The International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL) proposes the following translated text:
Accept, O Lord, these gifts,
and by your power change them
into the sacrament of salvation,
in which the prefiguring sacrifices of the Fathers have an end
and the true Lamb is offered,
he who was born ineffably of the inviolate Virgin.
—Prayer over the gifts,
Season of Advent
Can We Participate?
The above citation is a proclaimed prayer. What will the person in the pew hear and comprehend? Will the words “prefiguring sacrifices of the Fathers” and “born ineffably of the inviolate Virgin,” for example, resonate with John and Mary Catholic? Is this prayer intelligible, proclaimable, reflective of a vocabulary and linguistic style from the contemporary mainstream of U.S. Catholics? Is the liturgical language accessible to the average Catholic and our youth? Does this translated text lead to full, conscious and active participation? I think not.
This prayer 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?”
The Right Language
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 worshiping 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 these 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 (in 11 lines) in one sentence? In the preface of the chrism Mass, one sentence runs on for 10 lines. How pastoral are the new collects, when they all consist of a single sentence, containing a jumble of subordinate clauses and commas?
Will the priest and people understand the words of Eucharistic Prayer 2: “Make holy these gifts, we pray, by the dew of your Spirit”? This translation was among the top 10 texts that the U.S. bishops in their consultation considered most problematic, but still ICEL did not change it.
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 yourself.
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; the 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” (No. 21). Note the words “with ease.” This is the norm, the expressed wish in the constitution. This is a prerequisite that calls not just for the 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?
Consult and Communicate!
The drafting of principles and norms of translation for vernacular languages should have involved the broadest consultation of episcopal conferences as well as liturgical and biblical scholars. But the Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments in 2001 issued a 36-page instruction on liturgical translation without collegial or collaborative effort. The cardinal and bishop members of the congregation were not consulted by mail or in a plenary session. The Pontifical Biblical Commission was not formally consulted. The episcopal conferences were not consulted.
When the instruction Liturgiam Authenticam (On the Use of Vernacular Languages in the Publication of the Books of the Roman Liturgy) was issued in 2001, the executive board of the Catholic Biblical Association stated that the document “contains provisions detrimental to solid biblical scholarship…and advocates policies that make it difficult to produce good vernacular translations.” Those were prophetic words that have now been verified. Did anyone listen?
Liturgiam Authenticam rightly stresses fidelity and exactness in rendering liturgical and biblical texts into the vernacular. For the authors of Liturgiam Authenticam, however, that means “as literal as possible.” That was not the mind of St. Jerome, the greatest Doctor of the Sacred Scriptures. Jerome was a precise translator but not a literalist. He himself said, “If I translate word by word, it sounds absurd.”
Liturgical translations must communicate. If liturgical language is divorced from the reality of culture, communication is impossible.
What is missing in the present moment, unfortunately, is the voice of liturgical scholars and the voice of the laity, the assembly. I was dismayed when I recently learned that our liturgists—professionals with degrees and experience, teaching at our academic institutions—did not have access to the work of ICEL. No wonder there has been such limited public scrutiny of these translated texts. Some bishops have consulted individual liturgical experts, but the learned societies of liturgists have been excluded. It would be pastorally prudent and so beneficial to translated texts destined for the worshiping assembly if the laity were involved in the preliminary process for judging the ICEL texts. The proposed translated liturgical prayers, for example, could be proclaimed to lay groups to elicit their initial reactions: What did they hear; what did they understand; did these texts lift their minds and hearts to God? Such input would be helpful to translators in perfecting the proclaimability of texts.
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 principle 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?
Church of God, judge for yourselves. Speak up, speak up!