Starting in a few weeks’ time I will be leading five sessions at the Mount Street Jesuit Centre in London, on the Latin prayers of the Missal of Pope Paul VI. The idea is to help people get to know the prayers in Latin, both to foster a greater appreciation of their beauty and to make it easier to pray at the parish Sunday Latin Mass. I don’t plan to spend any time discussing the new or old translations; in fact I will encourage participants not to bring any translation at all to the sessions, but to grapple with the prayers in Latin. My hope is that someone with even basic Latin can get to a place where the Latin prayers are understandable, without intermediate mental translation, while they are being sung.

I would like to ask for Pray Tell participants’ comments on the approach I am pondering, which is to look at the prayers structurally before focusing on syntax or vocabulary. It is not an original idea: the Benedictine Daniel McCarthy, in a terrific series of columns in The Tablet, opened up the collects of the Missal in a similar manner. What follows is my take, however, and I would value your views.

[Update on 28 January 2013 — a collection of Fr McCarthy’s columns, together with homilies based on the Latin prayers by James Leachman OSB, has been published as a book: Listen to the Word (Tablet, 2009). It is, unfortunately, hard to find, but well worth studying.]

I will illustrate the structural approach with three prayers. Most of the translations I have provided are very loose. I am aiming for sense rather than verbal correspondence or liturgical usefulness.

First, the collect for Epiphany:

Deus, qui hodierna die Unigenitum tuum gentibus stella duce revelasti, concede propitius, ut, qui iam te ex fide cognovimus, usque ad contemplandam speciem tuae celsitudinis perducamur.

We can divide this into five parts:

Invocation Deus – in this prayer, a simple address to God, though in others it is more elaborated, e.g. omnipotens sempiterne Deus
Anamnesis qui hodierna die Unigenitum tuum gentibus stella duce revelasti – we proclaim God’s action in history, revealing his only-begotten Son to the world via a star. These clauses of remembrance and praise often have verbs in the perfect tense.
Petition concede propitius, ut– the request that is the ‘hinge’ of the prayer: “graciously grant that…”
Means qui iam te ex fide cognovimus – I believe McCarthy calls this a ‘motor clause’. It often sets up an analogy between our present state and the future condition desired in the prayer. In these clauses, the verb is often in the present indicative; here, cognovimus is perfect but, as noted recently on PTB, cognosco in the perfect has the sense of the present, ‘know’: “we who now know you by faith”
Result usque ad contemplandam speciem tuae celsitudinis perducamur – the condition we are praying for, here in the subjunctive: “may come to behold your beauty directly”.


The Latin doesn’t always present these elements in the same order, but in a structural analysis we can reorder the Latin words. Here, for example, is the post-communion for the Fourth Sunday of Advent:

Sumpto pignore redemptionis aeternae, quaesumus, omnipotens Deus, ut quanto magis dies salutiferae festivitatis accedit, tanto devotius proficiamus ad Filii tui digne nativitatis mysterium celebrandum.

And here it is, reordered:

Invocation omnipotens Deus– “Almighty God”
Anamnesis sumpto pignore redemptionis aeternae – in these prayers after receiving communion we are often remembering what has just taken place. Again, a perfect tense, this time in an ablative absolute: “now that we have received this pledge of eternal redemption”
Petition quaesumus ut– “we ask that”
Means quanto magis dies salutiferae festivitatis accedit – here, means and result are linked by quanto … tanto: “the nearer we come to the great feast day of our salvation…”. Again, the verb is in the present tense.
Result tanto devotius proficiamus ad Filii tui digne nativitatis mysterium celebrandum – “the more may be our dedication to worthily celebrate the sacrament of your Son’s birth.” Subjunctive, indicating a potential state, one we are praying for.

A final example, showing that any one of these structural elements can be longer or shorter. This is the collect for December 20.

Deus, aeterna maiestas, cuius ineffabile Verbum, Angelo nuntiante, Virgo immaculata suscepit, et, domus divinitatis effecta, Sancti Spiritus luce repletur, quaesumus, ut nos, eius exemplo, voluntati tuae humiliter adhaerere valeamus.

In this case, we don’t need to reorder the Latin. The anamnesis is very long, the means clause very short.

Invocation Deus, aeterna maiestas– “O God, eternal majesty”. These invocations are difficult to translate because vocative constructions are fairly rare in contemporary English, except in very formal situations (“Your highness”, “Prime Minister”, “Your honour”, etc.). Even in formal settings, we never use “O” (“O king, may you live forever”). A commonly used vocative nowadays is “hey”, as in “Hey Max, our stock is up 3 percent.” Not quite appropriate in a prayer, perhaps.
Anamnesis cuius ineffabile Verbum, Angelo nuntiante, Virgo immaculata suscepit, et, domus divinitatis effecta, Sancti Spiritus luce repletur – a long and involved and lovely remembering of salvation history: “The immaculate Virgin, obeying the Angel, took up your indescribable Word and thus became filled with the light of the Holy Spirit and the dwelling place of divinity”. I think it’s almost essential to render the subordinate clause as a separate sentence.
Petition quaesumus ut– “we ask that”
Means eius exemplo – a very simple means or enabling clause: “following her example”
Result voluntati tuae humiliter adhaerere valeamus – “we may succeed in humbly bending to your will”. I think valeo here has the sense of “prevail” or “overcome obstacles.”

So, friends: will this structural approach help understanding? What could be improved?

I heartily desire and earnestly beseech that you would graciously vouchsafe the benefit of your thinking.


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