20 March 2024


 Not long ago, in the Breviary Reading, we had this from S Ambrose: "And if your sin be so grievous that you cannot wash it away yourself with penitential tears, then let Holy Mother Church weep for you, for she intervenes [intervenit] for each one as a widowed mother for her only sons".

The verb, of course, is a compound of venire, to come, and inter, between.

We shall leave aside the apparent implication that a widowed mother might have a plurality of Only Sons. I want to dwell upon the the use of intervenire both as a verb, and in the form of nouns drawn from it.

Perhaps the incessant cry of our wonderful Western litanies resonates in our minds ... Ora pro nobis. And we are so familiar with the words in the Holy Rosary Ora pro nobis peccatoribus nunc et in hora mortis nostrae that the verb orare, to pray, comes naturally to us when we are thinking of the Saints and their Ministry of prayer for us.

But, a little while ago, browsing idly as one does through some first-millennium liturgical texts from around this part of the Land of the West Saxons, celebrating its great 'Apostle' S Birinus, I came across a Proper Preface asking God that he eum pro nobis apud te iugiter intervenire concedas. And a Benediction (one of those old-style triple benedictions imparted by a Bishop before the Pax) from a different liturgical book asks that, as S Birinus through his praedicationem [preaching] saved  innumeri, so now he might 'save' us through interventionem.

So I did what any sensible person would do: I consulted Sr Dr Ellebracht. She never lets one down.

She explains that intervenire in legal terminology 'has basically the same sense as intercedere , but "it includes the of ' the assumption of another's obligation"'. And it is far less frequent, in the Prayers of the Roman Missal, than intercedere.

Then comes a really interesting bit in Ellebracht's information.

Intervenire appears much more frequently in the Veronense, what we used to call 'the Leonine Sacramentary', and Ellerbacht remarks that, really, intercedere is theologically the more accurate word, "since the role of the saints is to plead in behalf of the faithful on earth, but not to intervene in the strict sense of the word".

The Veronense is a very strange old document: I think it is still unknown who collected its contents and why. It is a sort of ragbag ... everything in it is of interest, but we are a bit stymied about how to place it all. However, it is clear that we here are in the rich, fertile soil of the First Millennium. 

And I think that intervenire has much more of a sense of an almost legalistic intervention, as if the interventor has a more formal role of acting on our behalf than even Messrs Wigge and Gowne in the High Street. We would be very glad, in Ellebracht's words, if our selected interventor were, indeed, to "intervene in the strict sese of the word". 

Stricter the better!

Interventor has bigger clout than Intercessor. Does that work?



1 comment:

Daniel Muller said...


Your central point deserves more attention, but what caught my eye was "her only sons." This is certainly odd in standard English, but there seems to a very particular (only-ish?) meaning of this phrase in Latin. I immediately thought of the Nuptial Mass propers:

Introit (Tobias 7 : 15; 8 : 19)

Deus Israël conjúngat vos:
et ipse sit vobíscum, qui misertus est duóbus únicis:
et nunc, Dómine, fac eos plénius benedícere te.

May the God of Israel join you together:
and may He be with you, who was merciful to two only children: ...