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Understanding the Grammar of the Roman Missal, Third Edition

Secretariat for Divine Worship

This article, which appeared in the May-June 2012 edition of Newsletter of the U.S. bishops' Committee on Divine Worship, is reprinted with the kind permission of The Rev. Msgr. Rick Hilgartner, Executive Director, Secretariat of Divine Worship.

As English-speaking Catholics in the United States become more familiar — and more comfortable — with the Roman Missal, Third Edition, there are sometimes questions that arise, especially as we progress through the liturgical seasons and the Sanctoral cycle (the Proper of Saints), encountering new texts for the first time. Many have questioned particular elements that are commonly found in the Roman Missal but were not present in the earlier translation in the Sacramentary. The Secretariat for Divine Worship offers commentary on two frequently-raised issues: 1) the qui clauses (relative or dependent clauses beginning with the relative pronoun "who"), which are found not only in the proper orations of the Missal but also in the Order of Mass, and 2) the expression quæsumus (usually translated as "we pray").

The complex grammatical structure of the orations was one of the major changes in the style of English used in the new translation of the Missal. The use of relative or dependent clauses, not commonly used in everyday spoken English, but certainly found in written communication, necessitates practice for effective proclamation. In these clauses, it is useful to point out that in direct address, "who" functions as "you" [Editor's note: and in older translations, was often rendered, "You who..." rather than simply "who"]. During the preparation of the original draft translations by the International Committee on English in the Liturgy, it was determined that the grammatical construction of the qui clause was to be maintained in English, in order to avoid the awkwardness of a rendering that gave the appearance of telling God what he already knows. The rendering of the relative clause, however, allows orations to begin with a description of God's power and action tied to the address, i.e., we can call on God by name because of what he has already revealed and accomplished. This is the case, for example, in the Collect for the Second Sunday in Ordinary Time:

Almighty ever-living God,
who govern all things,
both in heaven and on earth,
mercifully hear the pleading of your people
and bestow your peace on our times.

The verb "govern" agrees with "who" (acting in the place of "you," 2nd person singular, in the relative clause). "[G]overns," on the other hand, is 3rd person singular, and to use that form would transform the first part of the prayer to indirect address, i.e., speaking about God rather than speaking to God. As it is, the verb in the relative clause ("govern") must agree with the verb in the main clause ("hear" and "bestow"). This grammatical form is found also in the Communion Rite in the Order of Mass, in the concluding formula of the prayer before the Sign of Peace: "Who live and reign for ever and ever." Because this prayer is addressed to Christ, the concluding formula takes on the form of direct address, and is therefore in the 2nd person singular. To do otherwise, i.e., "Who lives and reigns," would shift the conclusion from direct to indirect address, 3rd person singular, and it would not agree with the rest of the prayer.

While some have observed that the use of the relative or dependent clause is not frequently heard in contemporary American English, it is not altogether foreign. It is used, albeit in an archaic form of English, in the opening line of the Lord's Prayer: "Our Father, who art in heaven … " In this case, "art" is an archaic form of "are," as though we were saying "Our Father, you who are in heaven … "

Another commonly used expression in the orations of the Missal is the phrase "we pray" as a translation of quæsumus, sometimes rendered otherwise as "we ask" or "we beg" [Editor's note: or even "we beseech"]. It is found, for example, in the Prayer after Communion for the Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time:

Grant, we pray, O Lord,
that, having been replenished by such great gifts,
we may gain the prize of salvation
and never cease to praise you.

This expression helps communicate a sense of humility or at least of politeness, before God. In the Lord's Prayer our petitions are expressed boldly, in the imperative, because that is the way Jesus taught us to pray. The verb form in the orations, however, is not the imperative but a combination of the indicative and the subjunctive, because when we pray of our own volition we are not always so bold. We stand humbly before God and plead for his mercy and kindness. This expression and sentiment is not new to the Roman Missal, Third Edition. In the earlier translation found in the Sacramentary, the expression was included in every prayer, whether or not the Latin expression quæsumus was present, in the concluding formula, "We ask this through Christ our Lord."

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