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Sunday, August 29th, 2021

‘Labitur humana mortalitas’: a Sermon for the Fourteen Sunday after Pentecost

To live a sensible human life, a very basic admission is needed: we are prone to falling. Without a keen understanding of human fallibility, life becomes little more than a series of inexplicable frustrations. The simplest observation confirms this; to err is human. 

This Sunday’s collect is predicated on that reality—sine te labitur humana mortalitas. The Latin word labo can mean things like totter, give way, sink, decline, err, waver, fall. Indeed, once again, that about sums up the natural capabilities of man, and this because of sin. Remember—and never forget—the three effects of original sin upon our nature: the intellect is darkened, the will weakened, the passions disordered. 

In light of that, therefore, the main petitions of this collect are straightforward and very fitting: ‘because without you human mortality gives way, ever divert it, by your helps, from what is harmful, and lead it to the things that are for salvation.’ We should note that the word abstraho entails a sort of forcible movement, a dragging away, sundering, or sudden detachment. We are not asking God to be especially gentle with us. But that said, we should take delight in this example of Roman realism and directness: ‘drag us out of the way of what will harm us, and guide us rather to healthy things.’ 

I would like to digress here a moment and say something about the general tenor of the traditional Roman collects. In seminary, I did an independent study with a classmate of mine, in which we took a close look at the way the collects had changed between the 1962 edition of the missal and the 1970/2002 editions. In technical terms, we asked the question about what was the anthropological vision of the traditional Mass versus the Novus Ordo. Which is to say, how do the different sets of prayers speak of man? What portrait do they paint of him? What assumptions do they make about human nature and who, ultimately, do these prayers say that man and woman are? I was just thumbing through this notebook the other day. But it is not a superfluous question, and the answers that each missal gives are different. 

Without summarizing the whole course, the point is this: today’s collect expresses the general sense that the traditional prayers have of us. Mankind suffers from various forms and layers of need; and this need he cannot remedy on his own: therefore he begs for the healing that Christ’s grace alone can give. On the other hand, many of the newer collects downplay the desperate side of human nature. You can answer for yourselves what the result of this change has been.  

Digression aside, all of that gives us a hint about the especially Roman character of our liturgy and our spiritual life.     

We conclude our meditation today with the beginning of the collect. We have belabored the point of man’s frailty, which today’s collect is realistic and powerful in describing. But more light is shed upon the matter by observing that the prayer begins with an exhortation for God to protect his Church: ‘Guard your Church, Lord, with your perpetual mercy.’ If today’s collect has asked for God to be the dramatic remedy for human mortality, then we see that he has placed his Church at the head of this drama. 

If only Catholics understood this well enough—then the world might begin to see it, too. Namely, that the Church is the place, that safe haven and household, where we are being detached from all that can spiritually harm us, and led to all those things which conduce to our spiritual and eternal good. The harm that is done by the various members of the Church has nothing to do with the inner nature and purpose of the Church; they are exceptions that prove the rule. Especially by her Sacraments, the Church herself saves us from wicked souls that mingle in her company. Which is why the sacred liturgy often cries out with such intense need, as today.  

Therefore, we see that it is not the nature of the Church to be an instrument of political or social action; nor is she, strictly speaking, a force for culture-making. It is true that the Church raised up the culture of the West—but she did this only secondarily. Instead, the Church formed the West because souls gave themselves to her healing and protecting grace; which grace she receives from her Spouse, Jesus Christ.

Dearly beloved, we are Catholics because we want to be; we are Catholics because we need to be.     

 

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