Homily, Second Day of Retreat to Priests of the Diocese of Galway
Knock Shrine, Co Mayo
Tuesday, 9 May 2017
The Collect of the Mass on any given day is a pure distillation of the Church’s prayer. The Collect of the day is nothing less than the Holy Spirit “helping us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought” (Romans 8:26). The Collect of the day is the Church articulating for us those “sighs too deep for words” (Romans 8:26) by which the Holy Spirit himself intercedes for us, filling us with the prayer of Christ.
The Collect of the Mass, like the Prayer Over the Oblations and the Postcommunion, is given us not only as the form of our prayer but also as a lesson in the school of prayer. If you would learn how to pray rightly, if you would pray in a manner thoroughly Catholic and priestly, if you would pray “as the Holy Spirit gives utterance” (cf. Acts 2:4), then pay attention to the Collect. Learn from the Collect of every Mass the secret of a prayer that asks humbly and boldly for what God is already poised to grant.
Today’s Collect does not conform to the classic model of the Roman Collect in four points: address (O God); memorial (Who did such and such a thing); petition (grant this, so that); doxological conclusion (Through Your Son, Our Lord Jesus Christ). Today’s Collect begins straightaway with the petition (Praesta quaesumus, omnipotens Deus — Grant we pray, almighty God). There is an urgency about the way the prayer is formulated. No time to waste. An extreme economy of words.
For what does the Church, inspired by the Holy Spirit, make us ask in an almost peremptory manner? For a particular virtue? For the eradication of vice? For knowledge? For forgiveness? For healing? For strength? For material succour? The Collect asks for none of these things. The petition is altogether surprising. We ask for the joy of redemption.
Praesta, quaesumus (Grant, we pray), ut, qui resurrectionis Dominicae mysteria colimus (that celebrating the mysteries of the Lord’s resurrection); redemptionis nostrae suscipere laetitiam mereamur (we may merit to receive the joy of our redemption).
What is really going on in this prayer? First of all we identify ourselves before God as those who carry out the divine cultus (colimus). What lies behind this identification? I see, shining through it, the word of Saint Peter:
You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a consecrated nation, a people God means to have for himself; it is yours to proclaim the exploits of the God who has called you out of darkness into his marvellous light. (1 Peter 2:9)
I hear in counterpoint, as it were, the word of the Apostles before the election of the seven deacons:
But we will give ourselves continually to prayer, and to the ministry of the word. (Acts 6:4)
And I see a correspondence with the word of the Apostle:
For as often as you shall eat this bread, and drink the chalice, you shall shew the death of the Lord, until he come. (1 Corinthians 11:26)
What emerges from all of this is that what we priests say and do at the altar has consequences in heaven and on earth. We stand at the head of the chosen race, the royal priesthood, the consecrated nation. We, men chosen out of the people, pass through them and go to stand, as it were, like Moses, at the door of the Tent of Meeting (Exodus 33:9). We priests, according to the apostolic mandate, are to give ourselves continually to prayer, and to the ministry of the word, that is, we are to spend ourselves speaking to God on behalf of men, and speaking to men on behalf of God. Finally, by the words we utter at the altar and by the things we do there, the death of the Lord, the immolation of the Lamb is actualised, made present, efficaciously brought out of the remote historical there–and–then into the immediate here–and–now, albeit in any unbloody manner, and this until the return of the Lord at the close of the age.
All of this is implied in the Collect, but we are not yet at the petition. The prayer makes us ask for this: “that we may merit to receive the joy of our redemption”. There is a lot to unpack in this concise formulation. “That we may merit” — mereamur — we are, of ourselves and by ourselves, ill–fitted to receiving divine gifts. We were created, in the beginning, capax Dei, capable of receiving God, but our capacity for the divine is twisted out of shape, shrunken, and diminished by sin, original and actual. God alone can make us fit for the reception of His gifts. Cracked vessels cannot hold water. We ask God, then, even before bestowing upon us the gift in view, to make us capable of receiving it. It is a good thing to go simply before God and to say, “O God, make me capable of receiving whatsoever Thou wouldst give me”.
We ask for the joy of redemption? A mysterious expression: redemptionis nostrae laetitia. One redeemed is bought back, ransomed out of captivity, restored to his rightful owner, set again in the place prepared for him and kept for him during the time of his alienation. The joy for which we ask here is the well–being, security, and peace of being where we are meant to be, in the place prepared for us by God from all eternity, the place where Christ would have us be.
Father, I will that where I am, they also whom thou hast given me may be with me; that they may see my glory which thou hast given me, because thou hast loved me before the creation of the world. (John 17:24)
We need not wait for the realisation of this Christ’s priestly prayer. It, rather, waits for us upon the altar, in the bread and in the chalice made ready, and in the eating and drinking of His Body of Blood. Taste there the joy of the priesthood.
And then your hearts will be glad; and your gladness will be one which nobody can take away from you. (John 16:22)