Laura DeRosa of Mission Viejo, center, prays at the Mission Basilica in San Juan Capistrano, Calif. on Sunday, Nov. 27, 2011. Roman Catholic parishioners begin using revised responses to common prayers during Mass services, as a new translation of the ancient Latin prayer texts is rolled out across the English-speaking world. It’s only the second time since 1570 that the Roman Missal prayer book has been revised.
If you want reasons to embrace the new liturgy instead of relying only on blind obedience to Rome’s dictates, I recommend the argument for the Latinized translation by Professor Anthony Esolen writing in First Things. Although it is virtually impossible here to do justice to his scholarly arguments, I would summarize Esolen as preferring the poetic sound of Latinized English in worship over colloquial speech. He characterizes the previous translation that made prayer a conversation with God as “the thin, pedestrian, and often misleading version” of the Mass texts (Novus Ordo) that “eliminated most of the sense of the sacred.” In contrast to the ordinary English used by lay people, we now have a literal translation of Latin that emphasizes the distance between believers and a Transcendent God.
Professor Esolen offers examples of how the aesthetics of Latin were not reflected in the first English translation previously used. He laments the frugality of an English prayer where: “sancte Pater becomes Father, dilectissimi Filii tui becomes your son, beatae Mariae becomes Mary, diem sacratissimam,… becomes that day.” Esolen wants to preserve the Latin tendency for adjectives: “holy,” “most beloved,” “blessed,” and “most sacred.” He also complains about the regular omission of the Latin coupling of two adjectives when translating into English. (My example: The Latin fortis et terribilis is literally “strong and terrible” even though in English speech we are likely to say “terribly strong.”) He argues that literal translation from Latin is more biblical than yesterday’s plain English, producing several good examples. However, he ignores the unbiblical use in the new translation of “sacred chalice” instead of “cup.” After all, “cup” is an exact translation of the Greek poterion, the Latin calyx, both meaning an ordinary “cup” befitting a poor Hebrew carpenter. (Check out the next to last scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.)
Despite my admiration for the professor’s insights, I feel he goes too far in suggesting the texts Catholic America used for forty years “have not been a translation at all.” And while I agree that Latin has beauty, I reject the implication that English does not.
A new translation of the Roman Missal sits on the altar after the Catholic Mass Sunday, Nov. 27, 2011 at St. Peter’s Catholic Church in Montgomery, Ala.
To be fair, while the previous translation had defects, so does the new one. Bishop Donald W. Trautman commented to his fellow bishops: “The present text still contains improper syntax, incomplete sentences, archaic and obscure words and idioms, lengthy and incomprehensible sentences and fails to respect the natural rhythm and cadences of the English language.” Some young people don’t like the stuffy language. A high-sounding Latinized translation may resolve the “problem” of local variations in English but isn’t the Mass about prayer and not a class in literature?
I fear Professor Esolen flirts with snobbery, writing: “I defy any English-speaking Catholic in the world to defend the work [old translation], on any grounds whatsoever, linguistic, poetic, scriptural, or theological.” It really is not that hard to do. A 16 year-old high-school Latin student notes the change from “and peace to his people on earth” to “on earth peace to people of good will,” suggests Jesus did not come to save everyone on earth but only those of “good will.” That is heresy. Ironically, the Latin so loved by Professor Esolen, is actually a mistranslation of the Greek text which literally means “goodwill to all people.” And then there is the faulty rendition of
which is best understood as “the many”(meaning “everybody else”) rather than just “many,” as if salvation is only available to some.
The Creed now reads “incarnate of the Virgin Mary” replacing “born of the Virgin Mary.” Rather than a better theology, this is worse. The word “incarnate” induced the Nestorian heresy that the Word of God (the Logos) entered into a human body, which meant that Jesus had not been born of Mary: because only his body had come from her. It took the faith of the people to affirm that Mary was the “Mother of God” at the Council of Ephesus correcting “incarnate” for not meaning “born of the Virgin Mary.”
The consolation to Catholic America is remembering God is moved not by the words of a human translation, but by the disposition in our hearts. Without virtue, any text is “clanging cymbal.”