Translated for you and for many

The Mass you knew is almost over. You get one more year. Then, on the First Sunday of Advent, 2011, the English translation of the Roman Missal will change, to more exactly reflect the Latin on which it is based.

The act of retranslation is political–never disinterested, never neutral. It has always been so. Liturgies carry messages, and the messages bid you obey the messenger. Lex orandi, lex credendi. As you pray, so you believe.

When Pope Paul VI promulgated the Novus Ordo in 1970, deputizing the bishops to prepare translations for their cultural contexts, the message was this: the old Tridentine rite is fossilized. Let in the fresh air.

When Pope Benedict XVI pressed for the new English version, the message was this: there is too much fresh air. You might get spring fever. Shut your windows.

I have not looked at everything yet, but I did peruse the Order of Mass with a kind of calm, bemused horror. Formulas we young adult Catholics have used all our lives will go. Latin is returning in a curious English patois.

The Lord will no longer be with you, but with your spirit (et cum spiritu tuo). Words long fallen into liturgical disuse return with an insistence (“oblation,” “incarnate,” “consubstantial with the Father,” “brethren”). You will sin not merely through your own fault, but through your fault, through your fault, through your most grievous fault (mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa).

We typically proclaim that “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.” That option for the Memorial Acclamation wasn’t even reformulated. It just disappeared.

The blood of Christ, currently “shed for you and for all,” will henceforth be “poured out for you and for many.” The Latin multis, or “many,” isn’t itself objectionable—since Latin lacks articles, it could mean “the many” or “the multitudes,” not so far from “all.” But the English will just say “many.” That makes me wonder who Jesus, advised by the Magisterium, has apparently decided he’s leaving out.

Eucharistic Prayer III, one of the more familiar options, takes a beating. We will stop asking God to “strengthen in faith and love your pilgrim church on earth.” Instead, God is rather primly “pleased to confirm [the church] in faith and charity.”

The church will be confirmed in faith and charity not with “all the bishops,” but with “the Order of Bishops,” better matching the official phrasing cum episcopali ordine. This seems calculated to emphasize that the bishops are not like you and me, much the way F. Scott Fitzgerald observed that the very rich are not like you and me.

But wait, there’s more. For years, God would “welcome into his kingdom our departed brothers and sisters and all who left this world in his friendship.” The brothers and sisters stay in, but otherwise, he will now “give kind admittance” to “all who were pleasing” to him “at their passing.” God sounds like a vaguely persnickety staffer at some cosmic ticket booth, perhaps located in Edwardian Britain.

The Vatican obviously never considered all the contexts in which we celebrate Mass, never tried this on a crowd at an overnight high school retreat, never used it at a peace vigil. There is nothing about slavish adherence to Latin that conveys God’s essence always and everywhere.

I am increasingly baffled by ecclesiastical maneuvers conducted by ivory tower generals who have zero contact with the boots on the ground. Still, I have always found a place somewhere in Catholicism’s official culture, and I expect I will continue to do so.

But not everyone is me. There are others, and not just the cardboard “fallen-away” or “secular relativist” targets. I know people who are engaged with their faith, but who can hardly bring themselves to go to Mass. A profusion of lifeless parishes, various experiences of exclusion, the suspicion that the male priest embodies not Christ but patriarchy—these are reasons I have heard and honored.

Such folks are at the margins, where Jesus lurked. They deserve a pastoral response. They need a God who speaks to them where they are, as Jesus spoke in Aramaic to his Galilean disciples. They know the Last Supper looked nothing like the Mass as we have it now, let alone this upcoming “reform of the reform.” And they have their limits.

Jesus is the bread of life. More people will now distance themselves from that bread. And Jesus, with his jaundiced eye for those who babble long prayers, thinking they will be heard because of their many words (Matthew 6:7), will not hold them responsible. He will hold the bishops and the Pope responsible.

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9 thoughts on “Translated for you and for many

  1. You can now sympathize with the folks who, in the ’70s, experienced the switch over from the Extraordinary to the Ordinary form of the Mass. I can imagine they felt much as you do today.

    “Words long fallen into liturgical disuse return with an insistence (“oblation,” “incarnate,” “consubstantial with the Father,” “brethren”).”

    For Gregory Nazianzen, there was an important connection between little things like “consubstantial,” and how we should live as Christians. I continue to believe that. And I don’t see the harm in trying to teaching folks what these things mean, and in working with them to find the meaning of these terms in their for their lives. Or, put in a “disused” way, I want to teach folks how to make Catholic teaching incarnate in their own lives. They should stand with their brethren, in solidarity. They should, in their struggles, make an oblation to Christ of themselves everyday, in their daily lives. And we should console them, because though they recognize that they sin (and sin, and most grievously sin) everyday, through Christ (because he is consubstantial with God the Father and with humanity) the gates of heaven are open to us.

    They really aren’t hard words when you use them in a sentence. I think the problem is that we presume people aren’t smart enough, or don’t particularly care enough, to learn them. Which is the same ivory tower presumption of which you have accused the Order of Bishops.

  2. The comment that ” bishops are not like you and me,” is rather accurate. They are leaders of authority in Christ’s Church on earth and should be appropriated such recognition. To mix everyone together as the same would be to disrespect the order Christ created. Even in the Bible, Peter is given special recognition and the Apostles are commonly referred to as “The Twelve.” There is nothing wrong with recognizing the order of bishops, and in fact, it would be wrong to dismiss their teaching authority.

    You questioned several instances of additions and subtractions and made rather dismissive comments on the lunacy of such changes. Ironically enough, the real question that must be raised is why we got such a translation that was so badly translated and so far off from the Latin?

    Are we One Church or are we several churches differentiated by what we personally want to say in our own respected cultures? The strong argument for one language of the Mass (Latin) is that we don’t lose any meaning as the Church transcends cultures and languages. When we translate, we risk losing meaning, and as you have noticed by such large changes, we have lost a lot of meaning in our English Mass.

    People who want to know Christ will appreciate the richness of the Liturgy and the theological meaning behind what we say. Those who are scared away by the new changes are those who are not looking for Christ, but their own version of Christ. These selfish people discard the true God for the god they want which is something the Israelites did several times.

    The purpose of the new and better translation is not to sound better in the many words, but to preserve the deposit of faith and defend it, so that it does not become watered down and lose its meaning as it has become painfully obvious today in this great secular age. We are ONE Church…not a bunch of collected communities doing what our little hearts desire.

    If Christ instituted a Church with a teaching authority guided by the Holy Spirit….then we should faithfully follow.

    If Christ did not institute a Church with a teaching authority, then we might as well pack up and head home as the legitimacy of the Bible rests on the teaching authority of Christ’s Church.

  3. Justin, thank you for your reflection. You clearly expressed the outrage felt by many of us over the new translations. Having already found the current language used at mass a bit hard to take, I feel that the heiarchy has made it even worse. I translate much of the mass so that what I say and think actually matches my heart and my experiences of God. For example, instead of beating myself up and telling God “how unworthy I am to recieve him…” I say “Love, I know that we are one with you, so only say the word and I shall be healed.”
    So, what will I do when this new translation takes effect? I will continue to worship God, in spirit and in truth, and in words that make sense to me.

    • I know that many people are put off with this response in the liturgy, but personally, I think that it is one of the most beautiful parts of the liturgy and the new response is definitely one of the improvements found in the new translation of the missal.

      The response is actually tied to the story of the centurion found in Matthew 8, which is more evident in the words of the new translation. It is about having faith in Jesus. It has nothing to do with beating ourselves up or about how we are unworthy, but rather how through Jesus, we are worthy. It acknowledges that we are not as perfect as Jesus, but that it doesn’t matter because Jesus takes us as we are, with all of our strengths and our faults, and makes us perfect.

  4. There is nothing constructive about your criticism, it seems rather mean spirited. You admit that you haven’t studied this which makes me think you’re simply rehashing someone else’s talking points. Why not study what’s going on and then try to help facilitate a smooth transition, people are smart enough to learn what “incarnate” means.

    Since the current translation the average us Catholic mass attendance is down to 25%, prior to Vatican II it was 75% each Sunday. I certainly think its fair to think the mass had something to do with that. After all most Catholics get their primary exposure to the Church through the Sunday Mass. I for one am glad for this improved translation.

  5. Welcome to the blog, Justin, and thanks for a great first post! I appreciate your perspective on this. I find myself incredibly resistant to this translation, and I have to check myself and ask whether I’m just having a knee-jerk resistance to change, rather than a truly heart-centered resistance to something that feels out-of-touch and somehow ill-fitting for the people of a loving God. I’m going to try to keep myself open to all sides on this issue, try not to let this be one more thing that makes me want to throw up my hands and be through with Catholicism altogether. But it is coming, and I guess I’ll see how my heart and spirit reacts as this new translation sinks into familiarity. If the same resistance remains, I’ll continue to examine it then.

  6. Thank God they are at last giving us some proper English in the liturgy. The 1969 Mass was cobbled together by the ICEL group and the English is simply awful.
    Everything does not need to be dumbed down all the time, so I for one welcome these changes.
    I thought it was very uncharitable of you to say that the Holy father thinks ” too much fresh air, close the windows” Shows how little you know of the man, and how little esteem you have for his office.

  7. Pingback: The tongue of the angels | Justin Sengstock

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