Thursday, October 06, 2022

A Brief Reflection on the Latin Titles of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Our Lady of Lourdes, by Virgilio Tojetti, 1877
Lost in Translation #79

Our “Lost in Translation” series has focused primarily on the orations found in the traditional Roman Missal. In this essay, in honor of tomorrow’s feast of the Most Holy Rosary, we turn to the Latin titles of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and consider how surprisingly difficult they can be to translate. [1]

In English, the following three titles have the same grammatical construction: the Mother of Grace, Our Lady of the Rosary, and Our Lady of Mount Carmel. Each is in the genitive case, which in English usually suggests possession. These titles thus encourage the English speaker to think that in a special way Our Lady “belongs” to good counsel, Mount Carmel, and the rosary--and indeed she does.
Mother of Grace Shrine, Glandorf, Ohio
But we see a greater nuance in the original Latin, with three different grammatical constructions.
First, some Marian titles are in the genitive as in English, but in the calendar for the Proper of Saints, these are relatively rare and tend to be used only when it is clear that Mary is in some manner the source, conduit, or mistress of something else. Hence, when she is understood as the Mother or Queen of something or someone, the genitive is used (“Mother of Grace”, “Queen of the Angels”, etc.). But even here, curiously enough, the genitive tends to be eschewed in the Marian liturgical titles of her feasts. In the Litany of Loreto, Mary is addressed as the Mother of Good Counsel (Mater Boni Consilii) using the genitive, but for the feast of Our Lady of Good Counsel on April 26, the title is formulated in the ablative with the preposition a/ab, Beata Maria Virgo a Bono Consilio.

Pasquale Sarullo, “Our Lady of Good Counsel”, 1800
Which brings us to the second construction. Were we to translate this title literally, it would be “The Blessed Virgin Mary by Good Counsel.” The ablative case in Latin has a number of different meanings (manner, means, agency, etc.), but to make sense of this particular construction we need to turn to the late imperial Roman custom of designating an office or dignity with the preposition a/ab and the ablative case. The official in charge of secret correspondence, for instance, was designated as such with a secretis and a secretary as a manu (by the hand). [2] Marian titles with this construction, therefore, draw our attention to a particular office or dignity or patronage connected to Our Lady. Mary is not only the Mother of Good Counsel, she is also the Heavenly Administrator, so to speak, of Good Counsel, no doubt having got the job from her Spouse the Holy Spirit, who has gifts of that sort to give.
Other titles with this construction include Our Lady of the Rosary (a Rosario, Head of the Office of the Rosary?), Our Lady of Ransom (a Mercede, the Chief Ransomer), [3] Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal ([in Charge of] the Sacred Medal” [a Sacro Numismate]), and Our Lady of Perpetual Help (CAO [Chief Administrative Officer] of Perpetual Help [a Perpetuo Succurso]). One noteworthy example is the feast of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, where “Sacred Heart” is in the ablative (a Corde Jesu). If you want to meet Jesus’ Sacred Heart, you must first make an appointment with Its Mother, the Executive Administrative Assistant.[4]
Third, Marian titles involving place are in the ablative with the preposition de, e.g., B.V.M. de Monte Carmelo. One of the meanings of this construction is “with respect to, concerning.” On July 16, for example, we think of our Holy Mother with respect to Mount Carmel and the Carmelite Order. De can also simply indicate the origin or derivation of something. Apparently, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis is straight from the Communion of Saints.
But de was originally a preposition of motion, and since most local motion, thanks to the laws of gravity, is usually downward, it came to mean “down from.” That meaning might be useful to keep in mind when one thinks about Our Lady appearing in mountainous regions such as Carmel. The Blessed Virgin is not simply Our Lady of Mount Carmel, but we can also imagine her as Our Lady coming down from the heights of Carmel to the nether lands where we dwell. And we can think metaphorically of her doing the same from Fatima, even though that part of Portugal only has an elevation of 1,168 feet. [5]
Our Lady of Mt Carmel, by Giuseppe Calì, 1879 
Other constructions present fewer difficulties in translating, but they are still interesting. Properties or characteristics of the Theotokos are usually in the genitive, as in “The feast of the Immaculate Heart of the B.V.M.”
Immaculate Heart (August 22)
Maternity (October 11)
Holy Name (September 12)
Seven Sorrows (September 15)
Titles for anniversaries in the life or afterlife of the Virgin, on other hand, are constructed with the preposition in and the ablative case. The feast of the Immaculate Conception, for example, is literally “The feast on [the Anniversary of] the Immaculate Conception” (In Conceptione Immaculata, December 8). Other examples include:
Nativity (September 8)
Presentation (November 21)
Purification (February 2)
Annunciation (March 25)
Visitation (July 2)
Assumption (August 15)
The Dedication of St. Mary Major (August 5)--literally, the feast on [the Anniversary of] the Dedication of Saint Mary of the Snows (ad Nives)
The Apparition of Our Lady at Lourdes (February 11)--literally, the feast on [the Anniversary of] the Apparition of the Immaculate Blessed Virgin Mary (In Apparitione Beatae Mariae Virginis Immaculatae). The title was changed in the 1970 Missal to the “feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Lourdes” (Beatae Mariae Virginis de Lourdes).

Other feasts are put in the appositive. In the sentence “George, the plumber, unclogged my sink”, “my plumber” is in the appositive.

Mary, the Queen of All Saints and the Mother of Beautiful Love (May 8)
Mediatrix of All Graces (May 8)
Queen (May 31)
Helper of Christians (May 24)
Queen of the Apostles (Saturday before the Ascension)
Mother of Grace (June 9)
Mother of All Mercy (Saturday before the fourth Sunday of July)
Refuge of Sinners (August 13)
Mother of the Divine Shepherd (September 4)
Mother of Divine Providence (Saturday before the third Sunday of November)
Finally, there are two Marian feasts that celebrate the Blessed Virgin “under the title” (titulo):
The B.V.M. under the Title of Help of Christians (May 24)
The BV.M. under the Title of Help of the Infirm (Saturday before the last Sunday of August)
Certainly, no Anglophone’s soul is in danger because the nuances of these titles are lost in translation. But it is a good reminder of why the Roman Church retains Latin as her sacred language and why it is good to meditate on the original language in the quest for a greater understanding of the mysteries of our Faith.

[1] In this essay I draw from the Marian feasts that are on the General Calendar in addition to those that were permitted in certain locations or by certain orders. The patterns I trace, I should add, sometimes apply to other saints as well.
[2] I express my gratitude to Dr. David White for his assistance with these distinctions.
[3] Curiously, earlier twentieth-century editions of the Missal use the title B.M.V. de Mercede.
[4] In the Benziger edition of the 1962 Missal, reproduced by Roman Catholic Books in 1996, the feast is an option on May 8. Elsewhere it appears on May 30 or May 28.
[5] As far as I can tell, the feast of Our Lady of Fatima is not in the 1962 Missal, but it can be found in the 1970 Missal as the feast of the B.V.M. of Fatima (de Fatima) on May 13.

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