The Introductory Rites of the Mass culminate with the first proper oration, the collect. Following the invitation to pray and a brief silence so that the people of God “may become aware of being in God’s presence and may call to mind their intentions,” the celebrant collects the unspoken prayers of the assembly into the Church’s prayer, the collect, which he proclaims to the Father through the Son in the Holy Spirit. Through this concise and quintessentially Roman prayer, “the character of the celebration finds expression” (General Instruction of the Roman Missal, 54). The importance of the collect—offering to God the intentions of the assembly and proclaiming what God is about to do among us—urges us to deepen our understanding of it. In this article we will look at three questions. What is the rhetorical and historical genius of the collect? Why does it sound the way that it does? How can we better understand it and pray it like saints?
The name itself, collect, originally referred to the place where people came together before leaving for the stational liturgy (a Mass celebrated at a Roman church to which the people would process), but “then the meaning was extended and applied to the oration pronounced at the time when the whole assembly is gathered.” In the early centuries of the Church, the celebrant had the option either “to extemporize…or to recite a text previously fixed and written down by himself or by another.” St. Augustine knew both practices. In On the Catechizing of the Uninstructed, he describes on the one hand prelates and ministers who address God “in language marked by barbarisms and solecisms,” and on the other celebrants who do not understand “correctly the very words which they are pronouncing, and mak[e] confused pauses.” When encountering such celebrants, St. Augustine reminds his readers “that there is no voice for the ears of God save the affection of the soul” and that “in the church it is in the desire that the grace of speech resides.” Collects found in the earliest sacramentaries were likely formed from the third to the sixth centuries, when the Church’s liturgy was moving from the Greek to the Latin language.
Say It Straight
This brings us to our second question: Why does the collect sound the way that it does? While the Roman Rite includes poetic texts, the collect is not one of them. Josef Jungmann explains why. In the collect, he writes, “the Roman liturgy never once overstepped the line dividing prose from verse.” This reflects, says Jungmann, our response when we come “face-to-face with the majesty of God…. [W]hen human speech turns directly to God, any possible play of verse dies on the lips of the petitioner who is conscious of what he is doing.” 
The Ratio Translationis for the English Language lists a number of ways in which the language of pagan Roman religious practice influenced the Roman Rite, especially the orations. These include “a sacral vocabulary; specialized religious syntax; ways of addressing God with corresponding patterns of closure in prayer; various rhetorical forms; brevity and conciseness of style found in sober, practical and clear expression; and a manner of praying centered around the duty or obligation of the individual and the community to practice true religion.” Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the Church wove these elements into “tiny productions of literary artistry, clear, succinct, and memorable, examples of polished formulation and lapidary form.”
All collects share, with some variation, a common structure. Each collect begins with an address to God expanded by a relative clause of description. This leads to a petition and “a fuller description of the petition or an expression of its motivation.” The collect concludes with “a devout closure, expressing hope of divine action.” The collect for the Twenty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time illustrates this basic structure. The address to God, “O God,” is elaborated by a relative clause: “who cause the minds of the faithful to unite in a single purpose.” This clause leads to the petition, “grant your people to love what you command and to desire what you promise.” It concludes with the motivating desire and hope for God’s action: “that, amid the uncertainties of this world, our hearts may be fixed on that place where true gladness is found.”
The structure of the collect is supported by the use of sense lines, known as colometrics, which were restored in the 1970 editio typica after being absent from most editions of the Missal after 1570. Sense lines assist in understanding the collect by grouping “together the elements of a complete thought,” clarifying “the relationship of parts-to-the-whole,” and indicating “where emphasis is to be placed in relation to content.”
Understanding the constituent elements and the structure of the collect is essential for grasping the full meaning of the collect. The fathers of the Liturgical Movement understood this well. Pius Parsch’s commentary on the collect for Epiphany is an instructive example. Here is the collect:
O God, who on this day
revealed your Only Begotten Son to the nations
by the guidance of a star,
grant in your mercy
that we, who know you already by faith,
may be brought to behold the beauty of your sublime glory.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ…
Pius Parsch (1884-1954) wrote, “In balanced phrases a beautiful Collect unravels the meaning of today’s Mass-mystery; we, it indicates, are the Magi, guided by the star of faith and grace in our journey to Christ through the wilderness of this life, through the persecutions of Herod (i.e., the devil). There is this difference, however: we go to meet, not Christ the Infant of Bethlehem, but Christ the King in the glory of His Second Coming, a coming that is now forewrought in the Mass, even as it was foreshadowed, as to its outward signs, in the extraordinary experiences granted to the Magi (star—Infant; sacred Host—glorified Savior).” Parsch’s commentary on this collect exemplifies his conviction that “What we read as past history and what we await as future hope merge into a holy now and a holy today in the Mass.” The Catechism reiterates Parsch’s emphasis on the holy today of the Mass: “When the Church celebrates the mystery of Christ, there is a word that marks her prayer: ‘Today!’—a word echoing the prayer her Lord taught her and the call of the Holy Spirit.”
Each celebration of the Eucharist communicates special graces to us, and the collect, because it concisely expresses the character of each celebration, indicates for us these unique graces. Pope Pius XII wrote in Mediator Dei that “each mystery brings its own special grace for our salvation” and that “our holy Mother the Church, while proposing for our contemplation the mysteries of our Redeemer, asks in her prayers for those gifts which would give her children the greatest possible share in the spirit of these mysteries through the merits of Christ.” In Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, the Second Vatican Council taught that, in the liturgical celebration of the events of our salvation, “the Church opens to the faithful the riches of her Lord’s powers and merits, so that these are in some way made present for all time, and the faithful are enabled to lay hold upon them and become filled with saving grace.” We hear this teaching again in the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “Christian liturgy not only recalls the events that saved us but actualizes them, makes them present.” Each collect announces the unique graces of the liturgical celebration, so prayerfully meditating on the collect can dispose us to receive the unique graces of each Mass.
Take Up and Read…
This brings us to our third question. How can we understand the collects so as to pray them like saints? I would like to suggest the ancient method of divine reading, lectio divina. Although this method is primarily used with Sacred Scripture, it can be fruitfully used with the collect. In the 12th century, a monk named Guigo II (+1188) wrote the classic description of lectio divina in a short treatise entitled “The Ladder of Monks,” a work that “was more widely read and more highly praised than any other work of its kind.” Guigo II compared this method to a ladder with four rungs—reading, meditation, prayer, and contemplation—that lifts us “from earth to heaven.” Reading carefully and attentively, one listens to the text, “concentrating all one’s powers on it.” Meditation is more analytical, seeking “with the help of one’s own reason for knowledge of hidden truth.” It “goes to the heart of the matter, examines each point thoroughly.” Prayer, the third rung, is “the heart’s devoted turning to God to drive away evil and obtain what is good.” In the final stage, contemplation, “the mind is in some sort lifted up to God and held above itself, so that it tastes the joys of everlasting sweetness.”
Reading and meditation lead us to an understanding of the substance of each collect. The descriptive phrase that follows the address to God can serve as the basis for meditation on the person and work of God. Consider a few examples of what the collects during Ordinary Time teach us about God. He is the One “from whom all good things come” (10th), the “giver of every good gift” (22nd), and the “strength of those who hope in [him]” (11th). The collects remind us that we are invoking the One “who governs all things, both in heaven and on earth” (2nd), “whose providence never fails in its design” (9th) and yet who manifests his “almighty power above all by pardoning and showing mercy” (26th).
The third rung of lectio divina, prayer, is given to us in the collect’s petition. On Sundays during Ordinary Time we ask that “we may so fashioned by your grace as to become a dwelling pleasing to you” (6th), that “we may not be wrapped in the darkness of error but always stand in the bright light of truth” (13th), that we “may receive true freedom and an everlasting inheritance (23rd), and “that we may hasten without stumbling to receive the things you have promised” (31st). Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, these petitions become personal and concrete for us, for others, for the Church, and for the world. This leads us to the fourth rung, contemplation, in which we rest in the presence of God and the promise of the graces that he will bestow during the Eucharist. Lectio divina is a method that responds to the deepest desires of our soul, as Guigo understood: “Reading seeks for the sweetness of a blessed life, meditation perceives it, prayer asks for it, contemplation tastes it.”
Map to the Universe
The collect, writes Josef Jungmann, “makes visible to us the grand outlines of that spiritual universe in which our prayer lives and moves and is; it arises in the communion of holy Church and ascends through Christ to God on high.” In order to enter into the spiritual universe sketched out in the collect, we need to understand the nature, structure, and unity of each collect. We also do well to take to heart St. Augustine’s counsel that the voice God hears is “the affection of the soul” and that the grace of speech is in “the desire.” We can also be mindful that the collect speaks to us of what God is doing in our midst “today.” Finally, practicing the discipline of lectio divina with the collect can assist us in experiencing a true and profound encounter with the Most Holy Trinity. Through understanding and prayerful meditation, the collect becomes our introduction to “that spiritual universe in which our prayer lives and moves and is.”
- Eric Palazzo, A History of Liturgical Books: From the Beginning to the Thirteenth Century, trans. Madeleine Beaumont, A Pueblo Book (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1998), 25, n. 21. ↑
- Joseph A. Jungmann, SJ, The Mass of the Roman Rite: Its Origins and Development, 2 vols. (Dublin: Four Courts/Christian Classics, 1986), I:373. ↑
- https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/1303.htm, accessed November 9, 2020. ↑
- Ibid. ↑
- Jungmann, I, 377. ↑
- Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, (Vatican City, 2007), no. 31. ↑
- Johannes H. Emminghaus, The Eucharist: Essence, Form, Celebration, trans. Linda M. Maloney, rev. and ed. Theodor Mass Ewerd (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1997), 129. ↑
- Ratio Translationis, no. 32. ↑
- Ibid. ↑
- Roman Missal, 3rd ed. ↑
- Ratio Translationis, no. 105. ↑
- In the Roman Missal, 3rd ed., this is the Collect At the Mass during the Day. ↑
- Dr. Pius Parsch, trans William G. Heidt, OSB, The Church’s Year of Grace (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1959), Vol. I, 269. ↑
- Ibid. ↑
- Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed. (Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 1997), 1165. ↑
- Pius XII, Mediator Dei, no. 165. ↑
- SC 102, cf. CCC, 1163. ↑
- CCC, 1104. ↑
- Jordan Aumann, Christian Spirituality in the Catholic Tradition (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1985), p. 92. ↑
- Guigo II: The Ladder of Monks: A Letter on the Contemplative Life and Twelve Meditations, translated and with an Introduction by Edmund Colledge, OSA and James Walsh, SJ, (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1979), 70. ↑
- Guigo II, 68. ↑
- Ibid., 68-69. ↑
- Jungmann, I, 379. ↑
- https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/1303.htm, accessed November 9, 2020. ↑
Father Randy Stice is the Director of the Office of Worship and Liturgy for the Diocese of Knoxville, TN. He has served as a parochial vicar, a pastor, and from 2017 to 2020 was the Associate Director of the Secretariat of Divine Worship at the USCCB. He holds an STL in Systematic Theology from Mundelein Seminary and an MA in Liturgy from the Liturgical Institute. He is the author of three books: Understanding the Sacraments of Healing (LTP, 2015), Understanding the Sacraments of Vocation (LTP, 2016), and Understanding the Sacraments of Initiation (LTP, 2017).