Recent news out of Rome that Pope Francis has given his blessing to a commission to study “Liturgiam Authenticam,” the controversial 2001 document behind the English translation of the Roman Missal, was surely music to the ears of many who love the church’s liturgy and to just about everyone who loves the English language. Seven years ago, I did my best to see that the translation got a test run before being mandated for general use. But, as the saying goes, timing is everything. Had Francis been elected just a few years earlier, it is likely that “Liturgiam Authenticam” would have died in committee.
At this point, I am not sure who to feel sorrier for: those members of the International Committee for English in the Liturgy, who, back in 1998, offered a worthy translation—the fruit of 17 years painstaking labor—only to have it unceremoniously consigned to oblivion by Vatican officials, or the faithful of the English-speaking world who have had to struggle since 2011 with a wooden, woefully inadequate, theologically limited Missal that is low on poetry, if high on precision.
This much everyone should agree on: The church’s greatest prayer should not depend on awkward, literal compositions that would earn poor marks in any high school English (or theology) class. Think, for instance, of the tone of the prayers, with their exaltation of merit over mercy, their emphasis on human weakness at the expense of human dignity, their “sacral vernacular” (No. 47) that keeps God at a majestic distance. So many times during Mass I have been tempted to stop and ask, “Does anyone know what that means?”—and I cannot be alone. To quote one disgruntled parishioner, “Father, some of those prayers might as well be in Latin.”
The complaints from priests and from parishioners are not just hearsay. A 2014 survey conducted by Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate revealed that only 27 percent of priests in the United States believe the new translation has lived up to expectations. More than half said it needs urgently to be revised.
But there is more to consider here than style and syntax and questionable theology. There is Pope Francis and the transformational moment he has ushered in for the church—the fresh air, the invitation to dialogue, the resetting of priorities, the quest for simplicity. And there are also his writings, especially “Evangelii Gaudium.” Although the pope does not focus on the Mass or the Missal, he does talk about language, communication, modes of expression, and cultural adaptation—all of which have significant implications for the way we pray.
Pope Francis points to the importance of simplicity, clarity, directness and adapting to “the language of the people in order to reach them with God’s word…and to share in their lives” (No. 158). In light of this, how can we justify using words like “consubstantial,” “conciliation,” “oblation”or “regeneration”?
Pope Francis also goes after the sacred cow of ancient Latin texts. He writes: “We cannot demand that peoples of every continent, in expressing their Christian faith, imitate modes of expression which European nations developed at a particular moment of their history, because the faith cannot be constricted to the limits of understanding and expression of any one culture” (“Evangelii Gaudium,” No. 115).
The principles of “Liturgiam Authenticam” run precisely counter to Pope Francis’ vision.
The principles of “Liturgiam Authenticam” run precisely counter to Pope Francis’ vision. Far from drawing on the gifts of culture, it stifles them in favor of a monoculture. Contrast the words of Francis with the directive “Liturgiam” gives to the church in the developing world: “fidelity and exactness with respect to the original texts may themselves sometimes require that words already in current usage be employed in new ways, that new words or expressions be coined, that terms in the original text be transliterated” (No. 21). This is precisely the kind of cultural imperialism that Pope Francis has called into question.
As an antidote to this, Pope Francis speaks of the importance of local bishops’ conferences, respecting the authority that should be theirs when it comes to deciding matters that pertain to the local church.
Now his encouraging words have been backed up by encouraging action. Will the controversial document be radically revised—or even revoked? This would be a game-changer. The bishops’ conferences of Germany, Italy and France, wisely dragged their feet on implementing “Liturgiam Authenticam.” Now a wonderful opportunity seems to have opened up for them. Perhaps other language groups, thanks to our experience, will be spared questionable translations like ours.
How this new development will be received by the bishops of the English-speaking world remains to be seen. But I feel certain that the majority of priests and people will be praying that the newly formed Vatican commission liberates future translations from the straight-jacket of “Liturgiam Authenticam” and that their bishops will be open to the commission’s findings. No matter how weary of the topic our bishops may be, they should reclaim their rightful role in preparing and approving liturgical texts. And for the time being, they should put the brakes on translations currently in process (including the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, the Rite of Baptism, and the Liturgy of the Hours). And they should swallow hard and begin to take another look at the Roman Missal. If they do, they will quickly realize that we can do better. We can hardly do worse.