The National Catholic Review
Michael N. Kane
A Byzantine priest recounts the transition to a new translation
Image

As a Byzantine Catholic priest, I have read with interest the many articles on the new translation of the missal for the Roman liturgy. The liturgy of the Byzantine-Ruthanian Catholic Church is of course different than the Roman Church, but we also recently implemented a new translation. A brief history of the process, and the lessons learned, may be of help to our Roman brothers and sisters.

First, some background: Ss. Cyril and Methodius were ninth century monks from Thessalonika who traveled to the Slavic people of Eastern Europe. They translated the Gospel and the Byzantine-Greek liturgy into the language of the local people—what has become known as Church Slavonic. They wanted the people to hear and understand the Gospel and the liturgy. For centuries, Church Slavonic had been used for the liturgy in the Byzantine (Ruthenian) Catholic Church much like Latin had been used in Roman Church. In 1965, the Byzantine-Slavonic liturgy was published in English and promulgated in Byzantine-Ruthenian churches in the United States and Canada. This was consonant with traditional Eastern Christian thinking that the liturgy should be in the vernacular.

The liturgy in U.S. Byzantine-Ruthenian parishes is generally sung in English. Some parishes continue to celebrate the liturgy in Church Slavonic and many retain well-known hymns in Church Slavonic or Hungarian. It’s meaningful to some, nostalgic to others. Few are able to understand Church Slavonic unless they have formally studied ancient Slavic languages.  

Several years ago, the Byzantine-Ruthenian Church in the United States began looking at its English translation of the liturgy. Byzantine liturgical scholars, diocesan liturgical commissions and hierarchs proposed a revised translation to the appropriate Vatican authorities. The new text was approved.  Opinion and input from parish clergy or laity was not formally solicited.

In 2006, Byzantine-Ruthenian priests were informed that the new English translations of the liturgies of St. John Chrysostom and St Basil the Great, the two principal liturgies used in the Byzantine Church, were ready to be introduced into parishes. Clergy and laity hoped that the new translation would make evangelization easier and that these liturgies would become even better understood. The revised text has presented significant challenges, such as the re-introduction of obscure Greek words and a slavish adherence to traditional plainchant.   

Back to the Greek

Like Roman Catholics, Eastern Christians have a great love for the Mother of God. The Byzantine liturgy references her many times. In the original English liturgy, the priest or deacon called attention to “the most holy, most pure, most blessed and glorious Lady, the Mother of God and ever-Virgin, Mary.” It was clear that we were remembering Mary. It may have been Byzantine-verbose, but it was poetically intelligible. Our liturgists decided that it would be more accurate to call the Mother of God by her Greek title of Theotókos (Θεοτóκος). The title Theotókos was adopted at the Ecumenical Council of Ephesus in 431. It means “God-bearer” and communicates theologically all the necessary Christological nuances that refute Arianism, Nestorianism and several other heresies common to the third, fourth and fifth centuries. Many Eastern Catholic Churches and most Eastern Orthodox Churches have always addressed the Mother of God as Theotókos in their liturgy. This had not been the case with Byzantine-Ruthenian Catholics.

I admit I am conflicted about this important term. It is quite meaningful to a person with the proper historical and theological background. Yet I am not convinced that most parishioners who seek intercession from the Mother of God require this depth of understanding. It is a problematic word, too, from the practical point of pronunciation. After four years of modeling the correct pronunciation (“Thee-uh-tok-uh s”), the parochial variants of the word are astounding. (I’m sure the Mother of God has a sense of humor!) Interestingly, outside the context of the liturgy, I have not heard any of my parishioners refer to the Mother of God as the Theotókos since its reintroduction. In my mind, that tells a tale about the need for accuracy and the need for meaning.

After reciting Nicene Creed, the presiding priest or deacon in the Byzantine-Ruthanian liturgy invites the congregation to enter into the great mystery of worship. The priest or deacon used to intone “Let us stand aright, let us stand in awe, let us be attentive to offer the holy oblation in peace.” The people responded: “The offering of peace, the sacrifice of praise.” In case anyone was confused about what an oblation might be, the response cued them to the meaning. This dialogue has now been changed. It is no longer an oblation; it is now “the holy Anaphora.” After more than four years of catechesis, I am still unsure whether this change has had a positive affect on the worshipper.

To promote the parochial introduction of the new translation, a 467-page “people’s book” was introduced. Because worshippers probably would not understand such terms as epiklesis, anaphora, kontakion, polyeleos and Theotókos, the liturgical experts included a six-page glossary at the end. Congregants may consult the glossary to find the meaning of these theologically accurate Greek words. Yet I am left wondering if the usage of these exotic words impedes our understanding of and ability to participate in the liturgy. Perhaps the most insightful commentary about the book itself was made by a parishioner who said that it should be called “the turquoise beast” because of its color and complexity. 

Byzantine Catholics pray best when we sing. By custom, all services are chanted. Each part of the liturgy uses plainchant. Traditional plainchant was developed in harmony with the Church Slavonic text. After the initial English translation of 1965 many traditional Slavonic plain chant melodies did fit easily with English words. To help cantors and congregants, the combined musical commissions of the Archeparchy (Archdiocese) of Pittsburgh and the Eparchies (Dioceses) of Passaic and Parma in 1970 simplified the complex plain chant melodies to work with the English text. Communal singing increased because the simplified melodies fit the English words.

As the new translation of the liturgy was being prepared, liturgists and hierarchs acknowledged that most parishes had developed distinct melodies in their liturgical celebrations that were unique to their location. However, the liturgical commissions and hierarchs favored conformity and uniformity. As a result, authorized melodies were published. These mandated melodies are precisely faithful to the original Church Slavonic plainchant melodies—the very same melodies that had been simplified when the Church Slavonic liturgy was translated into English in 1965. So now we are singing challenging, but precisely-faithful-to-the-tradition melodies with words that are not familiar to most people. The length and complexity of some of these Slavonic melodies leaves one breathless—literally. 

The 'Byzantine' Result

The list of challenges could go on. Even after four years, it feels overwhelming sometimes to the cantors, the people and to me, the pastor of a small church. From my perspective, stilted but precise translations have not added any fervor to the little congregation I serve. My parishioners loved God before—and they still love Him.

The new “purified” version of traditional plainchant melodies has done little in the way of lifting my heart.  And I wonder if anyone else’s heart has been lifted. Perhaps we will all grow accustomed to this new “old-way.”  Still, I admire my parishioners for their openness to this new translation. There are no revolutions to report, although there has been much eye-rolling and often a suppressed giggle. On the national level, there is a serious and continuing call from some clergy and laity to suppress the new “old-way.” When all is said and done, a greater understanding of the liturgy remains the goal. I just wish I could believe that we are on the right path.

I hope that the transition to a new translation is less challenging for our brothers and sisters in the Roman Church. We will keep you in our prayers.

The Reverend Michael N. Kane is pastor of Our Lady of the Sign Byzantine Catholic Church, Coconut Creek, Fl. He is also a professor of social work at Florida Atlantic University and a licensed psychotherapist.

Comments

Andres Bolinaga | 5/18/2011 - 4:53am
I am a Melkite Byzantine Catholic having been received in to the Church on the Feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos last year.  The Melkites are analogous to the Ruthenians in that we are in communion with Rome but are an Eastern Rite Church.

I had been sporadically attending mass at local Roman Churches for several years but it was not in my heart to commit to the Roman Church. I had met Father Peter, the local Melkite Priest during a hospital stay and was curious to see the Melkite Liturgy. 

I went to one Divine Liturgy and even though parts of it were chanted in Greek and some in Arabic, I was so deeply moved by the experience that I immediately moved to join the Melkite Church. 

The strength and beauty of the prayers - especially the Anaphora and Epiclesis of Saint Basil - move me to tears and  I am a retired, up from the ranks Naval Officer who is not usually given to tears.   I feel the presence of the Holy Spirit when the Priest says these prayers. 

I love our melodies; I will often find myself spontaneously chanting our prayers or singing the Paschal Troparion as I work at my desk at home or drive. 

I am still trying to understand the depth and scope of emotions invoked in me by the Holy Week Paschal Services. 

The koine Greek was the language of the New Testament, many of the early church fathers  and of the early church liturgy.  I do not think it inappropriate to chant kyrie elaison or sing the Trisagion in Greek during the Divine Liturgy. 

I am an Engineer not a Theologian so I will leave it to those so trained to discuss the finer points of liturgical things.  I do not think that it is difficult for people to understand the Divine Liturgy.  We live in an age when almost everyone is literate and has 10, 11, 12 or more years of education.  This Liturgy was used and loved for almost two millennia by people in Churches where few people if any except the Priest had any education.  I do not think we taxing modern people's brains to much with some new words. I am a fairly normal person and  I do not need a prayer book for a service unless it is a funeral or memorial service or one of the minor hours and I have been in the church a year and a half.

Our liturgy should be a little mysterious; after all our sacraments are properly called mysteries as in mysterion or secrets. 

I am grateful to God for allowing me to find this ancient form of the faith with this awesome Liturgy and wonderful prayers and for teaching me to pray with my heart more than my mind. 
By the grace of God, I hope to be in this Church until I fall asleep in the Lord. 

I invite all of you to come and see.

Your brother in Christ, Andres Bolinaga

 

Gerald McGrane | 5/17/2011 - 10:24pm
Why is it that so many arguments against the new translation sound a lot like, "People won't be smart enough to get it?"  I know "Theotokos" and "consubstantial" are challenging concepts to grasp, but isn't that because of the great depth and beauty and mystery they represent?  Do we really need to strip the Liturgy of depth and beauty just because it will be challenging?  Shouldn't we be challenged?  Shouldn't there be some mystery?
C Walter Mattingly | 5/17/2011 - 8:24pm
Anne,
Jesus recognized a church which had completely abandoned Him during His hour of greatest need. He even made the lying coward who swore he would never abandon Him His foundational bishop. I suspect He could manage the good, the bad, the beautiful, and the ugly that constitutes the present, past, and future church.
Jim,
The purpose of singling out JPII was not to conflate him with Jesus, but to point out to Mike that clothes do not make the man, that his fine linens, which apparently Mike objects to, did not prevent him from taking what I consider sacrificial and forgiving actions, standing up for justice for 50 million while realizing his life was on the line, forgiving his assassin, etc, which I consider Christ-like.  Fr. Martin has already commented on that, as well as some actions which definitely fell far short of such levels achievement in his later years, in particular his neglect of the abuse issue.
JOHN KANE | 5/17/2011 - 4:01pm
With all the discussion about the "new" translation to take place on the First Sunday of Advent; with the recent missive from Rome re: training seminarians to "celebrate" the pre-Conciliar Mass Rite, in both ritual action and language (Latin), I still recall the words of Hans Kung during Vatican II:

"The Mass should be celebrated in the same language in which the announcements about the collection are made". 

It was true then and it's true today!

Also, wouldn't it be more pastorally more important to teach seminarians Spanish, Vietnamese, Korean, etc.?


JIM MCCREA | 5/17/2011 - 3:37pm
Walter: to conflate JPII (or any cleric no matter how exalted he/you thinks he is) with Jesus in your example above is sheer nonsense. Or do you BELIEVE that the pope is on the same plane as the Savior?
Anne Chapman | 5/15/2011 - 10:12pm
Walter, now that you mention it, it really is highly unlikely that Jesus would even recognize his church in what claims to be his church in Rome.
C Walter Mattingly | 5/15/2011 - 9:00am
And Mike, we should all be outraged that John Paul II was wearing fine linens when he stood up to counter the enslavement of 50 million and took two bullets to the gut for his efforts. It would have been far less hypocritical if he had bled out on a work shirt. Again, he was wearing fine linens when he forgave his assassin for causing him such pain and ruining his health. We all know if he had been sincere he would have worn prison garb. And again he should be ashamed of himself for wearing those white linens when he met and kissed the lepers.
What next? What if he had let some poor person clean his feet by dousing them with Channel #5, wasting that exhorbitantly expensive perfume by pouring it on his feet instead of donating it to the poor?
Wouldn't Jesus have have censured him had he been so profligate and not stopped this horrid waste?
Mike Evans | 5/13/2011 - 4:10pm
Very instructive! Almost reminds one of the 'high church' versus 'low church' arguments that made Methodism so popular. Would/did Jesus ever speak in such hi falutin words? Would he deliberately make concepts so obscure? If he were speaking to the crowds today, what kind of simpole and direct language would he use? And lastly, beware long Pauline sentences without any punctuation that attempt to include every nuance and concept in one unsustainable breath. Whew! Somehow all I can hear is the Lord saying: "Woe to you, Scribes and Pharisees!' Of course Jesus would never wear a gold encrusted cope or silk slippers either.