Wednesday, November 15, 2023

A Tale of Two Collects: Different Worldviews in Old and New Prayers

Every year, as we come to the feast of St. Albert the Great on November 15, I am struck again by the enormous difference in theology between the traditional Collect for his feast (as found in MR 1962) and the rewritten Collect published in the Missal of Paul VI. One can see this particular pair as emblematic of a shift from one understanding of Christianity to another.

The old collect, translated literally, reads thus:
O God, who didst make blessed Albert, Thy bishop and Doctor, great by his bringing human wisdom into captivity to divine faith: grant us, we beseech Thee, so to adhere to the footsteps of his magisterium, that we may enjoy perfect light in heaven.[1]
The new collect, as given in the current edition of the modern Roman Rite, reads:
O God, who made the Bishop Saint Albert great by his joining of human wisdom to divine faith, grant, we pray, that we may so adhere to the truths he taught, that through progress in learning, we may come to a deeper knowledge and love of you.[2]
In the former prayer, God makes Albert great because he brought human wisdom into captivity to divine faith (in humana sapientia divinae fidei subjicienda). The prayer echoes St. Paul writing to the Corinthians about the destruction of worldly wisdom: “For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty to God unto the pulling down of fortifications, destroying counsels, and every height that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every understanding unto the obedience of Christ” (2 Cor 10:4–5). It is also reminiscent of the verse from the Psalms: “Thou didst ascend the high mount, leading captives in thy train, and receiving gifts among men, even among the rebellious, that the Lord God may dwell there” (Psa 67:19 [68:18]).

The perspective is not that human wisdom is bad, but that it is likely to be rebellious if not subordinated to divine faith, and that it will “come into its own” when the pride with which it is pursued is crushed and the knowledge is made, to so speak, obedient unto death, as was Christ in His humanity. There has to be a certain mortification and re-alignment of human wisdom if it is to be in harmony with the ineffable mysteries of God and a tool of sanctification. This is why the collect concludes on a note of ascension, with the enjoyment of perfect light in heaven: that is where the very font of truth and all wisdom is perfectly found, and it must be the measure of all we do in this earthly pilgrimage. We ask to be guided by Albert’s teaching because “our conversation is in heaven” (Phil 3:20). We cannot seek earthly knowledge for its own sake: “If you be risen with Christ, seek the things that are above” (Col 3:1). In this collect, the notes of asceticism and mysticism are strongly sounded.

In the latter prayer, however, all of these elements have been deliberately muted. Here, God is said to have made Albert great because he joined human wisdom to divine faith (componenda). The two are placed parallel to each other, as if two links in a chain, or two peas in a pod, or two doughty comrades in arms. No hierarchy, no dependency, no subordination is expressed; no mistrust of wayward human thought, no necessity of bringing the worldly into subjection to the heavenly, no implicit asceticism. Here, reason is not governed by faith and destined to a goal beyond itself, but the two are like Church and State according to modern liberalism.

Not surprisingly, what we are said to gain through adhering to the truths he taught is not the ascetical-mystical ascent to heavenly light which casts all earthly knowledge into the right (finite) perspective, but “a deeper knowledge and love of you”—the kind of inspiring sentiment one will find on the higher-priced Hallmark cards. Shifting the focus away from Albertus Magnus as a great philosopher and theologian of the conquest of knowledge for celestial beatitude, the prayer turns platitudinous by invoking “love” in the pairing “knowledge and love.” No one would doubt that a canonized saint lived a life of heroic charity; but that is generic and beside the point when commemorating this particular saint. What he exemplifies in the Mystical Body is exactly what the old prayer conveyed and the new one nearly contradicts.

To underline the this-worldliness of the paradigm at play, we note that the means suggested to us for arriving at this deeper knowledge and love is none other than — you guessed it! — “progress in learning” (scientiarum progressus). Homage is thus paid to the modern ideal par excellence, that of Progress, which we might interpret as evolution, the leitmotif of all modern thought. Might this be the progress by which we modern Christians have learned to set aside the sixth commandment, which we now understand to be more than ordinary people can reasonably bear? Or the progress by which we have become so superior to our bloodthirsty ancestors that we must give an utterly novel interpretation to the fifth commandment?

The contrast between the two collects is extremely telling. It tells of a deliberate shift from a hierarchical worldview rooted in faith and aspiring to the beatific vision, to a humanistic worldview of scientific progress through diverse “sources” of knowledge that is meant, in an unspecified way, to deepen our knowledge and love of God.

As Lauren Pristas and others have shown, this shift in attitude towards or evaluation of worldly realities is programmatically present in the heavily-redacted Collects of the Missal of Paul VI when compared with their predecessors in the Missal of the usus antiquior. The number of examples is vast; in order to limit myself, I have chosen to look at a one-month (!) period of the liturgical year, namely, September 18 to October 19. The biblical, patristic, and medieval Christian assessment of terrena or earthly things as we find it in the old collect of St. Albert appears again and again.

For the traditional feast of St. Joseph of Cupertino on September 18 — suppressed in the Novus Ordo calendar — the Church prays, with a lovely reference to the saint’s famous levitations:
O God, who hast ordained that Thine only-begotten Son when lifted up from the earth should draw all things to Himself: mercifully grant through the merits and example of Thy seraphic Confessor Joseph, that we may be lifted up above all earthly desires and be found worth to come unto Him: Who liveth and reigneth…
Or, for St. Francis of Assisi on October 4:
O God, who, through the merits of blessed Francis, didst give increase to Thy Church by enriching her with new offspring: grant us that following his example we may despise earthly goods and ever be glad to partake of Thy heavenly gifts.[3]
(Here, for comparison’s sake, is how the new Collect for Francis reads: “O God, by whose gift Saint Francis was conformed to Christ in poverty and humility, grant that, by walking in Francis’ footsteps, we may follow your Son, and, through joyful charity, come to be united with you.”)

Or, for the commemoration on October 9 of the martyrs SS. Denis, Rusticus, and Eleutherius — likewise suppressed on the new calendar:
O God, who this day didst strengthen blessed Denis Thy martyr and Bishop with fortitude in suffering, and didst associate Rusticus and Eleutherius with him in preaching Thy glory to the heathen: grant, we beseech Thee, that following their example we may for love of Thee despise worldly success and may not fear worldly misfortune [pro amore tuo prospera mundi despicere, et nulla ejus adversa formidare].
On October 10, the feast of St. Francis Borgia, also suppressed in the Novus Ordo, the traditional liturgy prays:
O Lord Jesus Christ, who art the model of true humility and its reward: we beseech Thee, that as blessed Francis took Thee as model in contemning worldly honors and Thou hast glorified him, so Thou wouldst associate us with him both in the contempt and in the glory: Who livest and reignest…
On October 16, the feast of St. Hedwig — a saint who miraculously stayed on the modern calendar — we find this potent Collect in the usus antiquior:
O God, who didst teach blessed Hedwig to renounce the pomps of this world, that, with her whole heart, she might follow the humble way of Thy cross: grant that, through her merits and example, we may learn to trample under foot the perishable delights of this world, and by cleaving to Thy cross, surmount all obstacles: Who livest and reignest…
(The new missal’s collect for St. Hedwig is thin gruel: “Grant, we pray, almighty God, that the revered intercession of Saint Hedwig may bring us heavenly aid, just as her wonderful life is an example of humility for all.”)

The special postcommunion for St. Margaret Mary Alacoque’s feast in the usus antiquior (October 17) includes the petition: “make us renounce the proud vanities of the world.” Nothing like this is found in the new Missal. (In fact, the word “vanity” or “vanities” never appears in the current altar missal.)

The old collect for St. Luke (October 18) focuses on mortification:
Let holy Luke, Thine Evangelist, we beseech Thee, O Lord, intercede for us, who for the glory of Thy name ever bore in his body the mortification of the Cross.
The new collect, although more customized to St. Luke,[3] drops all reference to asceticism, in keeping with the prevailing bias Pristas and others have documented.

Lastly, on October 19, in celebrating the triumph of St. Peter of Alcantara (also removed from the new calendar), the Church in her traditional liturgy prays:
O God, who didst vouchsafe to ennoble blessed Peter, Thy Confessor, by gifts of marvellous penance and highest contemplation: grant, we beseech Thee, that by his merits pleading for us, we may so mortify the flesh as the more easily to take hold of the things of heaven.
All of the above, mind you, are Collects from a one-month period, namely, September 18 to October 19. Do we detect a pattern? Yes, without a doubt. The dogmatic and disciplinary freight of the lex orandi is unmistakable. The liturgy is asking the Lord for a specific attitude of contemptus mundi, which St. Albert all the more impressively illustrates precisely because he is a scholar, author, scientist, naturalist, and man of affairs who has nevertheless held firm to the primacy of the kingdom of heaven. Century after century, collect after collect, the liturgy lucidly expressed and tirelessly inculcated this lofty vision of man’s vocation, the finality of the celestial fatherland, and the relativity of earthly affairs — until the 1960s, when Progress built a home for itself in a Church that had once anathematized the statement: “The Roman Pontiff can, and ought to, reconcile himself, and come to terms with progress, liberalism, and modern civilization.”[4]

“How’s that dangerous liaison with Progress been working out for you?,” asks Historical Consciousness.

St. Albert the Great — great because you subordinated the human to the divine, the temporal to the eternal, the natural to the supernatural, the secular to the sacred, the earthly to the heavenly — pray for us, that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.


[1] Deus, qui beatum Albertum Pontificem tuum atque Doctorem, in humana sapientia divinae fidei subjicienda magnum effecisti: da nobis, quaesumus, ita ejus magisterii inhaerere vestigiis, ut luce perfecta fruamur in coelis.
[2] Deus, qui beátum Albértum epíscopum in humána sapiéntia cum divína fide componénda magnum effecísti, da nobis, quǽsumus, ita eius magistérii inhærére doctrínis, ut per scientiárum progréssus ad profundiórem tui cognitiónem et amórem perveniámus.
[3] Lord God, who chose Saint Luke to reveal by his preaching and writings the mystery of your love for the poor, grant that those who already glory in your name may persevere as one heart and one soul and that all nations may merit to see your salvation.
[4] Pope Pius IX, Syllabus of Errors, n. 80, promulgated with the encyclical Quanta Cura on December 8, 1864.

Photos courtesy of Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P.

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