the confession of the true Faith to acknowledge the glory of the eternal Trinity, and in the power of Majesty to adore Its Unity: we beseech Thee, that by steadfastness in the same Faith, we may ever be defended from all who are opposed to us. Through our Lord.
In theme and wording, the Collect echoes the Preface of the Most Holy Trinity, which is used on this feast and throughout the Time after Pentecost: confession of the true, Trinity and unity glory of the Persons, adoration and Majesty. Reading the two prayers back-to-back is a profitable exercise.
The statement of fact (“O God, who....”) declares that God has given His servants two gifts: a confession of the true Faith, which enables them to acknowledge the glory of the Trinity; and the power of His Majesty, which enables them to adore the unity of the Trinity. Once rich and polyvalent, the current concept of confession is a mere shadow of its former self. Whereas now confession refers only to a self-disclosure of sin, in the Bible and in the early and medieval Church it referred to three things: praise of God, accusation of self, and profession of faith. A “confessor” is the term for a saint who has not been martyred, but the early martyrs were also called confessors because of their brave confession of faith: to this day, the space below the altar in some early basilicas that contains the relics of a martyr is called a confessio.
A panoramic view of the confessio of St Mary Major in Rome, which in this case, houses the relics of Our Lord’s crib, rather than of a martyr, and of the high altar above it. (Image from Wikimedia Commons by Till Niermann, CC BY-SA 3.0)
Confession of the true Faith is powerful. In the Postcommunion Prayer of this feast, we dare to list it with Holy Eucharist as something that can grant wellness to both body and soul. [1] Here in the Collect, confession of the Faith is identified as something that gives us the ability to be cognizant of the glory of the Trinity. Agnoscere means “acknowledge,” and as Catholics we acknowledge the Trinity’s glory often--for example, every time we say the minor doxology “Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit.” But agnoscere can also mean to know or recognize, [2] and I suspect that these meanings are at play as well. Does not our Christian Faith enable us to recognize God’s glory, to see the ways in which “the world is charged with the grandeur of God”? (Gerard Manley Hopkins) It is a privilege to have this power of recognition, and it is a privilege to know the great mystery that there are three Persons in one God.
It is also a privilege to be able to love God’s unity, for this power comes not from our own native willpower but from His supervening Majesty. In the Roman orations, “glory” is something that belongs primarily to God, while “majesty” (majestas) belongs exclusively to Him. The martyrs, for instance, have glory, but only God has majesty, for it is virtually synonymous with His essence. [3] His Majesty does, however, empower us to love His unity. To my mind at least, there is a subtle compare-and-contrast between in confessione veræ fidei and in potentia majestatis. Both are powerful, but confessing the true faith is an example of cooperative grace, in which both man and God have agency, while the love that comes from God’s power is an example of operative grace, which God works in us without us--like the infused virtue of charity.
The petition, on the other hand, asks for protection from adverse things or persons. I have translated adversa or adversi as “all who are opposed to us” because the word ad-versus literally refers to someone who is turned to face you (in this case, aggressively) and is thus both opposite of you and opposed to you. The three hand Missals I consulted--St. Andrew Daily, St. Joseph, and Baronius Press-- translate the word as “adversities,” but I think they are missing the point. First, there is a Latin word for adversity and it is adversitas, not adversi. The Roman Collects sometimes pray for deliverance from adversitas, but here I believe that the author has in mind the people that war against our confession of the true Faith, like those who persecute Christians: there is, in other words, an implicit juxtaposition of the three Persons who are confessed in the true Faith and the persons who are opposed to that confession. Firmness in the Faith is difficult precisely because the Faith has enemies both visible and invisible.
But we do not pray for the destruction of these enemies. Others have turned against us, but we do not turn against them. Instead we pray that firmness in the Faith may provide a defense against their assaults. The image is mildly militaristic: muniamur literally means to “be fortified with a wall.” We are asking that our steadfastness in the Faith will act as a wall to keep us safe, perhaps to buy us enough time to convert our (mortal) enemies into making the same confession.
The 2002 Roman Missal, incidentally, has an altered version of this prayer for its Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity:
Deus Pater, qui, Verbum veritátis et Spíritum sanctificatiónis mittens in mundum, admirábile mysterium tuum homínibus declarasti, da nobis, in confessióne verae fídei, aeternae gloriam Trinitátis agnóscere, et Unitátem adoráre in potentia maiestátis. Per Dóminum.
Which I translate as:
God the Father, who by sending into the world the Word of truth and the Spirit of sanctification revealed a wonderful mystery to men: grant to us that in the confession of the true Faith we may acknowledge the glory of the eternal Trinity and in the power of Majesty we may adore Its Unity. Through our Lord.
The petition for steadfastness in the Faith and protection from our adversaries has been omitted, and the original statement of fact about God has been turned into a petition. Whereas the original Collect presupposes that the faithful have been acknowledging the Trinity’s glory and loving Its unity, the new Collect asks for them now.
But the real puzzle is the 2011 official English translation:
God our Father, who by sending into the world the Word of truth and the Spirit of sanctification made known to the human race your wondrous mystery, grant us, we pray, that in professing the true faith, we may acknowledge the Trinity of eternal glory and adore your Unity, powerful in majesty. Through our Lord.
There are, in my opinion, four peculiarities in the English translation.
  1. It reverses what we acknowledge. Before we acknowledged the glory of the Trinity; now we acknowledge the “Trinity of glory.” The latter is theologically ambivalent, and it weakens the allusion to our doxological practices. One wonders why this change was made.
  2. It destroys the pairing of [the power of] confession and the power of divine Majesty.
  3. It changes the power of Majesty from the cause of adoration to an attribute of divine unity. Our love of God is no longer seen as something that can only exist when it is sustained by divine power.
  4. Finally--and this returns us to our main theme--it translates confessio as “profession.” As we noted earlier, one of the meanings of confession is a profession of faith, and so the translators have by no means erred. But the decision, in my opinion, is nonetheless somewhat unfortunate. The only way we will be able to retrieve or maintain our rich Christian vocabulary is by using it. When we avoid terminology because it is no longer readily intelligible or because an easier word comes to mind, we collaborate in the emaciation of our own theological patrimony. Better to confess the true Faith in our own hallowed words, whether that confession is in season or out.
[1] Profíciat nobis ad salútem córporis et ánimae, Dómine, Deus noster, hujus sacramenti susceptio: et sempiternae sanctae Trinitátis ejusdemque indivíduae Unitátis confessio. Per Dóminum. Which I translate as: “O Lord, our God, may our reception of this sacrament and our confession of the eternal and holy Trinity and Its undivided Unity bring about health of body and of soul. Through our Lord.”
[2] See the Vulgate translation of Matt. 12, 33: ex fructu arbor agnoscitur.
[3] See Sr. Mary Pierre Ellebracht, Remarks on the Vocabulary of the Ancient Orations in the Missale Romanum (Dekker & Van de Vegt N.V.), 40.
[4] The theological virtue of faith is also infused in us without us, but I wonder if the confessing of the Faith is a more cooperative act.

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: