Wednesday, May 26, 2021

The Curious Conventions Regarding the Holy Spirit in the Roman Orations

Bernini, Dove of the Holy Spirit, St Peter’s Basilica
Lost in Translation #55

In the Roman Rite, the typical formulation of the Collects, Secrets, Postcommunions, and Prayers over the People is to the Father through the Son in the Holy Spirit. It is a venerable arrangement, one that is biblically inspired (see Ephesians 2, 18). In the fourth century, St. Basil the Great is already treating it as well-established (though he also used “to the Father with the Son along with the Holy Spirit”). [1] The orations in our oldest liturgical manuals (the so-called Verona and Gelasian Sacramentaries) presuppose this formula, and indeed both sacred liturgy and the Christian life as a whole can be defined as a sacrificial offering to the Father through the Son in the Holy Spirit.

Beginning in the second millennium, the Latin liturgical tradition came to include several orations addressed to the Son rather than the Father. Twentieth-century liturgical purists found these additions abhorrent (and some still do), and so the 1970 Missal greatly reduced their number. In a recent post and book chapter, Peter Kwasniewski defended the Christocentric orations in the 1962 Missal, describing them in one response to a commenter as “a rare species in an ecosystem.” I love the metaphor of the universal Church's different liturgies as so many ecosystems, and during this Octave of Pentecost and on this feast of St Philip Neri, we have the opportunity to reflect further on the peculiarities of the Roman ecosystem. For both Whitsuntide and St Philip’s Day include another exotic creature: orations that refer to the Holy Spirit.
Orations addressing the Holy Spirit are not rare in the Roman Rite (new or old): they are nonexistent. Although the priest prays to the Holy Spirit at every Mass with the Offertory Rite’s Veni Sanctificator; although he says or sings almost every morning during Terce Nunc Sancte nobis Spiritus; and although the Church on Pentecost and throughout its octave addresses the Holy Spirit in the Mass sequence Veni Sancte Spiritus and in the Office hymn Veni Creator Spiritus--nevertheless, there is not a single Roman Collect, Secret, or Postcommunion Prayer that uses the vocative for the Third Person of the Blessed Trinity.
The closest that the Roman liturgy comes to an orational address of the Paraclete is what we see on the Vigil of Pentecost, the feast itself, and throughout its Octave--namely, prayers directed to the Father that mention the Holy Spirit and end with “in the unity of the same Holy Spirit, God, forever and ever. Amen.” Even then, not every oration within these nine special days mentions the Holy Spirit.
As for the rest of the year, the temporal cycle includes a Collect (pro aliquibus locis) for Our Lady, Queen of the Apostles (Saturday after Ascension) and a Postcommunion for the Friday after Ash Wednesday that follow the formula of addressing the Father and mentioning the Spirit, while the sanctoral cycle has similar orations for St Philip Neri (May 26, Secret), St John Mary Vianney (August 8, Secret), St Joan Frances de Chantal (August 21, Postcommunion), and St Josaphat (November 14, Collect). Not surprisingly, the Saint most commonly linked to the Holy Spirit is the Blessed Virgin Mary: the Collects for the Immaculate Heart (August 22) and Presentation (November 21) have references to Her as His dwelling place. Even the Votive Mass of the Holy Spirit and the Votive Mass for seeking the grace of the Holy Spirit never pray to the Holy Spirit, although all their orations likewise mention Him.
Perhaps all this sounds unfair to the Holy Spirit, but before we start an equity-in-prayer movement, it is meet to consider two points:
  1. The Church’s prayers to the Holy Spirit elsewhere counterbalance any apparent slight to the equal dignity or divinity or personhood of the Holy Spirit in the orations. Indeed, the Trinitarian ending of the orations, which makes all prayer in the Holy Spirit, affirms the Spirit’s importance. When the Church references the Trinity in prayer, it is usually with a “coordinating” or a “mediatorial” pattern. Coordinating patterns, such as “Glory be to the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit” lay stress on the equality of Persons, while mediatorial patterns, such as we see in the conclusions to the orations, make “clear the order of the divine persons in the economy of salvation.” [2] This economic order, however, is not a denial of ontological equality.
  2. The orations’ manner of speaking about the Holy Spirit rather than to Him reinforces, to my mind at least, a certain ineluctable aura surrounding Him. The Collects of Advent ingeniously omit the Holy Name of Jesus (even though they talk about and sometimes even address the Son of God) as a way of dramatizing the concept of waiting for the yet unnamed Messiah. Similarly, refraining from addressing the Holy Spirit dramatizes a certain je-ne-sais-quoi of Pneumatology; the last Person in the Holy Trinity to be revealed is in some respects the Person about Whom we know the least. For St Gregory of Nazianzus, the Old Testament clearly proclaims the Father and less clearly proclaims the Son, while the New Testament clearly proclaims the Son but only gives “a glimpse of the Spirit’s Godhead.” [3] Historically, the Spirit was revealed gradually and only after the mysteries of Father and Son came into better focus. One way to think about the Roman orations’ conventions regarding the Holy Spirit is as an instantiation of Gregory’s advice that we should follow God’s pattern of neither revealing His doctrine suddenly nor of concealing it to the last. [4]
None of this is to say that the composers of these prayers had these points in mind. They may have simply acted within the parameters of a liturgical-literary style and nothing more until, in the second millennium, the rules were relaxed enough to allow a few prayers to the Son. The result is a heritage of prayers with most addressed to the Father, some to the Son, and none to the Spirit. As Dr Kwasniewski points out, there are providential reasons to be grateful for the orations to the Son (for example, as an antidote to Arianism), and there may well be providential reasons to be grateful for an absence of orations to the Spirit, even on His feast day or during His octave. For perhaps that is precisely how the Holy Spirit, under Whose guidance the liturgical treasures of the Church were formed, wants it. Perhaps the One who enlightens our hearts wishes to stay out of this particular limelight.


[1] On the Holy Spirit 1.3.

[2] Gilles Emery, O.P., The Trinity, trans. Matthew Levering (CUA Press, 2011), 7.

[3] Oration 31.26.

[4] Oration 31.27.

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