People sometimes remark that the Roman Catholic Church hasn’t changed much in 2,000 years. Actually, like any living institution, it is constantly changing. The church has adjusted its traditions and policies over the centuries on such matters as where and when the Mass is celebrated, how saints are chosen, and the method of electing popes.
In Advent of 2011, we will experience changes to the Roman Missal, the book containing the prayers for the Mass. For years, the church has been working to translate more accurately the Latin prayers in which the original Missal is promulgated into modern languages, including English.
The revisions were needed for two reasons: First, following the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, “the committee charged with the English translation of the Roman Missal issued the post-Vatican II translations very quickly,” said Msgr. Kevin Irwin, dean of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at The Catholic University of America in Washington. “They realized, after a few years’ use of the missal, that some translations should have been more accurate.”
Second, according to Father Paul Turner, an author, lecturer and pastor in the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Mo., the Vatican has changed its philosophy for translation into the vernacular. Whereas translators in the wake of the council worked within a framework of “dynamic equivalence,” the new translation was done according to “formal equivalence,” a system put forth in Liturgiam Authenticam, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments’ 2001 document on liturgical translation.
“A dynamic equivalence translation is one that favors the receiving language, in our case English. Formal equivalence is trying to honor the original language,” Father Turner explained to the Catholic Courier earlier this year. “(Vatican officials) believe that (formal equivalence) will help us to get a translation that is deeper.”
Peter Finn likened the changes “to the cleaning of an old painting whose images are brought to clearer light in the cleaning process.”
“The translations have sought to achieve a suitable balance between the word-for-word, literal meaning of the Latin and the demands of good proclamation, style and intelligibility,” added Finn, associate director of the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL), which developed the translation of the new Roman Missal.
One of the most significant changes, according to Msgr. Irwin, involves the familiar phrase, “And also with you,” with which the congregation responds to the celebrant’s words: “The Lord be with you.”
“The congregation will now say, ‘and with your spirit.’ This places the English translation in line with most other languages,” Msgr. Irwin said. “The response is not to the person of the priest but to the Spirit of God, who ordained him to permanent service in the church. It is an acknowledgment of the ‘spirit’ and grace which is in him.”
Msgr. Anthony Sherman, executive director of the U.S. bishops’ Secretariat of Divine Worship, offered another example: Instead of saying “We believe” at the beginning of the Creed, Catholics will soon recite, “I believe.” He said this change is being made “to underline the fact that, although we share our belief together with our brothers and sisters, each one of us is called to make an individual profession of faith.”
Average Catholics may not immediately grasp the necessity and benefits of the changes, Msgr. Irwin admitted, but the familiarity that comes with time should lead people to comfort with and understanding of the words.
“All of us — laity, clergy and religious — will need to take time to review the changed words and come to appreciate what we may not have understood or appreciated before,” he said. “There are layers of meaning to liturgical texts, not just one meaning. These translations and the education we shall receive before they are implemented will offer us a chance to ‘brush up’ our knowledge of the Mass and of our beliefs.”
Msgr. Sherman said he believes the changes “will invite the faithful to pause and reflect on what, after so many years, we may have taken for granted. People will listen more attentively to the various prayers proclaimed by the priest and these will convey a much deeper richness, which can be the basis for meditation and prayer for the enrichment of one’s spiritual life.”
“I think we’ve always had an opportunity for a deeper prayer, but I do think the translation is getting more nuance out of the text than we’ve had before,” Father Turner said. “So we’ve got some deeper possibilities for catechesis and for spirituality with this translation.”
Such a deeper appreciation of the liturgy begins with the priest, who will lead the people in using the missal. Msgr. Sherman said he sees this as an opportunity for priests to further develop their own spiritual lives so they can ignite the faith of the congregation.
In order for the missal to be successfully implemented, he said, “the priest needs to be able to pray each prayer. And the only way one can approach this in a more prayerful manner is to educate oneself on the background of the prayers, theological concepts contained in the prayer, because then you can more intelligently and convincingly proclaim them for the people.”
He suggests priests read over the text to learn the best way to proclaim them, because the new translation is truer to the Latin phrasing and the sentences are sometimes long and grammatically complex. There also are vocabulary changes as well. The more comfortable the priest is with these changes, the easier it will be for the congregation to learn them, he added.
The work of traitors
Father Turner noted that translators have an inside joke about their work: A translator is a traitor.
The joke works better in Italian, in which the words for traitor and translator are almost the same. But in any language the phrase points to a greater truth, said Father Turner, a Latin scholar who worked for the ICEL.
“Anytime you translate you are doing your best. But it is nearly impossible to capture all the nuances and bring them into a new language,” he said.
Father Turner served as a recorder of proceedings at the ICEL commission meetings, which involved bishops from the English-speaking world led by Bishop Arthur Roche of Leeds, England, in its review of liturgical translations.
The group’s objective, according to Father Turner, was to ensure that the original Latin of the liturgical texts was faithfully rendered into English insofar as possible.
The result, for American Catholics who first encounter the missal, will take some adjustment. The new translation focuses more on maintaining the nuances of the original Latin. The result will be the use of some phrases and words that are not normally a part of everyday English discourse.
The translation that has been in use since shortly after Vatican II focused on making the texts understandable to modern English-speakers. It also relied on the principle of “compression,” eliminating repetitive phrasing. “That lent a vigor to the first translation, but it did eliminate some of the style and content of the original prayers,” Father Turner said. “It’s not that the translation we have is wrong or heretical. But what we gained in fluidity (in English) we lost in nuance (from the Latin).”
A shift in thinking
The results of implementing Liturgiam Authenticam’s emphasis on adherence to the Latin have led to some concern, voiced even by bishops, that the new English translations are not user-friendly. In the words of one critic, the language “tends to be elitist and remote from everyday speech and frequently not understandable.”
For example: The new translation sometimes uses the word “ineffable” to describe the power of God. Webster’s defines the word as anything “incapable of being expressed in words.” While not a part of daily English speech — although Father Turner noted that he saw the word in a recent edition of Newsweek — “it’s a great word when you talk about the mystery of God. It is a word that means we are speechless before God.” When it is taken in context, he said, English speakers will become familiar with it for a description of a mysterious quality of God.
Other examples are found in the Creed of the new missal. The old translation read, for instance, that Jesus was “one in being” with the Father, whereas the new translation will describe this relationship as “consubstantial,” an English word as close to the original Latin meaning as possible.
“It’s an unusual word. But the relationship between Jesus and the Father is unusual and needs a unique word,” said Father Turner, who added that ancient church councils attempted to define this relationship in as precise a way as possible, and that modern English speakers should have the benefit of those insights.
The current creed also describes Jesus as “born of the Virgin,” which Father Turner said fails to capture the full nature of Jesus. “Incarnate,” the word used in the new translation, is intended to emphasize that at Jesus’ conception the divine was present.
The new phrasing may sound strange at first, but Father Turner noted that English-speaking Christians through the ages have recited the Lord’s Prayer, with its famous phrase, “hallowed be thy name.” The word “hallowed” is rarely used in English anymore, but English speakers reciting the Lord’s Prayer easily recognize it in that context, he said, adding that the same should hold true for the terminology in the new missal.
An elevated tone
Beyond more clearly expressing theological concepts, the new translation displays a second effect of Liturgiam Authenticam‘s influence: a more formal tone.
Msgr. John H. Burton, vicar general of the Diocese of Camden, N.J., and board chairman of the Federation of Diocesan Liturgical Coordinators, said there was concern “that the language (of the 1970 translation) has been too laid back” and failed to convey the rich liturgical heritage of the Roman rite.
The new translation shows an effort “to heighten the language a bit” and capture “the transcendence as well as the imminence of God,” he said.
Father Andrew R. Wadsworth, executive director of ICEL, explained that the vocabulary of the Mass prayers “is necessarily rich as it reflects the various mysteries of salvation, conveying concepts which do not always occur in everyday conversation. To radically simplify the language is often to dilute the concept.”
An excerpt from Eucharistic Prayer I illustrates the difference in style.
The version currently in use reads: “Look with favor on these offerings. Accept them as once you accepted the gifts of your servant Abel, the sacrifice of Abraham, our father in faith, and the bread and wine offered by your priest Melchizedek.
“Almighty God, we pray that your Angel may take this sacrifice to your altar in heaven. As we receive from this altar the sacred Body and Blood of your Son, let us be filled with every grace and blessing.”
The new translation says: “Be pleased to look upon these offerings with serene and kindly countenance, and to accept them, as you were pleased to accept the gifts of your servant Abel the just, the sacrifice of Abraham, our father in faith, and the offering of your high priest Melchizedek, a holy sacrifice, a spotless victim.
“In humble prayer we ask you, almighty God: command that these gifts be borne by the hands of your holy Angel to your altar on high in the sight of your divine majesty, so that all of us who through this participation at the altar receive the most holy Body and Blood of your Son may be filled with every grace and heavenly blessing.”
Father Turner acknowledged criticisms of some long, complex sentences in the new translation, especially in the “collects,” which are the prayers at the beginning of Mass.
“It’s a logical fear that people will raise, but I think they’ll be pleasantly surprised at how easy it is to understand,” he said, noting that the collects follow a pattern, with many of the same components repeated from one day to the next.
If you look at just one collect in the new translation, “it sounds complicated,” he said. “But when you hear that style Sunday after Sunday, I think your ears open up to the style,” and it becomes familiar.
Yet in recognition of the disturbance change can bring, bishops’ conferences around the world have repeatedly stressed that these translations should not be used without prior and significant explanation, Father Turner said. “One of the things we did not do 40 years ago, when the liturgy was first put into the vernacular, was to explain the changes fully. We need several layers of education and instruction about the translations, but even more importantly about the Mass itself.”
“These prayers will have to work on us in our psyche and our prayer life for a number of years before we capture the whole meaning,” Msgr. Sherman noted. “I think we’re also going to be on the verge of everyone in the church being able to appreciate these prayers in a way that we never did in the past.”
Based upon Roman Missal formational materials provided by the Secretariat for the Liturgy of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2010.