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The new Roman Missal: The words we pray matter
May 18, 2011 - The late writer and Catholic convert Evelyn Waugh, among many others, liked to argue that the beauty and grandeur of Catholic liturgy were lost in the turbulence that emerged after Vatican II. I understand their frustration. But I can’t agree with those who blame the Novus Ordo (“New Mass”) or the liturgy’s use of the vernacular.
The problem has never been the Novus Ordo, but the license that people often take in celebrating it. And I would add that another key part of the problem has been the translations we’ve been using.
Too much of the language in our current liturgy is distinguished by its banality. This weakness in our manner of expression “dumbs-down” the elegant into the pedestrian; it prevents us from experiencing the sublime spiritual and doctrinal richness woven into the fabric of Catholic worship.
Translators after the council had well-meaning intentions. They wanted to make the liturgy intelligible and relevant to modern Catholics. To that end, they used a translation principle called “dynamic equivalence.”
In practice, this led to an English translation that, in too many places, is basically a didactic paraphrase of the Latin. The language of our eucharistic worship—so vivid in scriptural allusion, poetic metaphor and rhythmic repetition—came to be flattened out and drained of beauty.
Australian Archbishop Mark Coleridge once observed that our current translations “consistently blea(ch) out metaphor, which does scant justice to the highly metaphoric discourse” of the liturgy. And he should know: Archbishop Coleridge is a translator by training. He headed the committee of the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL) that produced the new translation we’ll begin using later this fall, on the First Sunday of Advent.
Archbishop Coleridge has pointed out a variety of serious problems with our current liturgical translations related to ecclesiology, the theology of grace and other important issues.
The point here is pretty simple, but also vital: The words we pray matter. What we pray helps to shape what we believe. Our prayer has implications for how we grasp the saving truths communicated to us through the liturgy.
For example, our current translations almost always favor abstract nouns to translate physical metaphors for God. If the Latin prayer refers to the “face” of God, “face” will be translated in abstract terms, such as “presence.” References to God’s “right hand” will be translated as God’s “power.”
This word choice has theological implications. The point of the Son of God becoming flesh is that God now has a human face—the face of Jesus. Jesus is the image of the invisible God.
Whoever sees him sees the Father. Yet if in our worship we speak of God only in abstract terms, then we subtly undermine our faith in the Incarnation.
As Archbishop Coleridge says: “The cumulative effect (of abandoning human metaphors for God) is that the sense of the Incarnation is diminished. God himself seems more abstract and less immediate than ever he does in Scripture or the Church Fathers.”
In practice, our current translations tend to treat the liturgy as a tool for doing catechesis. That’s why our prayers so often sound utilitarian and didactic. But Christ didn’t give us the liturgy to be a “message-delivery” system.
The words of the great liturgical pioneer, Father Romano Guardini, are worth pondering:
“The liturgy wishes to teach, but not by means of an artificial system of aim-conscious educational influences. It simply creates an entire spiritual world in which the soul can live according to the requirements of its nature. ….
“The liturgy creates a universe brimming with fruitful spiritual life, and allows the soul to wander about in it at will and to develop itself there. ….
“The liturgy has no purpose, or at least, it cannot be considered from the standpoint of purpose. It is not a means which is adapted to attain a certain end—it is an end in itself.”
The new translation of the Mass, coming this Advent, renews our sense of liturgy as transcendent and transformative. It restores the beauty of our liturgical language. And in doing so, it reflects the reality that our worship here joins in the worship of heaven.
Most Rev. James D. Conley is auxiliary bishop of the Denver Archdiocese.
To learn more about the new translation of the Roman Missal, visit www.archden.org/newromanmissal.
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