Language’s Inability to Express the Experience of the Divine

This week, the Catholic Church in the United States has undergone the biggest liturgical transition since the initial reforms of the Second Vatican Council. Despite the fact that the current translations have been in use for half a century, at the behest of the Vatican, all translations of liturgical texts from now on must match their official Latin rubrics as closely as possible (Liturgiam authenticam). A committee of theologians and scholars representing all of the English-speaking episcopal conferences of the Catholic world (The International Commission on English in the Liturgy or “ICEL“) labored for nearly a decade to compose new translations of the Mass that meet the Vatican’s new norms for all liturgical documents. On a nationwide basis, the various bishops conferences tweaked and honed these translations to what they saw as best suiting the needs of the faithful in their own jurisdictions. The American bishops have been completing this process for the past several years and have now reached its conclusion. On the First Sunday of Advent a completely revised translation of the Mass was introduced in America, following suit with other English-speaking countries that have already implemented the new texts earlier this year. This news has never been without controversy, considering that the new Latin-friendly texts may not be as compatible to English-speaking ears.

As so many Catholics have been left to ponder the ramifications of these mandatory changes, it seems appropriate to ask: why are the revisions being forced upon Catholics in the first place, what message is being conveyed by their imposition, and in the long run – how will they ultimately affect the church in the English-speaking world?

History shows us that Jesus of Nazareth never delivered his famous Sermon on the Mount in Latin, but rather in Aramaic – the language spoken by the Jews who lived in first century Palestine. In the decades and centuries following Jesus’ death and Resurrection, the Eucharist was celebrated in Hebrew and later in Greek. Contrary to popular belief, Latin was not always the dominant language used throughout the Roman empire.  Greek (in a particular dialect known as “Koine”) was spoken throughout the Roman world as the common denominator that united all social classes. It was in this collective tongue that the liturgy of the Eucharist was to develop. Even today, parts of the Mass such as the Kyrie and the very word, “Eucharist”, (which means “thanksgiving”) have been preserved from the ancient Greek compositions that formed the liturgies of the early Church.

Only in the early fourth century was Latin imposed upon the Western church as the universal language to be employed in the liturgy. Even when this occurred a lengthy transitional period was necessary for all of the faithful to grasp such a drastic linguistic switch. Eventually, as the centuries drew on, the laity would no longer understand Latin, but it would remain the official language of the Mass celebrated by the clergy. It was only during the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960’s that this barrier of comprehension would be eradicated from the liturgy, finally allowing all Catholics to actively participate after having been passive observers for nearly a millenia.

When confronting the situation that is before us today it must be stated simply that the primary motivations behind these efforts are not, at their heart, spiritual, but rather ideological/political.

During the Second Vatican Council, a renewed emphasis was placed on identifying the Church not just as an organism composed of the pope, bishops, and other members of the ecclesiastical hierarchy, but instead as the People of God. Casting aside a pyramidal, strictly hierarchical definition of the Body of Christ, the Church was now understood as a community of faith. The black and white distinctions between clergy and laity were understood anew, now seeing all individuals who had been baptized into the Church of Jesus Christ as sharing in His prophetic, royal, and priestly mission of salvation to the world. The priesthood of all the baptized did not eliminate the unique role of those who had been called to give ultimate service to God through the ordained priesthood, but rather levelled the spiritual playing field so that all Christians – whether clerical or lay – could support each other equally as members of the universal Church.

As individual bishops conferences around the world were gradually given the permission to translate the order of the Mass into their own respective languages, so the English-speaking bishops of the world decided to incorporate this renewed communal understanding of the Church into their respective liturgical translations. From the incomprehensible language of Latin, English-speaking Catholics the globe over would now be made familiar with the Eucharistic Prayer in their own tongue, “Father, all-powerful and ever-living God, we do well always and everywhere to give You thanks. In You we live and move and have our being; Each day You show us a Father’s love; Your Holy Spirit, dwelling within us, gives us on earth the hope of unending joy. Your gift of the Spirit, Who raised Jesus from the dead, is the foretaste and promise of the paschal feast of heaven…”

The newly revised texts that have been introduced may adhere more closely to the original Latin that remains the official language of the church. When it comes to the most frequent exchange that occurs during the Eucharistic liturgy there is indeed an obvious mistranslation. As the priest addresses the congregation with the words, “The Lord be with you,” the congregation has voiced in response for the past thirty years, “and also with you.” In Latin, the original response is “et cum spiritu tuo” (and with your spirit). This refers to the unique “spirit” of ordination that has been conferred upon the presiding priest in the sacrament of Holy Orders. In most languages this meaning has been preserved. In French the response is “et avec votre esprit”, in German “Und mit deinem Geiste”, in Spanish “Y con tu espíritu” and so on. This is a legitimate concern that deserved mention.

Yet, more is at work than merely an honest attempt to render linguistics concisely.

The new texts are certainly more lofty and formal than the clear, simple, and straightforward prayers introduced after the Second Vatican Council. As a former Episcopalian, I’m accustomed to and can somewhat appreciate rather old, classical English phrases decorating the liturgy. However, for many Catholics, who have used the previous texts for the past thirty years, such a patrician flavor employed during weekly worship gatherings will definitely be an acquired taste.

But it is not even the loftiness of the language that leaves such a bad taste in people’s mouths concerning this translation. In a more profound sense, a drastically different theological picture is painted in the words of these texts compared with those that were introduced following Vatican II.

In the Penitential Rite, where the faithful acknowledge their misdeeds and the ways in which they have failed to imitate the love of God and ask God for forgiveness a startling contrast is made clear. In the texts that many have known for so long the congregation prays, “I confess to almighty God, and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have sinned through my own fault, in my thoughts and in my words in what I have done and what I have failed to do…” The revised text has been modified to say, “I have greatly sinned, through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault…” The tone of all the prayers has transitioned from one of an intimate, loving relationship to one of uncertainty, supplication, and vertical distance. Take for instance the prayer over the gifts for the Second Sunday of Advent. The version of the old missal reads, “Lord, we are nothing without You. As You sustain us with Your mercy, receive our prayers and offerings. We ask this through Christ our Lord.” The revised text implores, “Be pleased, O Lord, with our humble prayers and offerings, and since we have no merits to plead our cause, come, we pray, to our rescue with the protection of your mercy. Through Christ our Lord.”

In a veiled manner, the human condition is not celebrated in these prayers, but rather maligned and denigrated as a lost cause, inherently evil and worthless. Of course, to an extent, all of humanity is limited by our failings and the ways in which we shy away from opportunities that lead us to growth, grace, and enlightenment. In a collective sense, humanity has, and always will miss the mark because we are imperfect, finite creatures.

But dwelling and embellishing the reality of sin beyond what is necessary erects a theology not of love, peace and reconciliation but of vengeance, judgment, and fear.

This is why – subconsciously – these new translations may actually constitute a grave step backward to another time, where a more dismal and archaic method of interpreting the human psyche was utilized. As a result of such a worldview, members of the ordained priesthood are therefore seen as divine heroes and saviors who can atone for the sins of humanity by offering the sacrifice of the Mass. Invisibly, the altar rail that separated clergy from laity is erected once more.

James Carroll, a former priest, columnist for the Boston Globe, and author, offered a reflection on the words of the Nicene Creed in his most recent book Practicing Catholic. As the Catholic Church in the United States adjusts to using the word “consubstantial” on a routine basis and hearing the cup Jesus used at the Last Supper referred to as a “chalice” it may prove useful to consider his thoughts on the subject:

At Mass , we Catholics recite the Nicene Creed, a summary of belief that dates to the fourth century. it is a litany of language that can now seem outmoded but that still enters the believing mind with power: “God of God, Light of Light, True God of True God.” In the unencumbered way these words fall on the contemporary ear, we can sense what the Catholic Church has become in my lifetime – a people that has reclaimed its lyrical expression, even if at the expense of rigid orthodoxy. I have never heard anyone ask what “Light of Light” means, but neither have I heard anyone object to saying the phrase. Indeed, it fairly rolls of the tongues of the Sunday throng…Because religion is centrally concerned with the God Who is wholly Other, and is therefore necessarily cloaked in mystery, the imprecision of the poetic language of the Nicene Creed is its great advantage…The words draw attention to themselves in their very archaism, as if to acknowledge that the Transcendent One is beyond contemporary expression. Everything we say of God – including “God” – is in some way untrue. Why? Because we say it.  To put God into language is to take the fish out of water.

If the new “poetic” format of the revised liturgy can help us acknowledge the unfathomable nature of the divine Source of all, which transcends human comprehension, this may indeed be a blessing. If instead these new phrases are the beginnings of a journey back to another time the People of God has serious cause for concern and suspicion. The words of Christ, the simple peasant, ultimately remind us by what standard the faith we confess will be measured: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only one who does the will of my Father in heaven” (Matthew 7:21).

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About Phillip Clark

Phillip Clark is a social justice visionary, writer, and paralegal in Baltimore, Maryland. He is a contributing author to "Hyrsteria: A Zine of Social Difference" by Tanya Garcia and Valeria Molinari Interests include politics, theology, civil/human rights, social justice, LGBT rights, international relations, and history.

1 thought on “Language’s Inability to Express the Experience of the Divine

  1. Thanks for the balanced, thoughtful reflections on the new Mass. In particular, this phrase stood out: “Invisibly, the altar rail that once separated clergy from laity is once more erected.”

    Unfortunately, this is not always happening invisibly. Two churches that I attend regularly have recently gone through “renovations” that include reinstating the altar rail and/or adding raised pulpits for the priest. To me, the physical structure of the churches mirrors the distance placed between clergy and laity in the new translation. Alone, both are troubling; but taken together, it feels as though the heiarchical church is heading in a particularly ominous direction. I’m not sure I’ll stick around for the journey.

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