Who benefits from new Mass translation?

DAVID BUNDY AP A new translation of the Roman Missal sits on the altar after the Catholic Mass Sunday, Nov. … Continued

DAVID BUNDY

AP

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. Catholics nationwide began using a new translation of the Roman Missal on the first sunday of Advent, 2011.

As of the first Sunday in Advent this year, virtually all the language English-speaking Catholics have been using to pray the ancient prayers of the Catholic Church has been sent to the trash bin. This includes the following Advent prayer:

When he humbled himself to come among us as a man,

he fulfilled the plan you formed long ago,

and opened for us the way to salvation.

Now we watch for the day,

hoping the salvation promised us will be ours

when Christ our Lord will come again in glory.

Alas, the authorities in Rome judged this, and almost all the wording of our English prayers, to be seriously inadequate.

After ten years of effort by numerous experts (some claim, rather dubiously, 7,000 of them), and after the expenditure of untold sums of money, here is what they’ve given us to replace it:

He assumed at his first coming

the lowliness of human flesh,

and so fulfilled the design you formed long ago,

and opened for us the way to eternal salvation,

so that when he comes again in glory and majesty

and all is at last made manifest,

we who watch for that day may inherit the great promise

in which we now dare to hope.

Better? I must admit that when I heard this prayed by my parish priest, I found it impossible to follow. And I am a native English speaker with a theological degree, who has studied the liturgy for thirty years.

Many of the new prayers, like this one, contain a pile-up of subordinate clauses reflecting Latin syntax rather than the natural rhythms of spoken English. The people in the pews have been told they are gaining access to the riches of the Latin liturgical tradition. But will Latin syntax slavishly reproduced in English really help them to pray in a more authentic manner? Somehow, I doubt it.

The new translation is filled with long-winded sentences, some of them 50-60 words long. Sentence fragments also abound. Pompous expressions, such as “profit our conversion,” “sacrifice of conciliation,” and “an oblation pleasing to your almighty power” are scattered throughout the text. In the old translation Jesus “was born.” Now, he “became incarnate.” He used to “die.” Now he “suffered death.” In the story of the Last Supper, retold at every Mass, it used to be that Jesus took “the cup.” Now, instead, he takes “the precious chalice.” Jesus himself hasn’t changed, of course. But, at the behest of Rome, the liturgical representation of his life, death, and resurrection has been subtly retouched. (In the case of “chalice,” the retouching is not so subtle!)

Who benefits from this new translation? Whose prayer will be enhanced by such complex and clunky prose? Catholics, on the whole, are neither pompous nor pretentious. Whose sensibilities are being flattered?

I can tell you. It’s the person who is persuaded that every dependent clause, every modifier–indeed, every jot of the Latin–must be reproduced in English in the most exact manner. It’s the person who is convinced that the closest possible conformity to Latin guarantees doctrine which is pure, and assures unity of faith across the various linguistic communities which form the Catholic Church. That such enthusiasts for literal translation are sadly mistaken does not change the fact that they have found favor in Rome.

The American bishops approved this new translation under pressure from Rome. Pastors of parishes were never consulted. The bishops had approved an earlier version, in 1998, which was much more readable. But Rome rejected the 1998 translation, and insisted on beginning the whole process over again, from scratch. What we have as a result is far more rigidly faithful to the Latin, and much less beautiful as English prose.

So far, most of the faithful are going along good naturedly. Priests have told them “It’s no big deal” and “You’ll get used to it.” But the fact is that many have reservations and misgivings, and some are angry. In private, many priests fume over the imposition of this translation and grieve the loss of prayers they’ve been praying all their lives. Their bishops have required them to use it. And they will, as an act of institutional loyalty. Nevertheless, at the end of the day, the question is not what the hierarchy wants, nor what enthusiasts for literal translation want, but what the Catholic faithful actually need. In time, I think it will become clear that this is not what they need.

Rita Ferrone is the author of several books about Roman Catholic worship, including Liturgy: Sacrosanctum Concilium. She writes for Commonweal and blogs at Pray Tell.

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  • ThomasBaum

    And it will be hidden from the wise and learned and revealed to the child-like, sound familiar?

    When God became One of us, He spoke to His contemporaries in easy to understand language even when some might not have understood what He was talking about, as in parables, at least the language was straight-forward.

    Isn’t it something that God became One of us to speak, horizontal as it were, directly and clearly as One of us, True God and True Man, Creator and Created speaking to His created in His creation and we seem to want to push that out of the way and only speak with God as Creator to created, vertical so to speak, and think this makes God’s Day.

    Seeing as we can speak to God both vertically and horizontally, this could bring to mind the cross, could be that God wants us to speak with Him clearly and simply, some may think of this as fifth or sixth grade levels and others may look at it as Friend to friend, Jesus did say something about being our Friend, did He not?

    Besides the fact that God became One of us for ALL of us, ever thought that God just might want a closer relationship with each one of us, Jesus did tell us to think of God as Abba, meaning Dad or Daddy, and that speaking to God in clear and simple language might, just might, impress God more with it’s simplicity and directness than all of the fancy, pious sounding language that one could ever come up with.

    Don’t we have any appreciation for what God has done in becoming One of us?

    Hasn’t the simple fact that God became the Brother of ALL of humanity, not just those that believe in Him since this “fact” is not dependent on anyone’s belief, sunk in, Jesus, Himself, taught us to pray “Our Father”, as in Jesus’s Dad and each and every human being’s Dad that ever was, is or will be, something how God has at least tried to speak to us simply and directly, maybe we can attempt to return the favor.

    By the way, Jesus spoke to the people of His day in the language of the people and He faced them when He spoke.

    As oth

  • davidpchicago

    Excellent analysis, Rita. Thank you. This translation obscures rather than reveals the richness of Latin doxology. It obfuscates and in some cases trivializes in English as the receiving language (“precious chalice”) rather than manifesting transcendence or elevating the tone–one of the translation’s stated goals. It’s ironic that this translation uses the term “incarnate.” It’s rather anti-incarnational. It prevents the rich doxology of the Latin rite from taking on the flesh of strong, contemporary, and beautiful English–the universal language of the northern and western worlds in our time. It assumes that English, in essence, is not and without affectation cannot be sacral, or sacral enough to bear the weight of the mystery. It inadvertently mocks English–at least in the ears of us in the United States. Should it be declaimed with a fake British accent to make it sound more holy–like the actors in all the Hollywood Biblical dramas speak? It puts God a good deal distant from how contemporary English-speaking people speak. Is it borne out of fear? Fear that we have become too comfortable, too familiar with God? Fear that unless we draw a line in the sand between what is sacred and what is secular we will lose faith? Fear that there are little or no simple markers that distinguish Roman Catholics from other Christians today? Fear that if God indeed “speaks our language” to the point that we understand without a doubt what we must do, that we may not be able to do it? To what extent is creating a rarefied, “sacral vocabulary” an attempt to keep God at a safe distance and thus avoid laying down one’s life for the sake of the world, not “the world” in the abstract, but this one, which we have be given?

  • ccnl1

    Ahhh, Mr. Baum, the prophet Mohammed, returning in the 21st century with one exception, unlike Mo he talks to God directly not needing the heavenly agent Gabriel.

  • ThomasBaum

    Did Jesus speak to those around Him in a foreign language?

    Did Jesus turn His back to those He was talking to?

  • Biaggio

    Compact and devastatingly spot on, Rita Ferrone shows the absurdity of the Vatican intervention.

  • Blackoxford

    Authoritarian personalities abound in all organisations, but particularly in the Church. They tend to dominate during periods of uncertainty as pseudo-beacons of stability, to themselves of course. The rest of us must suffer their silliness at least for a time. They believe they are doing good when they are in fact doing great harm. In the case of the liturgy the intent seems obvious enough – to obscure the meaning so that the formula itself is the sign of orthodoxy. How sad.

  • StuartBuck

    What Rita doesn’t mention is that the first “translation” she apparently prefers is so dumbed down that it leaves out many of the rich theological concepts that the official prayer has. Her preferred “translation” is missing the allusions to the First Coming (”primo adventu”) and the Second Coming (”secundo venerit”). It also leaves out the concepts of “lowliness” (“humilitate”), “flesh” (“carnis”), “eternal” (“perpetuae”), “majesty” (“maiestatis”), “manifest” (”manifesto”), and “dare” (“audemus”).

  • athelstane

    But during the canon of the mass – the prayers before, during and after the consecration – the priest is not speaking to the congregants. He is speaking to God.

    And until the 20th century, it was thought fitting in the Roman Rite (as it still is in the Eastern rites, by the way) that the priest face the Lord together in the same direction as the congregation. This in fact creates a kind of equality that is lost when the priest is turned to the people. And what is also lost is the sense that the mass is about the Lord, and to the Lord, not about *us*.

  • Bluefish2012

    “And I am a native English speaker with a theological degree, who has studied the liturgy for thirty years.”

    God save us from the liturgical elites.

    Given that prayer is a conversation, and that one of the parties has no language problem whatsoever, I doubt very much that the quality of prayer will be affected much. Despite his run-on sentences, St. Paul’s words can work just fine when practicing Lectio Divina. The new English used in the Mass may not be elegant, but it works. It is something up with which the purists will have to put.

  • FreetoThink

    Who benefits from new mass translation? Those who sell missals, of course.

  • ThomasBaum

    The Mass is about God and us.

  • jimwalters1

    On the point of where the priest and the congregation are facing: The symbolical interpretation you give is interesting, but let me suggest a different one for you that might make you more comfortable with the post-Vatican II mass. When the priest and the congregation are all facing the same direction as they address God, the implication is that God is OVER THERE. When the priest and the congregation face the each other as they address God, the implication is that God is AMONG US.

    I would also warn against taking the “we’ve done it this way for 2000 years” line. The mass has changed a lot more over the centuries than you seem to be assuming. Latin was not the language of the early Church. That didn’t happen until the 2nd or 3rd century. I’d also point out that Latin WAS the vernacular of the Roman Empire. I see Latin remaining the official language of the Church after the fall of the Roman Empire as a spectacular example of bureaucratic inertia, not as proof that Latin is the one and only language fit for the liturgy.

    The the mass appears to have been somewhat fluid in its details until about the end of the 6th century. It continued to evolve after that. The Nicene Creed appears to have been added in the 11th or 12th century. The Tridentine mass that got replaced after Vatican II only dates back to 1570.

  • tgichn

    As a Director of a Contemporary Music Ensemble ( for those over 50 read: Folk Group Leader) I was dismayed when we started hearing about the changes to come. At the Mass that I serve the community sings, loudly and by heart. Last week the singing wasn’t as warm or prayerful. By being more true to the Latin translation we have lost the poetry we have come to love and that did bring us closer to God. The new translation feels as if we’ve put God back up on the cross with a communion rail between Us, the unworthy, and Him, the One to be worshiped, but not welcomed into our hearts and homes. I know Catholiocs are not big on reading the Bible, but did I miss something when Jesus said He is our brother and He was going to send us a Comforter? I don’t feel either coming from the Catholic Hierarchy.

  • jeffspam1

    I completely agree.

    I was away from the Catholic Church for more than 30 years, and when I returned three years ago, I was deeply impressed with the beauty and simplicity of the language used at our liturgy. I hadn’t remembered much of it, so it was like I heard it for the first time. It was beautiful.

    The new translation is horrible. I didn’t see the meaning of “And with your spirit” back when it was in Latin. The reading material says it speaks to the “spirit of ordination” embodied by the priest or deacon. How ridiculous! It is simply gobbledygook.

    It won’t change my faith. I’m not going to leave the church over it. But it is tremendously disappointing.

    The beautiful poetry we once had is gone. The Taliba

  • jeffspam1

    I hit the wrong key and cut off my last line. It was: “The Taliban of the liturgy have won.”
    jeff

  • jeffspam1

    And the second “translation” is dead. Just like the Latin language.

  • wehutson

    Rita, you’ve missed some substantial points. “born incarnate” is substantially different and more theologically sharpening than “born of the Virgin”.

    The most important part is not that a child was born but that God became man.

    The new translation is more clearly scriptural, more tender, more personal, and slightly more sharpening theologically. All to the great good.

    Whether you think the subordinate clauses are too hard on our little weak and effort-phobic mind and ear is just your opinion.

  • wehutson

    And the very title of your article belies an error. Our intent in partaking of the Mass isn’t to seek benefit for ourselves; it is instead to give glory to God and to please Him with our humility and littleness – and with our desire to parlay with one voice.

  • jjmudd55

    I think Rita’s conclusion is on target. This is not what the Catholic faithful need. We will make it work, but at what cost!? The translations are awkward and not prayerful. They may be technically and literally correct translations of the Latin, but they are not prayerful. Father John Mudd

  • wehutson

    Not so. Any set of words well attended to and done with loving attention can become beautiful prayer.

    There are a handful of pedantic linguists and other curmudgeons who seem unwilling to leave their pride and preferences behind, flouting their degrees and credentials.

    More humility and docility and a childlike openness to the small corrections will reap the value that Ria is looking for.

    Just because the new translations seem awkward doesn’t mean the sharpened meanings (deeper contrition, more graciousness, more personalized language) aren’t worth a little discomfort and adjustment.

    Love of ease be gone.

  • ccnl1

    From the Land of Loading More Comments:

    All the hype eliminated by an update of the Apostles’ Creed:

    The Apostles’ Creed 2011: (updated by yours truly based on the studies of NT historians and theologians of the past 200 years)

    Should I believe in a god whose existence cannot be proven
    and said god if he/she/it exists resides in an unproven,
    human-created, spirit state of bliss called heaven?????

    I believe there was a 1st century CE, Jewish, simple,
    preacher-man who was conceived by a Jewish carpenter
    named Joseph living in Nazareth and born of a young Jewish
    girl named Mary. (Some say he was a mamzer.)

    Jesus was summarily crucified for being a temple rabble-rouser by
    the Roman troops in Jerusalem serving under Pontius Pilate,

    He was buried in an unmarked grave and still lies
    a-mouldering in the ground somewhere outside of
    Jerusalem.

    Said Jesus’ story was embellished and “mythicized” by
    many semi-fiction writers. A bodily resurrection and
    ascension stories were promulgated to compete with the
    Caesar myths. Said stories were so popular that they
    grew into a religion known today as Catholicism/Christianity
    and featuring dark-age, daily wine to blood and bread to body rituals
    called the eucharistic sacrifice of the non-atoning Jesus.

    Amen

  • StuartBuck

    ” I must admit that when I heard this prayed by my parish priest, I found it impossible to follow. And I am a native English speaker with a theological degree, who has studied the liturgy for thirty years.”

    When I read the prayer to my 12-year-old, he thought I was joking when I asked if he understood it; in fact, he found it “pretty easy.”

    Either Rita isn’t as smart as a 12-year-old, or she’s feigning confusion so as to identify with an audience that she believes to be on an elementary school level.

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