Welcome to this edition of "New Translation Thursday." I want to begin by letting you know that this post will be much longer than most. I hope you will bear with me.
On Tuesday night of this week, I was invited to present an evening of reflection at St. Mary Parish in Buffalo Grove, Illinois, about the upcoming new English translation of the Missale Romanum. There was a nice crowd in attendance, probably between 250 and 300. I would say that the majority of people who came were over 50 years of age.
I decided not to begin the evening by diving right into the discussion about the new translation. Instead, I laid the groundwork for an exploration of the meaning of the Mass. My aim was to bring the folks to a deeper appreciation that when we celebrate the eucharist, we "proclaim the death of the Lord." At Mass, I shared, we are drawn into the celebration of the paschal mystery and that, at every Mass, God works a miracle of transformation in the hearts of all believers. Using stories about the illness and death of my sister nine years ago and the more recent diagnosis of cancer for another one of my sisters, I shared with the people at St. Mary how these profound moments in my life were able to be transformed and put into a faith perspective through God's grace, coupled with my own engagement at Sunday Mass. My conclusion was this: even though the texts of the Mass will change, the Mass will not change. Whatever language or translation we use, the fact is that bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ, and we become transformed once again into Christ's body for the life of the world.
Once I laid this foundation, I moved into a simple walkthrough of how we have arrived at this point. Here are the points I covered:
1. There was one set of rules (principles of "dynamic equivalence") that were in place when the Missale Romanum was translated following the Second Vatican Council. What we eventually received as English-speakers (after provisional translations) is what we have been praying now for forty or so years. I explained the principles of "dynamic equivalence" and felt that those in attendance were right there with me.
2. I then spoke about the third typical edition of the Missale Romanum promulgated by Pope John Paul II in the Jubilee year of 2000, an edition that added more texts (saints days, various needs, etc.). I told them that, with this new missal, the task of translating it into the various languages needed to take place.
3. I then described that the rules of translation changed in 2001, with the Vatican's publication of Liturgiam Authenticam. I quoted the document, citing paragraph 20:
"While it is permissible to arrange the wording, the syntax and the style in such a way as to prepare a flowing vernacular text suitable to the rhythm of popular prayer, the original text insofar as possible, must be translated integrally and in the most exact manner, without omissions or additions in terms of their content, and without paraphrases or glosses."
I explained that the new rules were intended to bring the English translation, which many felt had been too rushed, into more consonance with the the Latin text. The result, I told them, was that the work of ICEL (International Commission on the Liturgy) needed to be closely guided by the new principles of "formal equivalence."
4. We then prayed the new translation of the Gloria together. I simply used the new translation of the first line of the Gloria (Gloria in excelis deo et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis), showing them how the new translation (Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to people of good will) is much closer to the original latin than our current translation (Glory to God in the highest, and peace to his people on earth). I thought this would illustrate in rather simple and straightforward fashion how newly applied rules changed the way the text was translated.
5. We then sang through some settings of the newly-translated Gloria, the Sanctus, and one of the Memorial Acclamations. People joined in wholeheartedly. (You need to know that all copies of these texts were collected and destroyed at the end of the session.)
Then I asked for questions, reactions, comments, and concerns. Here is what happened. Please understand that these are not exact quotes, but my best recollections.
The first person to speak said something like this, "Well, Jerry, I came tonight with all kinds of anxieties and concerns about this issue. But I think that if our pastors explained all of this to everyone in parishes just like you just did, so much anxiety and fear will be alleviated. Thank you for this simple explanation."
Well, dear readers, I was feeling great!
Then a man in the choir said something like this: "When I was younger and the Mass was in Latin, I did lots of traveling throughout the world, and I had my missal with me, with the English on one side and the Latin on the other. Wherever I went in the world, when the Mass was celebrated in Latin, I was able to follow along in English. So, I think it would be best if maybe we returned to the Latin."
I commented that it has been strongly suggested (in several recent documents) that all Catholics should be able to pray the Gloria, Creed, Sanctus, Lord's Prayers, and Lamb of God in Latin, so that at international gatherings of people who speak many different languages, there could be a common liturgical language that would draw all into the celebration.
I looked out and asked if there were any more questions. An elderly man raised his hand and stood up and simply said, "Why is all of this happening?" I calmly explained that the first forty-five minutes of the presentation had already really answered that question; I then did a brief recap of what I had said earlier. He remained standing, raised his hand again and said, "Why is all of this happening?"
There was, to be sure, some tension growing in the church.
Then a woman raised her hand. In her other hand she held a stack of papers. She said that she had downloaded the newly translated texts and had them in her hand. She said that she just didn't understand why this was all happening. She commented that, as an intelligent woman, when she read through these texts she wondered why certain words were included, words that she did not even know the meaning of, words like "ineffable." She then mentioned the web site "what is we just said wait." She said that she thought that with the new translation, people would leave the church. Her husband, who was seated next to her said something like this: "I have always worked under the adage, 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it.' I don't understand why these changes are needed."
I explained that I felt that the real question, the root of all these questions did not necessarily have that much to do with "Why the changes in texts?" The core question really is "Why did the translation rules change?" And to be honest, I believe that this is the question. I explained again that we had to look to the pontificate of John Paul II and try to put it all in context. The pope and others were keenly concerned with so-called "liturgical abuses" that they perceived were occurring all over the world; things like priests adding their own words to the Mass texts; priests using experimental prayers; priests experimenting with "inclusive language"; liturgy committees adding all kinds of strange things to the celebration of liturgy; a feeling that the sacred was being eroded because of these so-called "abuses." The Pope's reaction was to tighten liturgical control in a number of areas. I did not go into detail, but explained that Liturgiam Authenticam was the Vatican's definitive statement, set into context, that changed the rules of translation, so that the vernacular languages would be in much tighter and closer conformity to the original latin. This was consistent with the overall tightening of liturgical control; the issuance of liturgical directives that would directly address the so-called "abuses" during the pontificate of John Paul II. (As I was speaking, I was aware that a one-night session at a parish mission could not adequately address every issue. I feared that I was leaving the people with more confusion than clarity.)
A young woman, who I believe was the parish's youth minister, stood up and said that we really need to see this whole thing as the will of the Lord, and that if we accept the will of God, God will act in all of this.
The pastor then asked me to comment on the ICEL chants. I told everyone that a group of chant scholars had created chants that the entire English-speaking world could use to sing the Mass. I said that I thought it was a great idea, since the entire English-speaking Catholic world would have at least one common setting of the sung Mass in English. The man in the choir said that we should be singing these in Latin. Someone near the front said, "We are not chanters; we are Americans!" In response, I immediately intoned the commonly used chant setting of the Lord's Prayer and everyone sang it. When we finished, the person said, "Well, maybe we Americans can chant one."
A priest in residence at the parish (who has traveled quite extensively internationally) voiced his own concerns about the image of God embedded and expressed in the newly translated texts. He said that he was very concerned about what he perceived as a "turning back" with the new texts.
Dear readers of gotta sing gotta pray, all I can say is that I found the evening to be fascinating and exhilarating. I told the people that I thought that when the new texts are promulgated for use, there will be a percentage of people who will be angry. Some will reject the new texts and, sadly, some may even be driven away. I said that there would also be a percentage of people who will accept the texts gladly, with little concern. I then said that I thought that the vast majority of Catholics would be jolted by the new texts. And that jolt would provide an opportunity for exactly what we were doing that evening. I told them that I hoped that this jolt would provide the opportunity not to wallow around in anger, but to ask questions about the translation and, ultimately ask questions about the meaning of the Mass; ask questions about what God is doing as we celebrate the liturgy.
Readers, I told them that, at fifty-one years of age, after having lived through the death of one of my siblings; now living through the cancer diagnosis of another sibling; living through the trials that have been placed upon the path of my own life, I have had to ask myself where I stand in all of this. And frankly, I choose not to wallow in the anger. I told them that I am a Roman Catholic first and foremost, and an American Catholic secondarily. I can't spend the balance of my life as a bitter angry Catholic.
Does this sound like someone walking through life with rose-colored glasses firmly affixed to the head? Perhaps. But I know there is one thing I will not stop doing. I will not stop questioning. I will not stop urging others to question. I will not stop being a catalyst for honest dialogue. I will not stop believing that the Lord Jesus continues the work of redemption each and every time the Mass is celebrated. This is what keeps me alive as a Roman Catholic.
If the Church, through Cardinal Arinze and others in the past, could urge Catholics to report so-called "liturgical abuses" to their pastors, their bishops, and also to Vatican officials, we must also be able to report to these same ecclesial officials our own concerns as we begin to celebrate the Mass in a new translation. My understanding is that the foundational cause of the call to report the "abuses" was the belief that these so-called "abuses" were eroding the faith lives of Catholics. We must be bold enough to apply that same foundational cause to the experience of praying in the new translation. If my faith life is eroded, I have the right and responsibility as a baptized Catholic to not sit back, fold my hands, and accept it all as the will of God. God gave me a heart and a brain. I will use both.
Thanks so much for listening today. I think my experience at St. Mary parish is indicative of what is to come. Your feedback is most welcome. Simply hit the "comments" button below. Some people have had trouble getting their comments published on this blog. I am also open to hearing from you directly. I can always publish your comments myself on the blog. Feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
As always, and especially now, gotta sing, gotta pray.