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About a month ago, Bishop Trautman (Erie), chair of the USCCB Committee on Liturgy, who has been vocal in his criticisms of various liturgical signals and signs coming from Rome, wrote a brief critique of the proposed new translation of the Mass, that was published in America. The piece, available only to subscribers on the America website, has been "reprinted" on the Erie diocesan website.

This is not an isolated example. While the latest ICEL translations for the Proper of the Saints and the Commons are improved, we still encounter the following: “O God, who suffused blessed John with the spirit of mercy” (Collect for March 8) and “Cyril, an unvanquished champion of the divine motherhood” (Collect for June 27) and odd expressions like “What you have charged us to believe will taste sweet to the heart” (Collect for April 21).  Does the heart “taste?”

All liturgy is pastoral.  If translated texts are to be the authentic prayer of the people, they must be owned by the people and expressed in the contemporary language of their culture.  To what extent are the new prayers of the Missal truly pastoral?  Do these new texts communicate in the living language of the worshipping assembly?  How will John and Mary Catholic relate to the new words of the Creed: “consubstantial to the Father” and “incarnate of the Virgin Mary?”  Will they understand the following words from the various new Collects: “sullied”, “unfeigned”, “ineffable”, “gibbet”, “wrought”, “thwart?” Will the assembly understand the fourth paragraph of the Blessing of Baptismal Water which has 56 words or 11 lines in one sentence?  In the Preface of the Chrism Mass there are 10 lines in one sentence. How pastoral are the new Collects when they are all in one single sentence containing a jumble of subordinate clauses and commas? 

Will the priest and people understand the words of Eucharistic Prayer II: “Make holy these gifts, we pray, by the dew of your Spirit?” This translation was among the top ten texts considered most problematic by the U.S. Bishops in their consultation, but it was not changed by ICEL. 

In the new Missal you will hear awkward phrases like “We pray you bid.” This is not American English. Ponder these concrete examples and judge for yourselves.   

What happened to the liturgical principles of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy? The Council Fathers of Vatican II stated: “Texts and rites should be drawn up so that they express more clearly the holy things which they signify.  Christian people, as far as possible, should be able to understand them with ease and to take part in them fully, actively and as it befits a community” (Article 21, CSL).  Note the words “with ease.”  This is the norm, the expressed wish of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy. This is a prerequisite that calls for not just accuracy of translated texts but for the easy understanding of those texts. 

The Council Fathers of Vatican II had a pastoral sense and focused on John and Mary Catholic. Why have the new translations become so problematic, so non-pastoral? What is the basic difficulty?

There has been a lot said on these matters over the past four decades, and doubtless there’s more to be said. No translation is infallible and while there may be certain aspects of the current translation that I or you or anyone else might find odd or awkward, here are the problems with Bishop Trautman’s article:

1) He ignores principles. Well, he has one – that of "pastoral" – but there is much more to liturgical language than that, and even that  – "pastoral" doesn’t rise to the level of a principle because who knows what it means? What pleases your ear might grate on mine, so whom should the translators have in mind as they seek to be "pastoral?" No. There is much more to the matter of liturgical texts than that, and there are innumerable other issues related to the purpose and shape of liturgical language, none of which ever seem to appear in anything I read from Bishop Trautman on the issue.

2) This "John and Mary Catholic" who haunt Bishop Trautman’s conscience are a worrisome pair. They are worrisome because of what they imply about a cleric’s view of the laity. As I have blogged and written before, many times, clerics and those in the church bureaucracy need to get their stories straight. Are we "the most highly educated laity in the history of the church" capable of making our moral decisions all on our own, without substantive Church guidance..or are we idiots who can’t figure out what "dew" is?

Make up you minds.

I would gently suggest that those who are worried about translations, who don’t like the more elevated tone, not rely on the "the laity are too stupid to understand this" line of argumentation. There are, indeed, legitmate ways to discuss a translation and its fittingness, but this, in the end, is going to come back to bite you. Why? Well, because if it begs the simple question. If the laity can’t understand theological concepts expressed in slightly elevated or layered ways, could it be because no one’s bothered to teach them?

As they get what you pay for.

(Also, be careful of appealing to Sancrosanctum Concilium. Again with the biting. See #116)

Julie D. of Happy Catholic has a long, measured response called "Mary Catholic ponders new translations". An excerpt from a very good post:

Ironically, the very person complaining about using words that no one understands phrases it in language like this:

If the language of the liturgy is inaccessible, how can liturgy catechize and convey the reality of the living, risen Son of God in the Eucharist? If the language of the liturgy is a stumbling block to intelligibility and proclaimability, then the lex orandi, lex credendi is severely compromised. If the language of the liturgy does not communicate, how can people fall in love with the greatest gift of God, the Eucharist?

Inaccessible? Catechize? Didn’t he mean "hard" and "teach?" I’m not sure that "proclaimability" even is a word, but a suspicious number of those look mighty hard to understand. I mean to say, there’s Latin in there! Could it be that the words he used actually communicated best what he wanted to say … and that he didn’t worry about making it simply understood by the meanest intelligence? That he trusted people to be able to comprehend the article properly? Hmmm …

More, related, via Rich Leonardi, who points us to an article by Australian Bishop Peter J. Eliot in the June Adoremus Bulletin.

Here we confront a widespread misunderstanding of liturgy that has set in throughout the Church, also obvious in the French translations.10 It is assumed that Catholic worship is primarily a pedagogical device. This view effectively argues that public prayers addressed to God are in fact messages addressed to us, designed for our instruction, improvement, and edification. That misunderstanding has had a devastating effect on the very structure of the Roman Mass. At not a few celebrations of Mass, the Eucharistic liturgy becomes merely an extension of the liturgy of the Word, not its culmination as the divine mystery and gift evoking a human response.

Most Catholics would not be aware that a Calvinist theology of worship embodies this didactic approach. When I was a young Anglican theological student, I recall hearing an Evangelical Anglican theologian explain that all prayer in public worship is really a prolonged form of sermon. According to this theological perspective, God seems to be too majestic for us fallen creatures to dare to address Him directly, so when the godly ones pray, they are really edifying one another. Every dimension of worship becomes the proclaimed Word. This also explains the style and tone of much Evangelical extempore prayer, which, to the outside observer, sounds like people telling God what is on CNN tonight.

I am not arguing that liturgical language should be incomprehensible. But once we try to make a vernacular liturgical text an exercise in instructing people, we are caught in a destructive illusion. We imagine that we are conveying everything — nothing is concealed, no mysteries here — when in fact very little is being conveyed at all. When this happens, the Mass becomes boring, especially for the young. They are in front of a liturgical television set, and its patter and style sound little different from what they can hear at any time through the various forms of electronic media.

There is, of course, much, much more, touching on a variety of issues. A must read. A study in contrasts.


Maclin has excellent points at his place:

I suspect that these two points are indicative of some mistaken views about the liturgy: what it is meant to do, and how it does it. But I’m not going to try to sort that out; many volumes have been written about it, and I would have nothing new to add, and no expertise on which to draw. And I’m not qualified to judge whether the currently-used translations are sufficiently faithful to the Latin. Reportedly they are not. Certainly they are unattractive. I’ll go to what is, for me, the heart of the matter: the overly simplified, often clumsy, sometimes banal English currently found in both the liturgy and the scriptures has not been a help to my life as a Catholic. It has been an obstacle, a very serious obstacle. Of how many Catholics this is true, I can’t say, but I know for certain that I’m not the only one.

I’m not necessarily arguing for complexity in liturgical language, and certainly not complexity for its own sake, much less obscurity; simplicity can be poetic. But from the samples I’ve seen of the new translations that have so angered the bishop, they are much richer than what we now have, and although they may cause some initial confusion I don’t doubt that most Catholics can cope, and will soon benefit. You can only go so far in simplification before you begin to distort and omit. I believe it’s a mistake to interpret calls for clear and accessible liturgical language to mean that every sentence must be instantly and effortlessly understandable by someone with the comprehension, vocabulary, and attention span of a middle-schooler.


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