Rorate Caeli

“Innumerable miracles”, reduced to none: Saint Nicholas in the Traditional and Modern Roman Missals

Today is the feast day of Saint Nicholas, and his collect in the traditional Roman Missal alludes to his Greek title of "wonderworker", and the "innumerable miracles" he worked during his life: 

Deus, qui beátum Nicoláum Pontíficem,
innúmeris decorásti miráculis:
tríbue, quǽsumus;
ut eius méritis et précibus
a gehénnæ incéndiis liberémur. (CO 1463)

O God, who made the holy Bishop Nicholas
renowned for innumerable miracles,
grant, we beseech you,
that by his merits and prayers
we may be saved from the fires of hell.

The Corpus orationum (CO) tells us that this collect—along with the secret and postcommunion prayers for Saint Nicholas in the 1962 Missal—is extant in 13 manuscripts, dating from the 11th century onwards. However, by this point, it may not come as much of a surprise to find out that, for the so-called "unique expression" of the Roman Rite, this prayer was entirely discarded, and in its place a new, much less-threatening oration was composed using edited bits of two other prayers plus a verse from the Acts of the Apostles:

1970/2008 Missal

Misericórdiam tuam, Dómine,
súpplices implorámus,
et, beáti Nicolái episcopi interveniénte suffrágio,
nos in ómnibus custódi perículis,
ut via salútis nobis páteat expedíta.

We humbly implore your mercy, O Lord:
protect us in all dangers
through the prayers of the Bishop Saint Nicholas,
that the way of salvation
may lie open before us.

CO 3375 a: Missale Gothicum, Circumcision of the Lord (postcommunion)

Misericordiam tuam, Domine,
supplices exoramus,
ut hoc tuum sacramentum
non sit nobis reatus ad poenam
sed fiat intercession salutaris ad veniam.

We humbly entreat your mercy, O Lord,
that this, your sacrament,
may not be for us an offence to be punished,
but a saving plea for forgiveness.

CO 4614 A: 1962 Missal, Quinquagesima, Collect (extant in 47 mss.)

Preces nostras, quaesumus, Domine,
clementer exaudi atque,
a peccatorum vinculis absolutos,
ab omni nos adversitate custodi.

Mercifully hear our prayers,
we beseech you, O Lord,
to loose us from the chains of our sins
and protect us from all adversity.

Acts 16:17

Haec subsecuta Paulum et nos, clamabat dicens: Isti homines servi Dei excelsi sunt, qui annuntiant vobis viam salutis.

She followed Paul and us, crying out, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation.

Why was this new collect written to replace the traditional one? Well, since none of St Nicholas’s miracles could be verified by the reformers using the historical-critical method, as per their interpretation of Sacrosanctum Concilium 92(c), [1] any mention of them in the liturgy had to go. Incidentally, this also affects the modern Martyrology—in this particular case, quite drastically:

1956 Martryologium Romanum

Myrae, quae est metropolis Lyciae, natalis sancti Nicolai, Episcopi et Confessoris, de quo, inter plura miraculorem insignia, illud memorabile fertur, quod Imperatorem Constantinum ab interitu quorumdam se invocantium, longe constitutus, ad misericordiam per visum monitis deflexit et minis.

At Myra, the metropolis of Lycia, the birthday of Saint Nicholas, bishop and confessor, of whom it is related, among other miracles, that, while at a great distance from the emperor Constantine, he appeared to him in a vision and moved him to mercy so as to deter him form putting to death some persons who had implored his assistance.

2004 Martyrologium Romanum (p. 659)

Sancti Nicolai, episcopi Myrensis in Lycia, sanctitate et intercessione apud thronum gratiae divinae praeclari.

Saint Nicholas, bishop of Myra in Lycia, famous for his sanctity and intercession at the throne of divine grace.

It has often been remarked that the historical-critical method has a detrimental, even corrosive, effect on devotion and piety, and this seems particularly evident here.

As well as this, there is that "difficult" phrase gehénnæ incéndiis ("the fires of hell")—too "negative" and not in keeping with "modern man", so out it also must go. It should likewise be noted that, in composing this new collect for the Novus Ordo, most of the "difficult" parts of the source texts have been deftly skipped: e.g. non sit nobis reatus ad poenam (CO 3375 a); a peccatorum vinculis absolutos (CO 4614). There seems to have been a distinct ideology at work both in the way the traditional collect was discarded and in the way the source prayers were used in the composition of the new collect. It is, in my opinion, distasteful and concerning in equal measure.

Moreover, in the composition of this new collect, the reformers went against their own policy of situating texts according to their “true function”—parts of a postcommunion and super oblata, taken out of their original context, were used to create this new prayer.

Speaking of the secret/super oblata and postcommunion, what became of these prayers in the post-Vatican II reform for the feast of Saint Nicholas? Well, as his celebration in the Novus Ordo is an optional memorial, Saint Nicholas actually has no proper super oblata or postcommunion: they are taken from the Common of Pastors (For a Bishop), or the Common of Holy Men & Women, or even from the Advent weekday. [2] This gives a total of five different super oblata and five postcommunions for the priest to choose from! In the traditional Roman Rite, however, Saint Nicholas is assigned a proper secret and postcommunion. The secret is as follows:

Sanctífica, quǽsumus, Dómine Deus, hæc múnera,
quæ in solemnitáte sancti Antístitis tui Nicolái offérimus:
ut per ea vita nostra inter advérsa
et próspera ubíque dirigátur. (CO 5381)

Sanctify these offerings, we pray, Lord God,
which we present on the solemnity of your holy Bishop Nicholas,
so that through them our life may everywhere be directed
whether in tribulation or in prosperity.

This prayer is duplicated in the 1962 Missal on the feast of Saint Martin of Tours (11 November). In the Novus Ordo, it is kept for Saint Martin, with some small changes (albeit ones not attested in the manuscript tradition):

Sanctífica, quǽsumus, Dómine Deus, hæc múnera,
quæ in honórem sancti Martíni lætánter offérimus,
ut per ea vita nostra inter advérsa
et próspera semper dirigátur.

Sanctify these offerings, we pray, Lord God,
which we joyfully present in honour of Saint Martin,
so that through them our life may always be directed
whether in tribulation or in prosperity.

However, as Blessed Ildefonse Schuster informs us in his Liber Sacramentorum (pp. 269-270), the use of this secret on the feast of Saint Martin was itself taken from the feast of Saint Nicholas. [3] This is, thus, yet another "restoration" of the post-Vatican II reformers that is nothing of the sort. 

The traditional postcommunion for Saint Nicholas is:

Sacrifícia, quæ súmpsimus, Dómine,
pro solemnitáte sancti Pontíficis tui Nicolái,
sempitérna nos protectióne consérvent. (CO 5197)

May the sacrifice of which we have partaken, O Lord,
on the solemnity of your holy Bishop Nicholas,
strengthen us with eternal protection.

This prayer—which, just like the collect and secret in the 1962 Missal, has been used on the feast of Saint Nicholas since the 11th century—is not reused in the Novus Ordo for any other saint. However, it should be noted that the last clause of this prayer is very similar to a postcommunion oration found in the Gelasianum Vetus (see CO 374): Auxilientur nobis, domine, sumpta mysteria, et sempiterna protectione confirment. This prayer was combined by the reformers with the secret for the 20th Sunday after Pentecost in the 1962 Missal (see CO 519) to make a new, centonised postcommunion for Wednesday in Week 5 of Lent. [4] 

Finally, I will note that the collect for Saint Nicholas in the Novus Ordo seems to hew very closely, on the one hand, to some of the claims made about the revised orations in a 1971 essay by Dom Antoine Dumas, but, on the other hand, is very far from other claims:

In the sanctoral prayers we have avoided all excessive justification, all recalling of famous feats that are common to many (foundations, miracles, etc.) in order to put greater emphasis on the personality of the saint, his mission in the Church, the practical lesson that his example gives to men of today. All the corrections or new compositions in the new missal proceed in this direction, which will be easy to notice.

Now, as we have seen, miracles are certainly avoided in this new collect for Saint Nicholas. But it is quite a stretch to claim that the new prayer has a greater emphasis on the personality, mission or example of Saint Nicholas. Dumas’s words ring even less true when applied to the Martyrology of the Novus Ordo, which for Saint Nicholas, as we have seen, has had almost all its personality and colour drained out of it by the cold, unfeeling rationalism of the historical-critical method. A final observation: given the widespread devotion to Saint Nicholas in both East and West, this liturgical minimalism and rationalism does not seem particularly ecumenical to me—though, like "restoration", "ecumenism" seems to be just another empty claim of the post-Vatican II liturgical reforms.


[1] Namely: Passiones seu vitae Sanctorum fidei historicae reddantur ("The accounts of martyrdom or the lives of the saints are to accord with the facts of history").

[2] See the rubric at the head of the Proper of Saints section in the Novus Ordo Missae: Orationes super oblata et post communionem, nisi sint propriæ, sumuntur aut e Communi aut e currenti tempore liturgico ("The Prayers over the Offerings and after Communion, unless they are proper, are taken either from the Common or from the current time of the liturgical year"). Of course, in the traditional Roman Rite, the Advent weekday is commemorated alongside the celebration of Saint Nicholas, so we have the best of both worlds, as it were!

[3] The secret for Saint Martin in the 1570 Missale Romanum, taken up from the 1474 Missale Romanum Mediolani, was that of the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost. At some point in the early part of the 20th century, this was changed to the one used for Saint Nicholas.

[4] GeV 1241 (CO 374: Auxilientur nobis, domine, sumpta mysteria, et sempiterna protectione confirment) + MR 85 (CO 519: Cæléstem nobis praebeant hæc mystéria, quaesumus, Dómine, medicínam: et vítia nostri cordis expúrgent) = 1970/2008 MR (Cæléstem nobis, Dómine, prǽbeant sumpta mystéria medicínam, ut et vítia nostri cordis expúrgent, et sempitérna nos protectióne confírment).