A structural approach to the Latin prayers of the Roman Missal

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.



14 responses to “A structural approach to the Latin prayers of the Roman Missal”

  1. John Ainslie Avatar
    John Ainslie

    This is interesting and worthwhile, Jonathan. Only this week I have been doing some work on the Missal prayers, seeking to develop, for English, a chant tone that better reflects the structure you describe – with the idea of making it easier for the listener to understand the texts.

    You must email me, as a fellow-Londoner, details of your course.

    1. Jonathan Day Avatar
      Jonathan Day

      @John Ainslie – comment #1:
      John, you are most welcome to join any of the sessions. They will be on Monday evenings, fortnightly starting on Monday 28 January —

      28 January, 11 February, 25 February, 11 March, 25 March

      All from 7.00 to 8.30 pm, at 114 Mount Street, London W1.

  2. Fritz Bauerschmidt Avatar

    It might just be how my peculiar mind works, but I find this sort of structural analysis very helpful. Maybe that’s why I like Aquinas’s commentaries on Aristotle and Scripture.

  3. Jordan Zarembo Avatar
    Jordan Zarembo

    Jonathan, this is a very well-conceived idea. This schema provides a solid structure for improving and maintaining sight-comprehension skills for the propers. What you have developed should prove useful for that purpose. I hope that the comments that follow will not be interpreted as a criticism of your method. Rather, I intend to illustrate that a fixed set of categories cannot display all of the philological nuances of a collect.

    I agree with you that the “imperial” vocative, as typified by the December 20 collect Deus aeterna maiestas, is rather strange for anglophones today. However, these flowery salutations are integral to Roman class structure and the use of a petition. One of Pliny’s most famous salutations to the emperor Trajan begins sollemne est mihi domine [Epistulae 10.96]. This salutation, though more modest than the collect, nevertheless suggests to me that western Christian prayer intentionally transferred imperial Roman salutation structures to prayer.

    Similarly, the hinge or “petition” relies on the invocation. Consequently, the vocative is important from a Latin standpoint. Granted, the range of petitions are exceedingly small (quaesumus leads the pack, with concede with optional adjective, and praesta runners-up). All, however, show deference or even subservience to the vocative. Since the exercise you have designed is not intended for translation studies, it is right to separate the invocation from the petition. However, collect components cannot be easily separated when dissecting collects for philological information.

    I wonder if it would be better for a person following this method to simply memorize the petitions. The syntactical value of petitions overshadows their semantic value. In other words, quaesumus literally translates as “we beg” or “we implore”. In the context of Mass propers, quaesumus has no substantial semantic meaning. Rather, the verb signals a subordinate clause and links this clause to the invocation.

    1. Jonathan Day Avatar
      Jonathan Day

      @Jordan Zarembo – comment #3:
      Thanks, Jordan — as ever, you have given me much to think about as I prepare for this programme.

      I was struck listening to the collect at Mass this morning:

      Omnipotens sempiterne Deus, qui caelestia simul et terrena moderaris, supplicationes populi tui clementer exaudi, et pacem tuam nostris concede temporibus.

      In this prayer, “mercifully hear the prayers of your people” is almost a throw-away, a pleonastic expansion of concede rather than a separate petition. It is not unlike the prayer we sing each Sunday after the Ite, Missa est:

      Domine, salvam fac reginam nostram Elisabeth, et exaudi nos in die qua invocaverimus te.

      “Lord, protect Elizabeth our Queen, and hear us when we call upon you” (literally, “in the day on which we shall have called upon you”).

      The last part — et exaudi, etc. — sounds lovely when sung but doesn’t add much to the petition.

      1. Mgr Bruce Harbert Avatar
        Mgr Bruce Harbert

        @Jonathan Day – comment #5:
        That prayer for the Queen is based on Psalm 19,10, with the name of the monarch added. The repetition and pleonasm of the orations is influenced by the psalms.

      2. Jonathan Day Avatar
        Jonathan Day

        @Mgr Bruce Harbert – comment #7:
        Thank you — very interesting.

        I did not mean to imply that the repetitions or pleonasms needed to be scrubbed away in translation, or that they were “a bad thing”; only that they don’t seem to add to the semantic content of the petitions.

        Talking now about translation for a moment: in reading that psalm I was struck that its rhythmic structure, like that of various litanies, and that of many versions of the bidding prayer (universal prayer, prayer of the people, etc.) make the repetitions work better in English: “Lord, hear us. Lord, graciously hear us.”

        What doesn’t work at all is trying to pile repetition and pleonasm into a single unbroken sentence in English. I don’t think I am the only one to react to this unfortunate feature of the new translation.

      3. Mgr Bruce Harbert Avatar
        Mgr Bruce Harbert

        @Jonathan Day – comment #8:
        Last week, the first week of Ordinary Time, all three orations contained parallelism, which I think has been quite deftly handled. Do these seem clumsy to you? I have made some remarks about them, not entirely uncritical, in my blog http://missalnotes.blogspot.co.uk.

      4. Jonathan Day Avatar
        Jonathan Day

        @Mgr Bruce Harbert – comment #9:
        Reading your informative and candid blog, I am struck by the enormous difficulty of rendering these prayers in clear English, especially under the strictures of LA.

        We don’t typically speak with such repetitiveness — as in the Collect, literally, “We beseech you, Lord, to attend with heavenly kindness the prayers of your people as they petition you”. In a similar way, it is difficult to find correspondences for the elegant parallels in the Latin prayers.

        Does et … et (Collect and prayer over the gifts) always imply a simple pairing, “both … and”, or can it express a causal relationship between the first thing and the second? That looks to be the case in all three prayers:

        “… that they may see what ought to be done and therefore gain the strength to do it” (Collect)

        “… that they may increase in holiness
        and thus receive what they earnestly pray for” (Prayer over the gifts)

        “… that, the more you renew us with your sacraments,
        the more we may serve you with lives pleasing to you.” (After Communion)

        Or is this more causal rendering bending et … et out of shape? The 1998 seems to treat etiam in this causal or analogical way:

        “… that as you renew us with your sacraments,
        we may serve you with lives that are pleasing in your sight.”

        Liturgiam Authenticam insists that “the original text, insofar as possible, must be translated integrally and in the most exact manner, without omissions or additions in terms of their content, and without paraphrases or glosses” (§20).

        In light of this, how did the translators justify omitting supplicantis from the Collect or concedas from the final prayer?

  4. Jim McKay Avatar
    Jim McKay

    Anything that portrays the prayer as having meaning is a great idea. It would be even better if you could draw out the connections that hold the parts together.

    revealed by a star, we know by faith, and are led to beauty beyond the stars.
    Might, pledge, approaching festival, celebration mystery of your Son’s birth
    Majesty, ineffable word shining, God’s will prevailing over our humility

    Often these connections are lost in translation, as when the star that led the nations loses its counterpart in the celestial beauty to which we are being led. God who led the Magi leads us to the heavenly beauty.

    It is important to know that the words lead us beyond themselves to a meaningful relationship with God.

  5. Martin Keenan Avatar
    Martin Keenan

    If I may butt in, omissions such as Mgr Harbert notes in his very interesting blog are rather infrequent (your point about “concedas” in the post-communion is misconceived: it is translated “be pleased to grant”).

    Be that as it may, the passage you quote from LA20 excuses “omissions . . in terms of [the] content [of the text]”. Compare what follows in LA21 (directed especially, but not exclusively, to peoples recently brought to the Faith) :-
    “. . fidelity and exactness with respect to the original texts may themselves sometimes require . . that figures of speech be used which convey in an integral manner the content of the Latin expression even while being verbally or syntactically different from it.”

    A translation can therefore be faithful, exact, and convey in an integral manner the content of the Latin, even when verbally or syntactically different from it.

    Thus, “vota . . supplicantis populi” in the collect is adequately translated “the pleas of your people” since nothing of the content is omitted although there is a verbal and syntactical difference from the Latin.

    Indeed, since “votum” is a rather bland word for “prayer”, I imagine the translators took “vota supplicantis” as a hendiadys with the participle being the active element. This is confirmed by the collect for the 2nd Sunday (today, in fact) where “supplicationes populi tui” is rendered “the pleadings of your people”.

    As a post-script, I hope you will excuse my persisting in a series of comments on your Grinch post. Since no-one else did, I thought I would analyse at length your criticism of RM3. I am only half-way through as yet.

    1. Mgr Bruce Harbert Avatar
      Mgr Bruce Harbert

      @Martin Keenan – comment #11:
      ‘Supplicantis’ applied to the Church occurs 7 times in the Missal. Sometimes it is translated, sometimes not. The happiest rendering in the official version, to my mind, is
      ‘Look upon the offerings of the Church, O Lord,
      as she makes her prayer to you’
      ‘Respice, Domine, munera supplicantis Ecclesiae’
      in the Prayer over the Offerings for the 15th week Per Annum.

      1. Martin Keenan Avatar
        Martin Keenan

        @Mgr Bruce Harbert – comment #12:
        It depends what you mean by “not translated”, Monsignor. I was arguing on the basis (which LA concedes) that syntactical correspondence – noun for noun, participle for participle, etc. – is not absolutely obligatory.

        My hendiadys point is a slightly different one. If correct, it applies, of course, only where “supplicantis” appears in association with another word independently denoting “prayer” ; on such a reading, the two Latin words are adequately represented by a single English one.

        I note three such instances : one is the instance under discussion above (O927=heb. I per ann., co.) ; another, also in a collect (V2818=pro var. nec., 26, A, co. alt.), has “exaudi preces populi supplicantis” which RM3 translates “listen to the supplications of your people” ; the third (Z3282=app. V, 9, or.) reads “Fiant, Domine, tuo grata conspectui vota supplicantis Ecclesiae” and is translated “May the petitions of your Church (&c.)”.

        I would speculate that, for RM3, the justification for using a noun rather than a participle in the first two instances is that the transitive verb is dominant in those prayers (requiring a direct object), and, in the third, because the dominant word is the adjective “grata”.

        As for the instances where “supplicantis” stands alone, it is most certainly translated, albeit in two of the four by a noun :-
        (O1012=Dom. XV, so) is your example : s*=”as she makes her prayer to you”
        (V2787=pro var. nec., 18, B, so) s*=”prayers”
        (V2823=pro var. nec., 26, B, so) s*=”supplications”
        (D3201=pro. def. IV, 1, B, so) s*=”as she calls on you”

        There remain the occurrences of “supplicans” in the other oblique cases (singular and plural), as well as of “supplicatio” (through all cases) and “supplicare”, which are too numerous to examine here.

        *** corr. #11. Yesterday was the 3rd Sunday in ordinary time. Apologies.

  6. Jonathan Day Avatar
    Jonathan Day

    I have updated the original post to call attention to a book: Listen to the Word (Tablet, 2009). It is a collection of Fr McCarthy’s columns on the Latin collects, together with a series of homilies of Fr James Leachman, OSB, all based on the Latin prayers. There is additional study material and a more detailed structural analysis, on similar but not identical lines to the one I propose.

    Sadly, the book appears to be out of print and is not easy to find, but it is well worth the trouble and cost. It is very helpful to get different perspectives on these prayers.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *