The Liturgy

My liturgy column comes to you this month from just outside of London, where for the last two weeks, I have been pouring over copies of sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-century liturgical books that are housed in a Benedictine Abbey, where the monks here have dedicated their lives to the preservation of the liturgical history of the Roman Catholic Church. I’m here working on some research for a terminal degree in liturgy. My mentor, Fr. Daniel, a quiet, humble monk who holds two doctorates in theology — one in liturgy and one in scripture — and teaches at the Pontifical Institute for Liturgy in Rome, has been patiently sitting next to me for hours on end, helping me with Latin translations while we share stories of liturgy and life.

During the first of my two weeks here, I worked on tracing the history of the Collect, or the Opening Prayer at Mass, for the Fourth Sunday of Advent. I have to admit, I felt a bit like “a kid in a candy store” when I found that the oldest translation of that particular prayer dates back to approximately 685 and was used by the pope at Masses with those on spiritual pilgrimage to Rome. While it was originally assigned to a different day in the liturgical calendar, the very text of the prayer has remained unchanged for more than 1,300 years.

My research these past two weeks has inspired me to write about the Collect at Mass — what it is, its structure, and what we are supposed to do when it is prayed.

As mentioned, the Collect is also known as the Opening Prayer. It concludes the Introductory Rites of the Mass. That means, on days when the Gloria is prescribed, it follows immediately after, and on other days, it follows the Penitential Act. The priest addresses the people with “Let us pray,” and for those who have ever served Mass, that’s the signal for the minister to bring the Roman Missal to the priest. These three simple words, however, are more than a signal for the server.

The words, “Let us pray” are followed by a period of silence before the priest prays. The silence is important because, having already become aware that we are in the presence of God, we now call to mind the intentions we bring with us to Mass. The “General Instruction of the Roman Missal” says that everyone prays “together with the priest” (#54), thus exercising the common priesthood of our baptism, when we were anointed with the Sacred Chrism and marked as “members of Christ, Priest, Prophet, and King.” (Order of Baptism, #62) Therefore, when the priest says, “Let us pray,” he’s not just speaking some transitional words to move us from the Gloria to the Collect; he’s asking, rather, instructing, even ordering, us to pray — to call to mind those intentions that lay deep within the silence of our hearts.

As the prayer begins, the priest is “collect-ing” the thoughts and prayers of each and every one of us, who have been “collect-ed” from our homes for this celebration of Mass and helping us to focus our worship into one succinct prayer. Although we often hear this prayer called the “Opening Prayer,” it is more accurately and traditionally called the Collect, pronounced “KOL-ekt,” from the Latin collēcta, meaning “the gathering of the people together.”

The structure of a Collect is unique and typically has five parts: 1) invocation or address of God; 2) acknowledgment or description of God; 3) petition or request; 4) aspiration or desired result; and 5) conclusion or doxology. Let us take a look at the Collect for the 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time, the Sunday immediately following the publication of this article, and identify this structure:

Draw near to your servants, O Lord,
and answer their prayers with unceasing kindness,
that, for those who glory in you as their Creator and guide,
you may restore what you have created
and keep safe what you have restored.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
God, for ever and ever.

Here we see the five parts of this prayer:

Invocation: O Lord
Acknowledgment/Description of God: Creator and guide
Petition/Request: Draw near to your servants … and answer their prayers with unceasing kindness
Aspiration/Desired Result: … you may restore what you have created and keep safe what you have restored
Conclusion/Doxology: Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God, for ever and ever.

This prayer is a classic example of a Collect for the way it calls us together. We are called “servants,” meaning that we, who have been dispersed over the past week to live as disciples in the world, building up the Kingdom of God on earth, have now returned, as one community —one Body of Christ — who glory in God as our Creator and guide. We ask God to “draw near” to us, a beautiful request that conjures up the image of a father, leaning in to better hear his children speak. Calling to mind the prayers and petitions we have gathered this past week, we now present them to God that, in his goodness, kindness and compassion, he will hear us and answer. In offering these prayers, we hope that God will restore all things to their rightful order and return all creation back to its purpose — to give God glory.

May this examination of the Collect enrich your experience of Mass and help you to call to mind the prayers which lay deep within your heart. Let us pray.