Friday, January 12, 2024

The Prayers at the Foot of the Altar, Part 3: Jansenist Scrupulosity or Liturgical Stutter?

Lost in Translations #90

One peculiarity of the Prayers at the Foot of the Altar is their apparent redundancy and what it might mean theologically. The two Confiteors--first the priest's and then the server/congregation's--are followed by an absolution. Then, after a short series of versicles, the priest prays two prayers (one when is he is approaching the altar and one when he arrives), both of which ask for a forgiveness of sins. The worry, then, is that because these prayers are said so soon after the absolution, they bespeak a despair that the absolution was efficacious, that the priest thinks that he still has sins on his soul even after God has forgiven him. The repeated plea for forgiveness, therefore, may indicate a kind of Jansenist scrupulosity.

To address this worry, let us first examine the prayers more closely before offering an alternative interpretation.
The Misereatur and Indulgentiam
The two prayers said by the priest after he and the server/congregation have recited their Confiteors are:
Misereátur vestri omnípotens Deus, et dimíssis peccátis vestris, perdúcat vos ad vitam ætérnam.
Indulgéntiam, absolutiónem, et remissiónem peccatórum nostrórum, tríbuat nobis omnípotens et miséricors Dóminus.
Which I translate as:
May almighty God have mercy on you, and once He has forgiven your sins, bring you to everlasting life.
May the almighty and merciful Lord grant us pardon, absolution, and remission of our sins.
In the traditional Roman liturgy, both here and in the Sacrament of Penance, the prayer Misereatur is always followed by the prayer Indulgentiam. The Misereatur acts as a sort of overture or grand vision of our hope while the Indulgentiam makes good on that hope. In the Misereatur, we want God to have mercy on us and to lead us to eternal life, but first He will need to forgive us our sins. It is the Indulgentiam that then provides that forgiveness. The dimissis peccatis vestris in the Misereatur is an ablative absolute with a perfect passive participle: it imagines a world in which the action is completely finished. The Indulgentiam brings about the completion of that action. In the Sacrament of Penance, on the other hand, the absolvatory prayer is the Dominus noster Jesus Christus te absolvat, which includes the line ego te absólvo a peccátis tuis--"I absolve you from your sins." This is the moment in the sacrament when the priest absolves all sin, mortal and venial, by the authority of Jesus Christ. In the Mass, the absolvatory prayer is Indulgentiam, but it only has the power of a sacramental, something that can erase venial sin (but not mortal). Sacramentals differ from sacraments, as Fr. John Hardon, S.J. explains,
in not having been instituted by Christ to produce their effect in virtue of the ritual performed. Their efficacy depends not on the rite itself, as in the sacraments, but on the influence of prayerful petition; that of the person who uses them and of the Church in approving their practice. [1]
In the new Mass, the Indulgentiam is omitted and instead the Misereatur is called in the rubrics the absolutio sacerdotis or "the absolution." Because the Misereatur now has the task of absolving sins, the 2011 English translation (like its predecessors) ignores the grammatical construction of the Latin prayer and inserts a direct request for forgiveness:
May almighty God have mercy on us,
forgive us our sins,
and bring us to everlasting life.[3]
But according to some, this new absolution should not be considered an absolution at all. Fr. Dennis C. Smolarski, S.J.'s How Not to Say Mass was written to awaken readers to "the authentic celebration of the renewed Eucharist in the Roman Rite.[4] Smolarski does not like the "quasi-sacramental" character of the Tridentine formula (why "quasi"? it is a sacramental), and so he advises celebrants not to do anything at this part of the Mass that "heightens the significance of the act of penitence" such as making the sign of the cross (which was omitted in the new Mass) because the real forgiveness of minor sins occurs when we "openheartedly [hear] the Word of God and [partake] in the eucharistic [sic] banquet."[5]
Finally, it is common to translate perducat as "bring," as do both I and the official 2011 translation. The prefix per, however, intensifies the action, and thus it might be better to think of the prayer as asking God to "thoroughly bring" us to eternal life, to really, really get us there good.
As for the Indulgentiam. In the Misereatur, we ask God to be merciful; in the Indulgentiam we are assured that God is not only merciful but omnipotent and therefore both willing and able to grant our request. And there are two ways to think about the petition for indulgentia, absolutio, and remissio. First, since all three words can mean the same thing in ecclesiastical Latin (forgiveness), we can see the words bestowing a lyrical power to the prayer that is encouraging to the petitioner, the threefold repetition emphasizing forgiveness while avoiding verbal redundancy. Second, we can reflect on the different connotations of each word. Indulgentia originally meant leniency and came to signify a remission of temporal punishment for sin; absolutio was originally an acquittal in court and later a dissolving or forgiving of the bonds of sin; and remissio was first a remitting of a penalty or a reduction in rent before it took on the Christian meaning of a remission of sins.[6] Putting these meanings together, we see a process of sanctification in reverse. First, sins are forgiven (remissio); then, the bonds of sin, that is, our attachment to them, are removed (absolutio); and finally, any temporal punishment brought on by our sins is remitted (indulgentia).
The Aufer a nobis and Oramus te
A dialogue of sorts then follows between the priest and the server/congregation through the voice of several Psalm verses that express hope. After greeting the server/congregation with Dominus vobiscum, the priest climbs the steps of the altar, saying:
Aufer a nobis, quǽsumus, Dómine, iniquitátes nostras: ut ad Sancta sanctórum puris mereámur méntibus introíre. Per Christum Dóminum nostrum. Amen.
Which I translate as:
Take away from us our iniquities, we beseech Thee, O Lord, that we may be worthy to enter into the Holy of Holies with pure minds. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
The prayer fits nicely with Psalm 42 and its antiphon, which repeatedly declare Introibo ad altare Dei--"I will go unto the altar of God." Here, the priest announces that he is doing precisely that right now, entering into (introire) the Holy of Holies.
The prayer imagines that the altar and the space immediately in front of it are the Holy of Holies and the sanctuary is the Holy (Place). But these references to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem have a heavenly signification. The Epistle to the Hebrews refers to Jesus Christ the High Priest entering into the Holy of Holies (Heaven) after His Ascension with His own Blood, having obtained our eternal redemption. (see Heb. 9,11-13)
When the priest reaches the altar he says:
Orámus te, Dómine, per mérita Sanctórum tuórum (kissing the altar) quorum relíquiæ hic sunt, et ómnium Sanctórum: ut indulgére dignéris ómnia peccáta mea. Amen.
Which I translate as:
We pray Thee, O Lord, by the merits of Thy Saints (kissing the altar) whose relics are here, and of all the Saints, that Thou wouldst deign to forgive all my sins. Amen.
The prayer asks for the intercession of the Saints whose relics are beneath the altar stone, an erstwhile requirement for every Catholic altar. (Note to priests: hic with a short "i" means "this"; hic with a long "i" means "here." When you pray this prayer, use hic with a long "i".) The custom of placing the relics of a saint (specifically, a martyr) is tied to Revelation 6,9:
And when he had opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of them that were slain for the word of God, and for the testimony which they held.
Just as the Martyrs' souls are in Heaven under the altar that is Christ, so too are their bodies on earth under an altar that represents Christ. The priest is again thinking of Heaven, where he has mystically arrived. The Prayers at the Foot of the Altar may be plaintive, but they too eventually sound a note of arrival.
Gebhard Fugel, "Apocalypse," 1933
Significantly, these two prayers are in the first person plural voice, even though the priest is ascending the steps alone. The most obvious explanation is that the prayer is designed for a Solemn High Mass, in which the deacon and subdeacon approach the altar together with the priest, and thus the "we" refers to these three ministers. But there is another explanation. In the days of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, the High Priest entered the Holy of Holies alone and only once a year. And as we learned from the Epistle to the Hebrews, Jesus Christ, entered Heaven in an analogous manner, alone and once for all. But there is a way in which Jesus is not alone, for the Elect are truly members of His Body. (see 1 Cor. 12,12) Therefore, when the priest acts in persona Christi, that persona somehow includes us. And so when the priest moves physically closer to the holy altar, we move spiritually with him. And when this movement is a symbolic entry into Heaven, we, the members of Christ's mystical Body, likewise symbolically enter into Heaven at this point of the Mass.
One final peculiarity about these two prayers. In the first, the priest prays that we may have our iniquities taken away so that we may be worthy to enter into the Holy of Holies. In the second, the priest declares that we pray that all my sins may be forgiven. The switch to the first person singular is curious. I am not certain, but I suspect that this personal plea on the part of the celebrant expresses his feelings of trepidation about his kissing the sacred altar and his entering physically into the Holy of Holies.
A Liturgical Stutter
The Aufer a nobis and Oramus te also provide the key to exonerating the Prayers at the Foot of the Altar from the charge of scrupulous redundancy. Both prayers identify the "destination" towards which all the Prayers of the Foot of the Altar are ordered as Heaven. The priest, of course, does not literally enter Heaven, but the liturgy that he is celebrating is a participation in the heavenly liturgy described in Hebrews and the Book of Revelation.[7] We can therefore conclude that the priest, ministers, and congregation are in a very real sense entering into what Rudolf Otto calls the numinous, which he defines as a mysterium tremendum et fascinans--a terrifying and enchanting mystery.[8]
And if we are entering into something as awesome as the numinous, it is understandable that we hem and haw. Catherine Pickstock speaks of a "stammer" in traditional liturgies that instantiates "the 'slow tongue' of Moses, the 'unclean lips' of Isaiah, the demur of Jeremiah, and the mutism of Ezekiel."[9] Rather than moving in a Cartesian, linear fashion from A to B to C (as does, Pickstock argues, the Novus Ordo), the traditional rite often takes two steps forward, one step back. This stammer or dance reflects the proper attitude that one should have in the face of the numinous, namely, a mixture of hope, fear, awe, personal unworthiness, gratitude, hesitancy, and perseverance. The repeated requests for purification during the Prayers of the Foot of the Altar do not bespeak a lack of confidence in God's power to forgive but the proper response to the prospect of participating in so great a mystery. They are a perfect enactment of Psalm 5,8--"I will come into (introibo) Thy house, I will worship towards Thy holy temple in Thy fear"--where "God's fear" can be taken to mean the correct reaction to being in the presence of the numinous. 
Further, the Prayers of the Foot of the Altar make clear the fact that this entry into the numinous is made possible by the action of the liturgy and not by a mere physical approach to the altar. An altar should always be treated with respect, but outside the liturgy it is not approached with the same fear and trembling. Outside the liturgy, for example, a simple bow is all that is needed when walking past it (or a genuflection if the Blessed Sacrament is reserved in a tabernacle on it). Outside the liturgy, the altar can be touched by lay persons, male and female, as when they are changing the linens in their duty as sacristan. Outside the liturgy, one does not need to pray and pray again before drawing near to an altar.
But in the liturgy, reverence towards the same altar is much greater, so much so that when a priest celebrates a Low Mass, immediately before the Mass begins, he ascends the altar without fanfare, sets up the chalice, and returns to the foot of the altar. But when he reaches the foot of the altar, makes the sign of the cross, and thus begins the Mass, his attitude changes completely. The same altar that he was touching a few seconds ago he now trembles before as he repeatedly asks God for forgiveness. The same altar that he did not greet or acknowledge when he was laying out the corporal he now kisses with trembling and affectionate lips as he pays honor to the Saints whose bones lie therein.
The implications are clear. Sacred liturgy is more than an act of worship or the fulfilment of an obligation or a way of giving thanks or a memorial or even a sacrifice; it is a portal through which we enter another dimension, the dimension of the numinous.
The Introductory Rites of the Novus Ordo are strikingly different. Whereas in the traditional rite, the kissing of the altar is the dramatic culmination of a pious stammer before a great mystery, in the new Mass it is the unceremonious and anticlimactic beginning of the rite. When the priest nears the altar after the procession, he bows, walks confidently into the sanctuary, and without hesitation kisses the altar. He then makes the sign of the cross and greets the people. Depending on which optional formulas he chooses, the priest can spend more time speaking to the congregation than he does to God. And he is advised by at least one commentator to "concentrate on divine mercy rather than human faults" when ad libbing during the Kyrie (the third form of the act of penitence),[10] further diminishing any sense of holy fear.

[1] John Hardon, S.J., Pocket Catholic Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1985), 380.
[2] 2011 Roman Missal, p. 515.
[4] Fr. Dennis C. Smolarski, S.J., How Not to Say Mass (Paulist Press, 2003), 1-2.
[5] Smolarski, 54-55.
[6] See Sr. Mary Pierre Ellebracht, Remarks on the Vocabulary of the Ancient Orations in the Missale Romanum (Nijmegen: Dekker & Van de Vegt, 1963), 155-56, 13.
[7] See Catechism of the Catholic Church 1090; Sacrosanctum Concilium 8; Lumen Gentium 50.
[8] See Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy, chapter 3.
[9] After Writing: On the Liturgical Consummation of Philosophy (Oxford: Blackwell, 1998), 215.
[10] Smolarski, 53.

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