November 2023 Print

Thematic Unity in the Final Sundays after Pentecost and its Disappearance in the Liturgical Reforms

By Matthew Hazell

As we reach the end of the liturgical year, there is a shift in the tone and tenor of the prayers in the traditional Roman Missal. As Blessed Ildefonso Schuster tells us:

A profound feeling of sadness pervades these Masses of the remaining Sundays after Pentecost, as though to prepare us for the coming of the Redeemer. Human nature in deep humiliation groans under the weight of its iniquities and of the divine chastisements. Man can no longer rise from this state, and has learned by experience that without the help of God he can do nothing good. We can only hasten by prayer and the humble confession of our own helplessness the hour of divine mercy.1

So, on the 20th Sunday after Pentecost, we pray in the Collect that we “may be cleansed from every offense,”2 and in the Secret prayer we ask, in anticipation, that the Eucharist “may purge all evil from our heart.”3 In the following Sunday’s Collect, we beseech the Lord to keep us in His “constant care,” that He might protect us and keep us “free from all troubles,”4 and in the Postcommunion we pray for “purity of heart.”5 On the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost—replaced this year by the feast of Christ the King, with the Sunday propers used on the ferial days following—we declare the Lord to be “our refuge and our strength” in the Collect,6 echoing the previous Sunday’s Gradual from Psalm 89, “O Lord, You have been our refuge, from one generation to the next” (v. 1). We also pray in the Secret “that this saving oblation may never fail to free us from our guilt and protect us from all adversity,”7 and in the Postcommunion that the Eucharist “may bring us help in our weakness.”8 On the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost, we find this Collect:

Pardon the offenses of Your peoples, we pray, O Lord, and in Your goodness set us free from the bonds of the sins we have committed in our weakness.

In the Secret prayer, we acknowledge our unworthiness to receive the gifts of God, yet rejoice that by His grace He chooses to bestow them on us, bringing the sacrifice of His beloved Son to completion and glory.9 This joy is recapitulated in the Postcommunion, where we also ask the Lord that we “may not be subjected to human dangers.”10

There is thus a unity running through these final Sundays: of longing to be freed from our sins and iniquities, asking the Lord for His protection and merciful pardon, begging Him to help us in our weakness. All this culminates in the Last Sunday after Pentecost, in which we pray for the merciful Lord’s “healing remedies” (Collect),11 to be “freed from earthly passions” (Secret),12 and that “whatever is evil in our minds may be cured” by the Eucharist (Postcommunion).13 That these prayers occur alongside All Saints and All Souls is particularly apt, as is their placement towards the end of the liturgical year, when we begin to look towards Advent and the Incarnation and second coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.

One might have thought that this unity of the traditional propers would have been kept in the post-Vatican II liturgical reforms, especially given that, in the Novus Ordo lectionary, a deliberate choice was made to assign “eschatological texts” to the last two weeks of the year.14 However, it seems that these prayers were judged too difficult for the Council’s conception of “modern man,” as almost all of them were moved, changed or deleted entirely by the reformers.

The Postcommunions of the 20th,15 21st and Last Sundays after Pentecost, as well as the Secrets of the 22nd and Last Sundays after Pentecost, are nowhere to be found in the post-Vatican II Missal. Why is this?

Well, by September 1966, the liturgical reformers had already decided to delete the Secret for the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost, most probably because of their early insistence that, supposedly in order to express “more clearly” the meaning of the offertory, “everything that prefigures the appearance of the oblation of the Body and Blood of Christ and in some way anticipates the manner of speaking proper to the Canon of the Mass must be removed or changed.”16 As this Secret refers to “this saving oblation” (haec salutáris oblátio), it was too “anticipatory” and thus had to be changed. In the first draft of the revised Proper of Time, it was replaced with a prayer from one of the October Masses in the Leonine Sacramentary: “Accept, O Lord, we pray, the heartfelt sacrifices of those devoted to Your name, by which we are both expiated from earthly contagions and brought nearer to bestowal with the company of heaven” (n. 1129).17 This replacement prayer would itself also go on to be replaced, likely because the language of “earthly contagions” (terrenis contagiis) was deemed too negative. As the head of the group responsible for the reform of the prayers in the Proper of Time wrote in a 1971 article:

Concern for the truth required adaptation in the case of numerous orations… For example, many texts, for a long while too well known, put heaven and earth into radical opposition—from whence the antithetical couplet oft repeated in the former missal: terrena despicere et amare caelestia, which, although a right understanding is possible, is very easily poorly translated. An adaptation was imperative that, without harming the truth, took account of the modern mentality and the directives of Vatican II.18

With regards to the four other prayers mentioned above that were deleted in the post-Vatican II reforms, it is noteworthy that all of them were retained in the first draft of the reformed Proper of Time.19 Some changes were suggested for the Postcommunion of the 21st Sunday after Pentecost and the Secret for the Last Sunday after Pentecost, but these changes are text-critical decisions intended to return these prayers to their more authentic state—quite different to the sorts of changes we will see below!

For the orations of the Last Sunday after Pentecost in particular, given the testimony of the reformers themselves it would seem that what was construed as negative language in these prayers—“freed from earthly passions,” “whatever is evil in our minds”—was the reason why they were ultimately removed in the final reform.

There does not, however, seem to be any clear reason why the Postcommunions of the 20th and 21st Sundays after Pentecost were deleted. The first of these is repeated on Tuesday in Week 2 of Lent in the 1962 Missal; in the first draft of the revised Proper of Time, this duplication was eliminated, in line with the criteria of the liturgical reformers,20 but then the prayer was subsequently removed entirely. Only a small part of this prayer survives anywhere in the post-Vatican II Missal, as the last clause of the Prayer over the Offerings for the 34th Week in Ordinary Time, which takes parts from two different prayers and combines them to create a new oration. The Postcommunion of the 21st Sunday after Pentecost can be found in one of the oldest witnesses to the Roman Rite, the Gelasian Sacramentary (8th century). Its disappearance in the 1970 Missal is inexplicable: the only remotely-plausible explanation I can think of is that it was considered a “useless repetition” (Vatican II, Sacrosanctum Concilium, n. 34) of the priest’s private prayer after Communion, “What has passed our lips as food, O Lord, may we possess in purity of heart…” (Quod ore súmpsimus, Dómine, pura mente capiámus…)—but if this was the case, what purpose is served by denying the faithful the opportunity once a year, through the propers of the Mass, to more “actively participate” in this private prayer?

Eight of the prayers used on the 20th to Last Sundays after Pentecost were moved and/or changed for the 1970 Missal:

  • The Collect for the 20th Sunday after Pentecost has been moved to become one of the twenty-eight ad libitum choices for the optional Prayer over the People at the end of Mass. In fact, this prayer was only added back to the Novus Ordo in 2002, when the third edition of the Missal was promulgated.
  • The Secret of the 20th Sunday after Pentecost has been moved to become, with some textual changes, the Postcommunion for Wednesday in Week 5 of Lent. This Secret has no extant history of being used in Lent and, of the more than forty manuscripts it appears in, in only one is it employed as a Postcommunion.
  • The Collect for the 21st Sunday after Pentecost, like the Collect of the preceding Sunday, was moved to be one of the many choices for the optional Prayer over the People, and was also only added back to the Novus Ordo in 2002.
  • The Secret for the 21st Sunday after Pentecost21 has been moved to become the Prayer over the Offerings (oratio super oblata) for Friday in Week 1 of Lent. There is no extant history of it ever being used in Lent.
  • The Collect for the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost22 is now exceptionally well-hidden in Appendix V of the modern Missal, which gives example formularies for the “Prayer of the Faithful” (also known as the “Bidding Prayers”). These examples, of course, are almost never used, since most parishes use intercessions composed ad libitum from week to week by the priest, a lay person, or some sort of parish liturgical committee, often lengthy and poorly written.
  • The Postcommunion for the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost23 was moved to Saturday in Week 2 of Easter, with some significant changes. In the post-Vatican II Missal, the prayer is now addressed to the Father (“what You command” has become “what Your Son commanded”), in line with the criteria of the reformers that “all the orations of the Roman Missal be directed to the Father.”24 However, its ending has also been changed: instead of the pessimistic “help in our weakness” (infirmitátis auxílium), we instead ask more optimistically for “growth in charity” (caritátis augméntum). Neither of these changes is attested in the over fifty extant manuscripts this oration appears in, including the earliest witness we have to the Roman liturgy, the so-called Verona Sacramentary (6th century).
  • The Collect for the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost was moved to become the first option for the Collect for Friday in Week 5 of Lent.25 Yet again, there is no extant manuscript history of this prayer ever being used in Lent.
  • The Secret for the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost has been moved to become the Prayer over the Offerings in the third formulary of the Mass “For the Priest Himself,” tucked away in the “Various Needs and Occasions” section of the post-Vatican II Missal. The subject of this Secret is thus changed from all the faithful to the priest alone: there is a narrowing of the prayer’s scope that has no real benefit.
  • Only two prayers from these final Sundays were retained at the end of the liturgical year. The Collect for the Last Sunday after Pentecost is now assigned to the 34th Week of what is called “Ordinary Time” (tempus per annum) and, perhaps surprisingly, remains intact. One will note, however, that this prayer no longer occurs on a Sunday in the Novus Ordo, as the feast of Christ the King was moved to the Last Sunday of Ordinary Time. The Postcommunion for the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost26 has also been moved to the 34th Week of Ordinary Time—but there has been a change to the end of this prayer: where traditionally we pray that we “may not be subjected to human dangers” (humánis non sinas subiacére perículis), in the post-Vatican II Missal we now ask God that we “may never be parted” from Him (a te numquam separári permíttas), likely inspired by the Anima Christi. This alteration, like all the others, is not attested in this prayer’s manuscript history.

    We can see, therefore, some common threads in the changes made by the post-Vatican II reformers to this group of orations: they have mostly been moved to times and occasions where they have never previously been used (e.g., Lent), or will be little if ever used (e.g., the optional Prayers over the People); none of them are used any longer on Sundays; language that the reformers considered difficult or negative is deleted (“weakness,” “danger,” “guilt”) and replaced with ostensibly more positive ideas (“growth in charity,” “may never be parted”).

    Amidst all this quite radical change, the thematic unity of these last Sundays in the traditional liturgy—a unity not designed by a committee or liturgical specialist, but one that organically developed—has been abandoned. In spite of the Council’s liturgical constitution stating that “there must be no innovations unless the good of the Church genuinely and certainly requires them,”27 these prayers, used for over 1,200 years, have been deleted or scattered across the reformed Missal, and replaced with rather generic Sunday Mass propers intended to be used during any time of the year.28 On a textual and historical level, this is destructive enough; on a devotional level, it is difficult not to see this as anything but a real loss for the faithful, who are thus deprived of this liturgical examination of conscience present in the traditional Roman Rite towards the end of the Church’s year.


    1 Ildefonso Schuster, The Sacramentary: Historical and Liturgical Notes on the Roman Missal (London: Burns Oates & Washbourne, 1924-30 [Waterloo, ON: Arouca Press, 2020 reprint]), vol. 3, p. 178.

    2 “Bestow pardon and peace, O Lord, we pray, upon Your faithful, that they may be cleansed from every offense and serve You with untroubled minds.”

    3 “May these mysteries, O Lord, bring us heavenly medicine, that they may purge all evil from our heart.”

    4 “Keep Your family, we pray, O Lord, in Your constant care, so that, under Your protection, they may be free from all troubles and by good works show dedication to Your name.”

    5 “We who have partaken of the food of immortality pray, O Lord, that we may cherish in purity of heart that which has passed our lips.”

    6 “O God, our refuge and our strength, hear the prayers of Your Church, for You Yourself are the source of all devotion, and grant, we pray, that what we ask in faith we may truly obtain.”

    7 “Grant, O merciful God, that this saving oblation may never fail to free us from our guilt and protect us from all adversity.”

    8 “We have partaken of the gifts of this sacred mystery, humbly imploring, O Lord, that what You command us to do in memory of You may bring us help in our weakness.”

    9 “We offer You the sacrifice of praise, O Lord, for the deepening of our service of You, so that what You have conferred on us, unworthy as we are, You may graciously bring to fulfillment.”

    10 “We pray, almighty God, that those to whom You give the joy of participating in divine mysteries may not be subjected to human dangers.”

    11 “Stir up the will of Your faithful, we pray, O Lord, that, striving more eagerly to bring Your divine work to fruitful completion, they may receive in greater measure the healing remedies Your kindness bestows.”

    12 “Be gracious, O Lord, to our supplications: accept the offerings and prayers of Your people, and turn all our hearts towards You, that freed from earthly passions, we may pass over to heavenly desires.”

    13 “Grant us, we pray, O Lord, that through these sacraments which we have received, whatever is evil in our minds may be cured by the gift of their healing power.”

    14 See General Introduction to the Lectionary, n. 104: indeed, the following section specifically states that “The liturgical year leads quite naturally to a termination in the eschatological theme proper to the last Sundays…” (n. 105).

    15 “That we may be made worthy, O Lord, of Your sacred gifts, make us, we pray, ever obedient to Your commandments.” This prayer is also used in the traditional Roman Rite on Tuesday in Week 2 of Lent.

    16 Consilium ad exsequendam, Schema 16 (De Missali, 2), 17 June 1964, pp. 6-7.

    17 Consilium ad exsequendam, Schema 186 (De Missali, 27), 19 September 1966, p. 52; Matthew P. Hazell, The Proper of Time in the Post-Vatican II Liturgical Reforms (Lectionary Study Press, 2018), p. 181.

    18 Antoine Dumas, O.S.B., “Le orazioni del Messale, criteri di scelta e di composizione,” Rivista Liturgica 58.1 (1971), pp. 92-102. English translation in Lauren Pristas, “The Orations of the Vatican II Missal: Policies for Revision,” Communio 30 (2003), pp. 621-653, at pp. 629-639 (quote from p. 635).

    19 See Consilium ed exsequendam, Schema 186, pp. 52-53.

    20 Schema 186, p. 1: “[F]or every text that frequently occurs in the Missal, its ancient use is to be retained, with very few exceptions. For Masses which lack orations after this, new texts are to be selected.”

    21 “Graciously accept these sacrificial offerings, O Lord, by which You will us to find favor with You, and, in Your mighty mercy, restore salvation to us.” This prayer is also used in the 1962 Missal as the Secret for the Votive Mass “In Any Tribulation” (Orationes diversae, 21. In quacumque tribulatione).

    22 Note that the Collect, Secret and Postcommunion for the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost are also used in the 1962 Missal for the Votive Mass “In Any Need” (Orationes diversae, 20. Pro quacumque necessitate).

    23 This prayer is also used in the traditional Roman Rite on Ember Friday in Pentecost.

    24 Consilium ad exsequendam, Schema 186, pp. 3-4.

    25 The second optional Collect, which echoes the commemoration of the Seven Sorrows of the Blessed Virgin Mary on Passion Friday in the traditional Missal, was added to the Novus Ordo in 2002.

    26 This prayer is also used in the 1962 Missal for the Votive Mass “For the Liberty of the Church” (Orationes diversae, 3. Pro ecclesiae libertate).

    27 Second Vatican Council, Sacrosanctum Concilium, n. 23.

    28 See the rubric that precedes Ordinary Time: “[I]n the Missal, thirty-four Masses for the Sundays and weekdays in Ordinary Time are found… On weekdays, however, any of the thirty-four Masses may be used, provided the pastoral needs of the faithful are taken into consideration” (The Roman Missal: English Translation According to the Third Typical Edition [London: Catholic Truth Society, 2010]).