Poetry is one of the most difficult genres to translate from one language to another. Sense, rhythm, metaphor and rhyme all intertwine to produce a tapestry rather than a tangle. But when transferring a poem from its original language into another, the translator has to unravel this tapestry, and then weave it back together again. To which elements will he seek to be faithful, given the near impossibility of conveying every element exactly?
Liturgiam Authenticam, the document of the Holy See which guides translations of the sacred rites of the Church into the vernacular languages, stresses two elements. The first is truth – faithfulness to the doctrines and ideas expressed in the text; the second is beauty – faithfulness to the dignity and style of the original.
In the new, revised translation of the Roman Missal, the Collects (previously known as the Opening Prayer), occupy a special place. They take but a moment to pray, but demand the kind of active attention one would give a poem. Very many of the Collects in the Missal have a liturgical history going back as much as 1500 years.
These little prayers are the real ‘gems’ of the liturgy. Held up to examination, we see that they have many different facets. Tightly constructed, and precisely worded, they express on the one hand the true faith of the Church in prayer, and, on the other hand, the beauty of the Church’s faith and devotion.
A Latin Collect is a special kind of literature, governed by particular rules. Each Collect is one single sentence. It begins with addressing God – as a rule, God the Father. Various titles are used: often ‘Lord’, or variations on ‘Almighty God’, sometimes simply ‘God’. The old translation often rendered these titles as ‘Father’, which was thought to be more intimate, but in fact this title is rare in the Collects.
The Collects are addressed to the Father, and end with some variation of the formula ‘through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever’. This expresses precisely our Trinitarian faith in prayer: we approach the Father through the Son in the communion of the Holy Spirit. We find the same theology of prayer expressed in the doxology at the end of the Eucharistic Prayer (which is always to be said by the priest alone), to which the people add their joyful “Amen”:
Through him Christ our Lord, and with him, and in him,O God, Almighty Father,in the unity of the Holy Spirit,all glory and honour is yours,for ever and ever.
After the opening address, we usually find some description of what God does for his people, in a phrase beginning ‘who’. Since the Collect is a prayer addressed to the Father (not to the gathered assembly!), the verb that describes what God does is in the second person. This may sound a little awkward in English, as in the Collect for the Third Sunday of Advent, when the priest prays:
O God, who see how your peoplefaithfully await the feast of the Lord’s Nativity …
Even though this sounds odd, priests need to carefully resist the temptation to say “who sees”. We are not talking about God, but to God. This may be easier to understand if we put that phrase in a separate sentence. We say “You see how your people …”, not “You sees how your people …”.
Then follows the ‘petition’, the particular grace for which we pray in the Collect. In the same Collect, the petition is:
… enable us, we pray,to attain the joys of so great a salvationand to celebrate them alwayswith solemn worship and glad rejoicing.
Often there follows the reason we ask this petition; that is, what we hope to attain by God granting this prayer. The Collect for the Fourth Sunday in Advent is the well-known prayer from the Angelus. It asks that the Lord would “pour forth … his grace into our hearts that we … may by his Passion and Cross be brought to the glory of his Resurrection…”
This is the general shape of these little gems, although, like all gemstones, there is great variety. Knowing this, we are able to listen to the prayer as the priest prays it, and make it our own. Since the people’s missals will not yet be ready to purchase when we begin fully to use the new translation of the Missal, we can take the opportunity to learn actively to participate in the Mass by listening carefully to these prayers.
So, when the priest prays the Collect, listen carefully:
Here again we will find that, although these prayers are quite short, they are, like the whole Missal, ‘bigger on the inside’. When the texts do become available in the people’s missals, take the time to read the prayer before it is prayed. Turn the prayer around in your hearts and minds, looking at it as you would a gemstone. Turn it this way and that and see how the Light of God is reflected in the Collect.
Let me give you a brief example in the Collect for the Feast of the Epiphany of our Lord:
O God, who on this dayrevealed your Only Begotten Son to the nationsby the guidance of a star,grant in your mercythat we, who know you already by faith,may be brought to behold the beauty of your sublime glory.Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,one God, for ever and ever.
The Collect picks up the story of the Epiphany: the wise men from distant nations were guided by a star and brought to behold God’s Only Begotten Son in the infant child of Mary. How does the Collect relate this to our present circumstances? It says that, for us, ‘faith’ is the star that guides us to Christ. And so our prayer is that, guided by faith, we may come to see “the beauty of your sublime glory” in the same Christ, now risen from the dead and reigning in glory.
Very often the Collect will provide us with a way of internalising the meaning of the readings from Scripture. Occasionally, priests may take the Collect as the basis of their homily for the day.
The General Instruction of the Roman Missal instructs preachers that the homily “should be an exposition of some aspect of the readings from Sacred Scripture or of another text from the Ordinary or from the Proper of the Mass of the day and should take into account both the mystery being celebrated and the particular needs of the listeners” (GIRM §65).
Here we find another reason why a new translation of the Liturgy was necessary: the prayers of the Mass are intended faithfully to convey the doctrine of the Church, in accordance with the old saying ‘the rule of prayer is the rule of faith’ (lex orandi, lex credendi). Especially as the new translation of the Missal is being introduced in our parishes, I strongly encourage priests to take the opportunity of holding the Collects up to the light, so that, like the gems they are, they may be allowed to sparkle in the light of God’s word.
Kairos Catholic Journal Volume 22, Issue 21