By Father Edward McNamara, LC
ROME, 29 July 2014 (ZENIT)
Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: Many of us are perplexed by the Third Roman Missal translation for the collect of the 27th Week of Ordinary Time, particularly the meaning of the phrase, "pour out your mercy upon us to pardon what conscience dreads and to give what prayer does not dare to ask." What exactly would genuine prayer not dare to ask? One wonders if this is an accurate translation of the Latin text and, if so, how it is to be understood. The prayer, as given, seems to have little connection with the "dynamic equivalence" translations of either of the prayers given for this week in the previous translation. — S.C., Chambersburg, Pennsylvania
A: The full text of the current translation of the collect is: "Almighty ever-living God, who in the abundance of your kindness surpass the merits and the desires of those who entreat you, pour out your mercy upon us to pardon what conscience dreads and to give what prayer does not dare to ask. 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 prayer is very ancient and is found in most of the early manuscripts of the Roman Mass, although on different Sundays and seasons.
The Latin original is: "Omnipotens sempiterne Deus qui abundantia pietatis tuae et merita supplicum excedis et vota; effunde super nos misericordiam tuam, ut dimittas quae conscientia metuit, et adiicias quod oratio non praesumit."
Our reader's concern stems from how to translate "quod oratio non praesumit."
Since this prayer was also used by Anglicans in the Book of Common Prayer, it has received several translations over time. In 1549 it was translated as "giving unto us that our prayer dare not presume to ask." In 1662 this became "giving us those good things we are not worthy to ask, but through the merits and mediations of Jesus Christ .…" This latter translation departs quite some distance from the original Latin.
The 1973 ICEL translation bears little resemblance to the original texts at all: "Father, your love for us surpasses all our hopes and desires. Forgive us our failings, keep us in your peace and lead us in the way of salvation .…"
Therefore, the new rendering is certainly a far more accurate translation, although one could argue that 1549 Anglican version ("dare not presume to ask") captures better the original sense.
With respect to interpretation we must reflect that liturgical prayer is an authentic school of prayer for all Catholics but composed in the characteristic concision of the Roman tradition. This prayer is certainly the fruit of deep meditation and experience in the spiritual life, and drawing out its full meaning could well be the result of close reflection and personal experience in the way of prayer.
First of all, the prayer recalls that spiritual progress is primarily God's initiative; the abundance of his kindness "surpass the merits and the desires of those who entreat you." This divine surpassing is the interpretive key to the two petitions.
"Pardon what conscience dreads." All of us probably have areas that we would rather not look into too closely — things about ourselves we find hard to face up to. Yet we can ask God to forgive even these painful aspects of our lives and, since he surpasses our merits and desires, he can lead us to finally challenge them and overcome them.
"Give what prayer does not dare to ask." In the abstract there is no good thing we cannot ask for in prayer. However, human life is not lived in the abstract. St. Augustine struggled greatly with his passions and prayed for chastity and continence ... "but not yet"! In the end he submitted through God's grace.
Many souls do not dare to pray for all sorts of things, for example, for the grace to follow a calling, to abandon some dangerous vice, to fully submit to God's will in all things. We do not dare to pray because we fear that he might actually answer our prayer. Once more, his mercy surpasses the desires and merits of those who entreat him.
It would be presumptuous to think I have exhausted all the possibilities of this brief but wonderful prayer, so I leave it to our readers to explore the richness that the liturgy has to offer.