“All the fun’s in how you say a thing” – Repetition in the Roman Missal
Jan 15, 2016

“All the fun’s in how you say a thing” – Repetition in the Roman Missal

Liturgical language speaks many things. It is meant to edify, instruct, inspire, praise, console, and much besides. In the end, though, liturgical language (like every liturgical element) facilitates a meeting between Christ and his people. The words of the liturgy “sound like” the Word of the Trinity, and to sing or say or pray or hear liturgical language is to encounter the Word made flesh.

What does such a language sound like? A single human language—twenty-first century English, for example—is used in a variety of ways, mostly depending on the discipline. Newspapers read in a particular way; talk over the water cooler sounds more casual than an academic discussion in the classroom; Monday Night Football has its own lexicon; and so on. But what characterizes liturgical language?

The General Instruction of the Roman Missal speaks of the language of the Mass as “noble” and “marked by literary quality” (GIRM 392). The first post-Vatican II translations, according to Pope John Paul II, while in many ways suitable initial translations, often lacked the qualities necessary for sacramental language. Writing in 1988, 25 years after the promulgation of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (“Sacrosanctum Concilium”), he acknowledged that the “adaptation of languages has been rapidly accomplished, even if on occasion with some difficulties…. But now the time has come to reflect upon a certain difficulties that have subsequently emerged, to remedy certain defects or inaccuracies, to complete partial translations, to compose or approve chants to be used in the Liturgy, to ensure respect for the texts approved and lastly to publish liturgical books in a form that both testifies to the stability achieved and is worthy of the mysteries being celebrated” (“Vicesimus quintus annus” 16, 20).

Many of the correctives envisioned by the Holy Father came to fruition in the 2001 document “Liturgiam authenticam,” on the use of vernacular languages. Among other things, “Liturgiam authenticam” said the following about the nature of liturgical language:

“Since liturgical texts by their very nature are intended to be proclaimed orally and to be heard in the liturgical celebration, they are characterized by a certain manner of expression that differs from that found in everyday speech or in texts intended to be read silently. Examples of this include recurring and recognizable patterns of syntax and style, a solemn or exalted tone, alliteration and assonance, concrete and vivid images, repetition, parallelism and contrast, a certain rhythm, and at times, the lyric of poetic compositions”(LA 59).

It is on the topic of the just-named “repetition” that the present entry is concerned. The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (of which “Liturgiam authenticam” is the fifth instruction for its correct implementation) described the rites (and, by extension, ritual language) as being “short, clear, and unencumbered by useless repetitions” (SC 34). But what distinguishes a “useless” repetition from a “useful” one?

The translation of the third edition of the Roman Missal into English includes a great deal of poetic repetition, especially when compared to its immediate predecessor. Far from “useless,” these repetitions render the translation a more beautiful and authentic expression of that which they signify-Christ, who is none other than the eternal Word himself.

Notice, too, in the examples that follow, the types of repetition. It surprised me when I discovered how many different ways there are to say a thing. These examples are drawn not from ecclesial or theological sources, but from the best that human speech and writing have given to humanity through the years.

In each example, I give the name of the repetition, followed by an explanation of the passage from secular sources which illustrates the type of repetition, and then an example of the repetition in the 3rd edition’s Latin typical edition and its translation into English. I then compare the 3rd edition translation to the translation into English in the 1985 Sacramentary.

There are many ways to say a thing. In the liturgy, the “thing” (or, in Latin, res) is the Word. To say this “Word” with the Church is good, true, and beautiful (and maybe even fun).

Anaphora, a Greek term meaning “to carry back to the start,” is the repetition of beginnings:

  • I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal’.” (Martin Luther King, “Normalcy, Never Again,” in which he repeats “I have a dream” at the start of eight consecutive sentences)
  • Roman Missal, Latin typical edition:
    Laudamus te,
    benedicimus te,
    adoramus te, 
    glorificamus te,
    gratias agimus tibi propter magnam gloriam tuam,
    Domine Deus, Rex celestis,
    Deus Pater omnipotens.
  • Roman Missal in English (2011):
    We praise you,
    we bless you,
    we adore you,
    we glorify you,
    we give you thanks for your great glory,
    Lord God, heavenly King,
    O God, almighty Father.
  • Sacramentary (1985):
    Lord God, heavenly King, almighty God and Father,
    we worship you,
    we give you thanks,
    we praise you for your glory.

Symploce is a repetition of both beginnings and endings:

  • “I’ll tell you who Time ambles withal, who Time trots withal, who Time gallops withal, and who he stands still withal.” (Shakespeare, As You Like It, 3.2.309)
  • Roman Missal, Latin typical edition:
    Unde et memores, Domine,
    nos servi tui,
    sed et plebs tua sancta…,
    efferimus praeclarae maistati tuae
    de tuis donis ac datis
    hostiam puram,
    hostiam sanctam,
    hostiam immaculatam,
    Panem sanctum vitae aeternae
    et Calicem salutis perpetuae.
  • Roman Missal:
    Therefore, O Lord…,
    we, your servants and your holy people,
    offer to your glorious majesty
    from the gifts that you have given us,
    this pure victim,
    this holy victim,
    this spotless victim,
    the holy Bread of eternal life
    and the Chalice of everlasting salvation.
    (Unde et memores of the Roman Canon)
  • Sacramentary (1985):
    We, your people and your ministers…,
    offer to you, God of glory and majesty,
    this holy and perfect sacrifice: the bread of life
    and the cup of eternal salvation.

Diacope, from the Greek “to cut in two,” makes an insertion between two repeated parts. Thus, diacope is the repetition with only a word or two between: •

  • “Words, words, mere words, no matter from the heart.” (Shakespeare, Troilus and Cressida, 5.3.109) “A horse! a horse! my kingdom for a horse!” (Shakespeare, Richard III, 5.4.7) “To be, or not to be, that is the question.” (Shakespeare, Hamlet, 3.1)
  • Roman Missal, Latin typical edition:
    mea culpa,
    mea culpa,
    mea maxima culpa.
  • Roman Missal:
    through my fault,
    through my fault,
    through my most grievous fault;
  • Sacramentary (1985):
    I confess to almighty God,
    and to you, my brothers and sister,
    that I have sinned through my own fault….

Anadiplosis, meaning “to double up,” is the repetition by which words at the end of a phrase are repeated at the beginning of the next syntactical unit:

  • “When I give, I give myself.” (Whitman) “All men that are ruined, are ruined on the side of their natural propensities.” (Burke)
  • Roman Missal, Latin typical edition:
    Priest: Habemus ad Dominum.
    People: Dignum et iustum est.
    Priest: Vere dignum et iustum est…
  • Roman Missal:
    Priest: Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
    People: It is right and just.
    Priest: It is truly right and just, our duty and our salvation…
  • Sacramentary (1985):
    Priest: Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
    People: It is right to give him thanks and praise.
    Priest: Father, it is our duty and our salvation, always and everywhere to give you thanks….”

A palindrome is a type of repetition where one set of letters or words is reflected in the reverse or opposite order. “Eye” is a short palindrome; “racecar” a longer one. A longer palindrome still is “A man, a plan, a canal: Panama,” where the “c” in “canal” is the middle point and the letters read on either side as a mirror image. A palindrome of entire words and phrases is called an epanados, while a palindrome of an entire passage is called a chiasmus, from the Greek letter chi (written as “X”).

Epanados, repetition of words in the opposite, or inverse order:

  • “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.” (John F. Kennedy’s 1961 Inaugural Address)
  • “Fair is foul, and foul is fair.” (Shakespeare, Macbeth 1.1.12)
  • Roman Missal, Latin typical edition:
    Vota, quaesumus, Domine,
    supplicantis populi caelesti pietate prosequere,
    ut et quae agenda sunt videant,
    et ad implenda quae viderint convalescent.
    Per Christum…
  • Roman Missal:
    Attend to the pleas of your people with heavenly care,
    O Lord, we pray,
    that they may see what must be done
    and gain strength to do what they have seen.
    Through our Lord… (Collect, 1st Sunday in Ordinary Time)
  • Sacramentary (1985):
    Father of love,
    hear our prayers.
    Help us to know your will
    and to do it with courage and faith.
    Grant this…

Chiasmus is an epanados at the level of a larger unit or passage. As mentioned above, the chiasmus takes its name from the Greek letter chi, written as an “X,” the very shape of which visualizes the nature of a palindrome. Also, since it is the first letter of Christ’s name in Greek, Χριστός, it appears a suitable device in the Roman Canon:

The Roman Canon:

  1. Initial praise (Preface dialogue, preface text, Sanctus): “The Lord be with you….” “It is truly right and just….” “Sanctus, sanctus, sanctus”
  2. Initial prayer through Christ: “To you, therefore [Te igitur], most merciful Father, we make humble prayer and petition, through Jesus Christ, your Son, our Lord.”
  3. First intercessions (for the Church, the Pope, Bishop, the living): “…which we offer firstly [In primis] for your Church.” “Remember, Lord, your servants N. and N. and all gathered here [Memento, Domine]….”
  4. First list of saints: “In communion with those whose memory we venerate, especially the glorious ever-Virgin Mary, Mother of our God and Lord, Jesus Christ, and blessed Joseph….”
  5. First formula of offering: “Therefore, Lord, we pray [Hanc igitur]: graciously accept this oblation or our service…”
  6. First (consecratory) epiclesis: “Be pleased, O God, we pray, to bless, acknowledge, and approve this offering [Quam oblationem] in every respect…”
  7. Double consecration: “On the day before [Qui pridie] he was to suffer, he took bread…” “In a similar way [Simili modo], when supper was ended, he took this precious chalice…”
  8. Anamnesis: “Therefore, O Lord, as we celebrate the memorial [Unde et memores] of the blessed Passion, the Resurrection from the dead, and the glorious Ascension into heaven…”
  9. Second formula of offering: “Be pleased to look upon these offerings [Supra quae] with a serene and kindly countenance…”
  10. Second (communion) epiclesis: “In humble prayer we ask you [Supplices te rogamus], almighty God: command that these gifts be borne by the hands of your holy Angel to your altar on high…so that all of us…may be filled with every grace and blessing.”
  11. Second intercessions (for the deceased and for the participants): “Remember also [Memento etiam], Lord, your servants N. and N., who have gone before us…” “To us, also, your servants, who, though sinners [Nobis quoque peccatoribus], hope in your abundant mercies…”
  12. Second list of saints: “…graciously grant some share and fellowship [et societatem donare digneris] with your holy Apostles and Martyrs: with John the Baptist, Stephen….”
  13. Concluding prayer through Christ: “Through whom [Per quem] you continue to make all these good things, O Lord, you sanctify them, fill them with life, bless them, and bestow them upon us.”
  14. Concluding praise (doxology): “Through him, and with him, and in him…all glory is yours forever and ever.”

As Robert Frost put it a century ago in his narrative poem “The Mountain,” “All the fun’s in how you say a thing.” The Church agrees. The Mass—which reflects beauty itself, Jesus—requires such beauty in its language — indeed, in the poetry and art of the entire liturgy. The “Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy” called for “useless repetitions” to be omitted, yet time and pastoral discretion, particularly under the leadership of Pope John Paul II, came to realize the usefulness, appropriateness, and even necessity of some repetition.

Anaphora, symploce, diacope, anadiplosis, epanados, and chiasmus are types of “useful” repetition, used by mankind’s best authors in our most timeless poetry and literature, and these same figures are heard in the Church’s most privileged words, those of the Mass. What fun!