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Collects and Liturgical Prayer

16 April 2024

Collects and Liturgical Prayer - Year of Prayer 2024

By Joey Belleza, PhD (Cantab.)

The four parts of prayer can be seen not only in the Lord’s Prayer, as we saw in the previous reflection, but also throughout the Church’s liturgy. Indeed, Saint Thomas Aquinas himself noted how “we may notice these four things many of the Church’s collects.” The “collect” of Mass, often called the “Opening Prayer” is conisdered the principal prayer for the Mass of the day and is even repeated throughout the Divine Office or Liturgy of the Hours of the same day. The Prayer Over the Gifts and the Postcommunion are also prayers which are molded on the collect. The collects of the Roman Rite, many of which are of ancient origin, follow a certain polished structural and rhetorical pattern that is characteristic of Christian Latin, and this structure manifests the four parts of prayer. To illustrate, Saint Thomas uses the example of the Collect for Trinity Sunday:

Almighty sempiternal God,
you who in the confession of the true faith
granted to your servants to know the glory of the eternal Trinity,
grant, we pray, that in the same firmness of faith,
we may always be protected from our enemies.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns, etc.

Let’s break this down according to the four parts of prayer.

Oration: “Almighty sempiternal God…” Here, the priest cries out to God the Father.

Thanksgiving: “…you who in the confession of the true faith granted to your servants to know the glory of the eternal Trinity…” The past deeds of God are recalled.

Petition: “…grant, we pray, that… we may always be protected…” A specific request is made to the Father.

Intercession: “Through our Lord Jesus Christ…” Our prayer is both Trinitarian and Christological, invoking all three Persons, but principally addressing the Father through the intercession of the eternal Son.

This same structure is seen in so many prayers which use the basic the structure of the Roman collect. See, for example, the prayer before meals:

Bless us [petition], O Lord [oration],
and these thy gifts which we are about to receive from thy bounty [thanksgiving].
Through Christ our Lord [intercession].

Let’s use another example: the postcommunion prayer of the fourth Sunday of Advent, which is also used on the Feast of the Annunciation and at the end of the Angelus:

Pour forth, we beseech thee [petition] O Lord [oration],
thy grace into our hearts,
that we to whom the Incarnation of Christ thy Son was made known by the message of an angel [thanksgiving],
may by his Passion and Cross be brought to the glory of the resurrection [specific petition]. Through Christ our Lord [intercession].

Whenever the priest prays the collects on our behalf at Mass, let us listen with attention, uniting ourselves with the priest’s words as he “collects” or “gathers” our oration, thanksgiving, petition, and intercession at the altar of God.

In the next reflection, we will look at another form of the liturgy: the Divine Office or Liturgy of the Hours.

Click here to return to the Year of Prayer page.

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The Catholic Origins of Halloween

20th October 2023

The Catholic Origins of Halloween

By Fr Augustine Thompson OP (originally written 1995)

We’ve all heard the allegations: “Halloween is a pagan rite dating back to some pre-Christian festival among the Celtic Druids that escaped Church suppression.” Even today modern pagans and witches continue to celebrate this ancient festival. If you let your kids go trick-or-treating, they will be worshiping the devil and pagan gods.

Nothing could be further from the truth. The origins of Halloween are, in fact, very Christian and rather American. Halloween falls on October 31 because of a pope, and its observances are the result of medieval Catholic piety. 

Halloween: Medieval Christians or Pagan Druids? 

It’s true that the ancient Celts of Ireland and Britain celebrated a minor festival on Oct. 31 — as they did on the last day of most other months of the year. However, Halloween falls on the last day of October because the Feast of All Saints or “All Hallows” falls on Nov. 1. The feast in honor of all the saints in heaven used to be celebrated on May 13, but Pope Gregory III (d. 741) moved it to Nov. 1, the dedication day of All Saints Chapel in St. Peter’s at Rome. Later, in the 840s, Pope Gregory IV commanded that All Saints be observed everywhere. And so the holy day spread to Ireland. The day before was the feast’s evening vigil, “All Hallows Even” or “Hallowe’en.” In those days, Halloween didn’t have any special significance for Christians or for long-dead Celtic pagans.

All Saints & All Souls 

In 998, St. Odilo, the abbot of the powerful monastery of Cluny in Southern France, added a celebration on 2 November prayer for the souls of all the faithful departed. This feast, called All Souls Day, spread from France to the rest of Europe. So now the Church had feasts for all those in heaven and all those in purgatory? What about those in the other place? It seems Irish Catholic peasants wondered about the unfortunate souls in hell. After all, if the souls in hell are left out when we celebrate those in heaven and purgatory, they might be unhappy enough to cause trouble. So it became customary to bang pots and pans on All Hallows Even to let the damned know they were not forgotten. Thus, in Ireland, at least, all the dead came to be remembered — even if the clergy were not terribly sympathetic to Halloween and never allowed All Damned Day into the Church calendar. 

Costumes and the Dance of Death 

But that still isn’t our celebration of Halloween. Our traditions on this holiday centers around dressing up in fanciful costumes, which isn’t Irish at all. Rather, this custom arose in France during the 14th and 15th centuries. Late medieval Europe was hit by repeated outbreaks of the bubonic plague — the Black Death — and she lost about half her population. It is not 

surprising that Catholics became more concerned about the afterlife. More Masses were said on All Souls’ Day, and artistic representations were devised to remind everyone of their own mortality. We know these representations as the “Dance Macabre” or “Dance of Death,” which was commonly painted on the walls of cemeteries and shows the devil leading a daisy chain of people — popes, kings, ladies, knights, monks, peasants, lepers, etc. — into the tomb. Sometimes the dance was presented on All Souls’ Day itself as a living tableau with people dressed up in the garb of various states of life. But the French dressed up on All Souls, not Halloween; and the Irish, who had Halloween, did not dress up. How the two became mingled probably happened first in the British colonies of North America during the 1700s when Irish and French Catholics began to intermarry. The Irish focus on hell gave the French masquerades an even more macabre twist.

Trick or Treat 

But, as every young ghoul knows, dressing up isn’t the point; the point is getting as many goodies as possible. Where on earth did “trick or treat” come in? “Trick or treat” is perhaps the oddest and most American addition to Halloween, and is the unwilling contribution of English Catholics. During the penal period of the 1500s to the 1700s in England, Catholics had no legal rights. They could not hold office and were subject to fines, jail and heavy taxes. It was a capital offense to say Mass, and hundreds of priests were martyred. Occasionally, English Catholics resisted, sometimes foolishly. One of the most foolish acts of resistance was a plot to blow up the Protestant King James I and his Parliament with gunpowder. This was supposed to trigger a Catholic uprising against their oppressors. 

The ill-conceived Gunpowder Plot was foiled on 5 November 1605, when the man guarding the gunpowder, a reckless convert named Guy Fawkes, was captured and arrested. He was hanged; the plot fizzled. 5 November, Guy Fawkes’ Day, became a great celebration in England, and so it remains. During the penal periods, bands of revelers would put on masks and visit local Catholics in the dead of night, demanding beer and cakes for their celebration: trick or treat! Guy Fawkes’ Day arrived in the American colonies with the first English settlers. But, by the time of the American Revolution, old King James and Guy Fawkes had pretty much been forgotten. Trick or treat, though, was too much fun to give up, so eventually it moved to 31 October, the day of the Irish-French masquerade. And in America, trick or treat wasn’t limited to Catholics. The mixture of various immigrant traditions we know as Halloween had become a fixture in the United States by the early 1800’s. To this day, it remains unknown in Europe, even in the countries from which some of the customs originated.

Why Black and Orange?

All Souls Day’s association with these colors are derived from aspects of the Requiem Mass, or Mass for the Dead, which is celebrated on All Souls’ Day as well as at funerals. In the traditional practice, the liturgical vestments of the clerics were black (and black still remains an option for Requiems in the post-Conciliar liturgy). Orange is derived from the candles of unbleached wax prescribed for the Requiem Mass; whereas the liturgy on other days normally made use of white, bleached candles, the unbleached wax of Requiem candles produced a sunset-like orange glow which quickly became associated with All Souls’ Day.

Witches and Jack-O-Lanterns  But what about witches? Well, they are one of the last additions. The greeting card industry added them in the late 1800s. Halloween was already “ghoulish,” so why not give witches a place on greeting cards? The Halloween card failed (although it has seen a recent resurgence in popularity), but the witches stayed. So, too, in the late 1800s, ill-informed folklorists introduced the jack-o’-lantern. They thought that Halloween was druidic and pagan in origin. Lamps made from turnips (not pumpkins) had been part of ancient Celtic harvest festivals, so they were translated to the American Halloween celebration. The next time someone claims that Halloween is a cruel trick to lure your children into devil worship, I suggest you tell them the real origin of All Hallows Even and invite them to discover its Christian significance, along with the two greater and more important Catholic festivals that follow it. When Fr. Thompson first published this essay in 1995, the spiritual conditions of Western society were quite different than today. He asks that we include this addendum with his essay: Given the rise of occultism, and even Satanism, over the past twenty-five years, as well as the appropriation of Halloween by Neo-Paganism, I strongly urge parents to be vigilant and circumspect before allowing their children to become involved with Halloween activities not under their direct personal supervision. Indeed, I think parents might consider having their children dress up as heroes and heroines of our Faith instead of the usual witches and ghosts. There are plenty of martyr saints, such as St. Peter Martyr OP, whose iconography will delight those seeking a scary costume!

The Very Rev. Augustine Thompson OP is a Dominican priest of the Province of the Most Holy Name (Western United States) currently serving as Praeses (President) of the Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies in Toronto, Canada. He is a graduate of Johns Hopkins University and the University of California, where he obtained his doctorate under the supervision of the groundbreaking scholar of late antiquity and biographer of Saint Augustine, Peter Brown. Father Augustine has enjoyed a distinguished academic career holding senior teaching positions at the University of Oregon and the University of Virginia (Charlottesville), as well as the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology in Berkeley, California. A well-published medieval historian, his many books and articles include most notably: Francis of Assisi: A New Biography (Cornell University Press, 2012) and Cities of God: The Religion of the Italian Communes, 1125–1325 (Pennsylvania State University Press, 2005). His latest book is Dominican Brothers: Conversi, Lay, and Cooperator Friars (New Priory Press, 2017).

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Ritual and worship: signs, symbols and realities in the liturgy

Friday 4th October 2019

The CHC @ The Catholic Universe

Ritual and worship: signs, symbols and realities in the liturgy

Adam Coates

Many readers will, a few months ago, have experienced an event that numerous proud parents, grandparents, and aunts and uncle go through – that of seeing their beloved child, grandchild, or niece or nephew graduate from university. 

They will have stepped, momentarily, into the sometimes baffling and esoteric world of academia. Heads may have been ‘capped’, hoods draped over shoulders, strange gowns will have been worn by the graduates and academic staff, the Gaudeamus Igitur may have even been sung. 

Overall, it makes for an enjoyable occasion as the graduands join the ranks of graduates, and their years of toil and labour are recognised and rewarded appropriately.

The Old Chapel Museum contains a stunning collection of chausables worn by Catholic clergy through the ages. Photo by permission of the Governors of Stonyhurst College, copyright Stonyhurst College Collections

When viewed from the outside, these events may seem curious to behold. Why is someone touched on the head with an old hat? Why is a hood draped over your shoulders? We realise, within the confines of the graduation, that this is representative of something else; the signs and symbols of the ceremony mark an event and a change. Fundamentally, these things speak of something beyond that which they simply are. The old hat being tapped upon someone’s head marks the conferral of a degree, the odd gown represents the membership of the academic community. 

There is here, a certain parallel with the liturgy of the Church. In the liturgy, the Second Vatican Council says, ‘the whole public worship is performed by the Mystical Body of Jesus Christ’. Why does the Church worship? Fundamentally, the Church worships because worship is what is owed to God. To use the language of the 20th century philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand, the Church makes a “value response” to the supreme Value that is God. Unlike something which is merely subjectively satisfying, the realm of the objective is not something we bend to our will, but something which bends us to it. As God is supreme, we use the methods and ways He gives us to glorify Him. This is not something God needs, and it adds nothing to His being; it is, rather, the proper response of mankind to God.

Why, though, is Catholic worship filled with signs and symbols? Why does the priest genuflect? Why do people fall to their knees in adoration? Why are a series of vestments worn? Why does the priest make various gestures with his hands? To provide a general answer to these questions, it is necessary to go back to the question of what is the human person. A person, the Catechism of the Catholic Church says, is a “unity of soul and body”. The body is not merely some vehicle for our souls to get around in, but is an essential part of what it is to be human. 

The atmospheric interior of St Peter’s. Photo by permission of Cassidy & Ashton

With regard to how we come to know things, St Thomas Aquinas asserts, drawing upon the Greek philosopher Aristotle, that nothing can exist in our minds without our first having sensed it. That is, our way of knowing anything depends on us having sensed it, at least in an elemental fashion, in some way. Even if one were to imagine something fanciful, like pink elephants with yellow polka dots, I am only able to imagine such a bizarre creature because I know what an elephant looks like, because I know what the colours pink and yellow are, and because I know what polka dots are. My imagination depends upon the abstract sense data to create the fictional. 

What does this have to do with worship? Exactly because we cannot know anything without having sensed it in some way, the Church makes liberal use in its official worship of that which engages the senses. What communicates that God is glorious: simply stating the fact, or saying it and falling to our knees in adoration? 

Falling to our knees, as well as being an appropriate value response, also has a pedagogical element in that we are made small before He who is mighty. Similarly, a stained-glass window, showing a saint and some item related to them, or a scene from the life of Our Lord or Our Lady, is a far more powerful devotional and catechetical tool than merely reading about the fact. As St Thomas Aquinas says, it is “befitting to man … that he should employ sensible signs to signify anything, because he derives his knowledge from sensibles”. 

St Thomas continues to relate this to the idea of worship in the form of sacrifice.

A continuous theme of the religious education curriculum for Catholic school children in England and Wales is an explanation and examination of the signs and symbols found within Catholic churches and in the liturgy.

It is hoped that we at the Christian Heritage Centre, making liberal use of the Stonyhurst College Collections and the sumptuous neogothic St Peter’s church, will be able to assist in this mission. St Peter’s is rich and colour and light and makes an ideal place for children to learn about Christian symbolism.

The Stonyhurst College Collections speak for themselves. As the oldest museum in the English-speaking world, it holds in trust a repository of sacred objects beyond compare. The chasubles worn and seen by our illustrious predecessors (pictured) are not simply museum pieces, but something that even today speaks of the beauty and grandeur of God experienced in the liturgy. Their beauty is communicative of Him who is beauty itself. It is hoped that visiting school groups of all ages will be able to see a little piece of this reality when they visit the Christian Heritage Centre on school visits. 

These objects, signs and symbols are all part of a reality stretching across time as the Church and its servants throughout the ages tried ever anew to communicate the greatness of the Almighty and the reality of the liturgical acts taking place. Thus the human person, this union of body and soul, is enriched by the Church’s liturgy in making this proper value response to God. They are educated and nourished by the use of sensible things, communicating in the most authentic manner possible the truth of spiritual realities. 

Adam Coates is the Educational Assistant at The Christian Heritage Centre