St John XXIII’s Constitution on the study of Latin Veterum Sapientia rightly reminds us that it is the key to exploring not only the literary riches of the ancient Roman world, but also those of the Church itself. Among these we may count innumerable treasures from its liturgical tradition, and especially those which through whatever accident of history are no longer in use, and for which there is therefore no modern translation. Today’s feast of St Catherine of Alexandria offers us an example of such a treasure.
The city of Milan has preserved its own unique rite of Mass, known as the Ambrosian Rite, after its patron Saint, Ambrose, who was bishop there from 374 to 397. Like every liturgy, the Ambrosian Mass has undergone various reforms; until the reform of 1594, which gave the Missal its definitive form, this preface was used on the feast of St Catherine. It tells gives a summary of her story, which among other things explains why she is traditionally honored as one of the Patron Saints of philosophers.
“Vere quia dignum et justum est, aequum et salutare, nos tibi semper et ubique gratias agere, Domine, sancte Pater, ominpotens aeterne Deus, per Christum, Dominum nostrum. Per quem triumphatrix nobilissima et egregia martyr virgo Catherina, Prophetarum et Apostolorum atque philosophorum doctrinis imbuta, omnibusque linguis charismate Sancti Spiritus erudita, imperatorem cum rhetoribus, mundum cum vitiis omnibus mirabilia sapientia superavit. Imperatricem augustam cum praefatis rhetoribus, Porphyrium cum sociis omnibus suis, exemplis et doctrinis magnificis convertit ad Christum, omnesque accepta fide cum signo Christi a virgine Catherina, martyrio coronatos, praemisit ad regna polorum. Haec fuit illa sapientia illustrata, quae vincit malitiam, attingit a fine usque ad finem fortiter, et disponit omnia suaviter. Haec est illa gloriosissima virgo, quae cum centenis fructibus seipsam libando, magnoque purpurata martyrio, representavit Jesu Christo. Ideoque famine Christi et angelorum visitatione confirmata, clavos et rotas, seras acutissimas, tyranni gladium atque minas mirabili constantia superavit. Haec pro cunctis ejus passionem devote colentibus, sanitatem mentis et corporis, fideique firmitatem et rerum abundantiam a Domino postulavit. Haec etiam decollata pro Christi nomine lac fudit pro sanguine, ut sua doctrina et passio nobis eam pura mente venerantibus, esset potus spiritualis et cibus, atque peccatorum remissio. Per eundem Christum, Dominum nostrum. Per quem maiestatem tuam laudant Angeli, venerantur Archangeli, Throni, Dominationes, Virtutes, Principates, et Potestates adorant. Quem Cherubim et Seraphim socia exsultatione concelebrant. Cum quibus et nostras voces, ut admitti iubeas, deprecamur, supplici confessione dicentes: Sanctus…
(St Catherine explaining the truth of Christianity to the philosophers sent to convince her of its falsehood; through the window on the right, we seem them accepting martyrdom with her encouragement. Fresco in the chapel of Ss Ambrose and Catherine in the Roman basilica of St Clement, painted by Masolino da Panicale, 1425-31)
Truly it is worthy and just, meet and profitable to salvation, that we give Thee thanks always and everywhere, Lord, holy Father, almighty and everlasting God, through Christ our Lord. Through whom the triumphant, most noble, and outstanding martyr, the virgin Catherine, instructed in the teachings of the prophets, apostles and philosophers, and taught in all languages by the grace of the Holy Spirit by her wonderful wisdom overcame the emperor with the orators, and the world with all its vices. She converted to Christ the august empress with the aforementioned orators, and Porphyry (her jailer) with all his companions, by her magnificent teachings and examples; and when they had all received the faith together with the sign of Christ from the virgin Catherine, and been crowned with martyrdom, she sent them before her to the kingdom of the heavens. She is the one illuminated by that wisdom which conquers malice, and mightily reaches from end to end (of the word), and sweetly disposes all things. She is that most glorious virgin who with a hundredfold fruits, by her great martyrdom presented herself as an offering to Jesus Christ. And therefore being confirmed by the word of Christ and the visitation of angels she overcame with wondrous constancy nails and wheels, blades most sharp, the tyrant’s sword and threats. She asked from the Lord for all those who devoutly honor her passion health of mind and body, firmness of faith, and abundance of all things. She also, having been beheaded for the name of Christ poured forth milk instead of blood, so that for us who venerate her with pure mind, her teaching and passion might be spiritual drink and food, and the forgiveness of sins. Through the same Christ our Lord, through whom the Angels praise, the Archangels venerate, the Thrones, Dominations, Virtues, Principalities and Powers adore Thy majesty; whom the Cherubim and Seraphim celebrate joined in exultation; and we ask that Thou order our voices also be brought in among theirs, saying with humble confession, ‘Holy…’ ”