One priest’s hopes for the Mass translations

Parishioners use Mass guides during a Sunday morning service at St. Joseph's Catholic Church in Alexandria, Va. (CNS photo/Nancy Phelan Wiechec)

The “reform of the reform” has had a few setbacks of late. Less than a month ago, Pope Francis told the Italian bishops: “We can affirm with certainty and magisterial authority that the liturgical reform is irreversible.” On Sept. 9, with a new motu proprio, he delivered another decisive blow to those who would roll back the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council. “Magnum Principium”restores and strengthens the council’s call for local bishops’ conferences to have authority with regard to the approval of translations into the vernacular.

For the marginalized members of the International Committee on English in the Liturgy, who spent years producing a worthy translation of the Roman Missal only to have it unceremoniously shelved in 1998, this is a happy day.

And for those of us who worked hard to get Roman Missal III road-tested before it ever got implemented—but who were ignored by the bishops—this is a happy day.

And for every priest and every person in the pews who has struggled for the past six years through awkward, convoluted, overblown, “sacral” prayers, this is a happy day.

And for the minority of bishops who spoke out against “Liturgiam Authenticam” as a high-handed usurping of the role accorded bishops by Vatican II, this is a day of vindication.

And for those conferences of bishops in some countries of Europe and Asia, who dragged their feet and used every possible method to keep from toeing the mark set by “Liturgiam Authenticam”—this is a day to breathe a sigh of relief.

It is obvious that it was precisely the sorry saga of the failed English translation of Roman Missal III that has led to this bold and surprising move on the part of Pope Francis. This raises some questions: Can we now, at long last, begin to talk frankly and openly about the problems with the translation? Can we be big enough and honest enough to admit that mistakes were made? Dare we hope that the perfectly wonderful 1998 translation might again see the light of day?

When “Liturgiam Authenticam” appeared, our bishops got in line and dutifully implemented a document which robbed them of the role given them by the Second Vatican Council. But now the Holy Father is asking for something more than dutiful, lock-step obedience. He is asking the bishops to think about what makes for a good liturgical translation.

Will our bishops respond to this invitation and take a hard look at the woefully inadequate translation we are currently using? We can only hope and pray that their pastoral concern and commitment to liturgical celebrations that are both beautiful and intelligible will prompt them to walk through the door that Pope Francis has opened.

And that will indeed be a happy day!

Benjamin Holmes
1 week 6 days ago

I can only presume that this motu proprio portends a return to ghastly Third Grade-quality grammar missals. When you read the post-Vatican II ICEL (International Commission on English in the Liturgy) translations, one is left with the sense that a grade school student authored the prayers.

Why do spiritual progressives virulently oppose uplifting, cerebral, ethereal language, whether it is ecclesiastical Latin or "sacred vernacular" as described by St John Paul II?

I pray to God that the renewed progressive assault on divine liturgy is not unleashed against the Byzantine Catholics. I'm in the Seattle metro region.

Joseph Jaglowicz
1 week 5 days ago

As a progressive Catholic, I think it's because we are now living on Mother Earth and prefer language that can be understood by your average person on the street and in the pews. Perhaps when we eventually get to heaven, we can speak in cerebral, ethereal language. It was Pope Damasus I (366-384 CE) who made Latin the new liturgical language for the Roman province when most of his flock no longer understood koine ("common") Greek, their original language for Catholic worship. Even Reginald Foster, OCD, papal Latinist, acknowledged a few years ago that Latin was a dead language (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/1540843/Popes-Latinist-pronou…). If there's an "assault on divine liturgy," I point to JPII's "Liturgiam Authenticam" which mandated not translation but rather transliteration.

John Walton
1 week 6 days ago

I think daily mass for 12 years, 8 of them with Latin, spoiled me. As I listen today, sing the Gloria the Latin runs parallel in my mind. My wife complains that I neither recite or sing any of the "au courant" trans-sectional personal pronouns, and replace "your" with "thine" at every opportunity. Personally, I have learned to live with "consubstantionem" and "sub tectum meum".

I wish the pope would turn his focus to music. The new "Cabrini Mass" reminds me of the old musician joke -- question: "how do you tune a ukelele?" -- answer -- "throw it in the ash-can and when it hits the jews harp, it's tuned". The USCCB, GIA and OCP are like the gang who sell textbooks to your college age kids -- a new edition every year, each one worse than the prior.

Nancy Walton-House
1 week 5 days ago

I am delighted to see this decision. As a 75 year old cradle Catholic and graduate of 16+ years of Catholic education, I remember clearly the Mass of my youth with the missal printed in Latin and English. I still love the old Latin prayers (Pater Noster and Ave Maria), hymns and chants - always will. However, we must read the times in which we live and engage fully in the present with an appreciation of the past and an openness to the future. If we do not communicate with younger people in ways they understand, we will soon be heard no more. I believe our faith has much to give that is critically needed in this world. I want it to be perceived as relevant and valuable today and tomorrow. How we communicate with one another has a great influence on whether that happens or not. I am also delighted to see more and more authority being given back to local bishops who know their nation, culture and people better than Rome does. I trust the great majority will serve their people well in every possible way including communications.

Wasson Henry
1 week 2 days ago

Nancy Walton - House
I don't know about you but I am a Roman Catholic not an American Catholic.
I traveled all over the world before and after Vatican II.
I found it consoling that I could attend a Mass anywhere and participate.
I am glad that the mass is in the vernacular for those that want it, but for those who might want a little latin
or all in latin - why would that offend you.

As for young people - Vatican II failed to lead them into the Church - why that is - is a good question to
ask and be answered.

Nancy Walton-House
1 week 1 day ago

Henry, I also am a Roman Catholic and an American. I've had the opportunity to attend Mass in Europe pre-Vatican II so it was in Latin and I felt connected to other congregants through the service. Offering the Mass in Latin does not offend me. In fact, it is fine with me as an option. I am very concerned about young people turning away from the faith. I hope and pray we communicate and interact with them in ways they experience as relevant, meaningful and useful in their lives and the lives of their children.

Joris Heise
1 week 5 days ago

i keep hoping for more than a "translation" from the Latin. I love the Latin, know my LXX and Vulgate, and love them. Can recite the Paternoster and AveMaria, and appreciate Gregorian chant. BUT. we need an American expressionn of praying (and even of Scripture); too long has the word-for-word of the ancients served to translate and re-translate. It seems to me a good time to "take the bull by the horns" and try for American expressions (to tell you the truth--instead of "Amen, amen, I say to you"). Here is my non-translation, but rather "understanding" of a scripture passage that would work well to convey the "logos": Jesus told His followers this story: "The Realm of what is Right you can think of as ten bridesmaids who took their usual lamps and went outside to await the bridegroom. Five of them were stupid and five were smart. The stupid ones, when they got their lamps, brought no extra fuel along with them, but the smart girls brought flasks of fuel along with their lamps. Since the bridegroom did not arrive on time, they all became sleepy—and fell asleep. In the middle of the night, there arose a clatter--‘Look! Here comes the bridegroom. Move out to greet him!’ Then all those girls got up and readied their lamps. The stupid ones said to the smart ones, 'Give us some of your oil, because our own lamps are flickering out.' But the smart ones answered, 'No, there may not be enough for both us and you. Go to the shops instead and buy some fuel for yourselves.' While they went away to make their purchase, the bridegroom arrived; the ones ready went on into the wedding reception with him. Then the door was locked. Later on, the other girls came and cried, 'Sir, Sir! Open the door for us!' But he said in reply, “The Truth is, I do not recognize you.' So, stay awake; you just don’t know the day or the hour." (Matthew 25)

Patty Bennett
1 week 4 days ago

The above "understanding" doesn't convey the logos as well as you think it does. This serves to illustrate of one of the many reasons we need authentic liturgy, not liturgical abuses and "creative" ad-libs. We end up seeming to say things we really didn't intend. "There arose such a clatter....and I sprang from my bed to see what was the matter...!" The problem with trying too hard to be "with it" is that you end up reminding people of things that have nothing to do with Christ. Sometimes in trying to be "relevant" we just end up sounding goofy. I want to be thinking about the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, NOT "...a little round belly--that shook when he laughed like a bowl full of jelly".
I know I'm not brilliant enough to "edit" what is actually in the Bible. Likewise, perpetually changing the words of the Mass is just asking for problems--and it needlessly annoys people.

Wasson Henry
1 week 2 days ago

Joris,
Not to offend, but 'no thank you' to your translation ...well lack of understanding.
I am not an American Catholic, I am a Roman Catholic and I would like the readings at Mass to be
somewhat elegant. Your rendering will seem highly dated in ten years and obsolete in twenty.

Charles Erlinger
1 week 5 days ago

I know that I should have asked this years ago but the dispute seemed to be dying down so I forgot about it. Is the objection to the vulgate versions of the Latin from the Greek and from the Hebrew, or the English translations from the vulgate, or English translations from the Greek and Hebrew, or does it have nothing to do with the scriptures but solely with the Mass prayers, or what?

Joris Heise
1 week 5 days ago

Charles Erlinger: I believe the issue is the mechanisic translation. Jerome's Vulgate is brilliant because he grasped the Hebrew and Greek and knew his street Latin (the "vulgar" kind); the earlier Greek Translation was also free---famous for subsittute the Greek word "parthenos" for the Hebrew "maiden"" in Isaiah--so that the prophet is predicting a " virgin" (not just a "girl") will give birth. Both of there, however, were pretty much a word for word "translation," and they were able to convey the "ideas" into a culture that still knew something of the original languages. We do not. Few know Latin and fewer still know Greek. The last time Harvard had a valedictorian give a final address in Latin was the 19th century. So the point--and I urge passionately --that we pray and read American English. in church.

Bennett Kalafut
1 week 4 days ago

Fr. Ryan claims that the 1998 translation is not just an improvement on 1973 but "perfectly wonderful" and it is thus difficult to take his opinion seriously.

In the Ordinary the threefold "Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa" is still missing from the English translation of the Confiteor, which is a change to the structure of the prayer. Likewise "Hostiam puram, Hostiam sanctam, Hostiam immaculatam" in the Roman Canon is glossed over as it was in 1973. It is as though the "translator" though the repetitions were a defect in the normative Latin to be corrected at the time of translation.

In the Gloria, "hominibus bonae voluntatis" is "God's people on Earth" which isn't what that phrase means (it's a broad interpretation -- we're venturing into Good News Bible or The Living Bible territory if we go with that!) and obscures the scriptural reference. It's also clunkier than 1973 which had "his people on Earth"--the change from "his" to "God's" is silly, has no reasonable explanation (although a guess can be had) and those who complain about awkward English in the 2011 translation are being merely tendentious if they give this usage error a pass. We don't say in real English "Happy birthday to Fred and congratulations on the birth of Fred's grandson."

The preferred, option #1 acclimation "Mortem tuam annuntiamus domine..." is still missing altogether from the 1998 translation.

The propers are in places better than 1973, where more often than not the same concepts as in the Latin weren't being expressed. But overall 1998 ICEL is still somewhere between a coarse paraphrase and a parody. Yet to Fr Ryan 1998 ICEL is not just "good" but "wonderful" and not just wonderful but "perfectly wonderful". Why make such an extreme claim about something clearly defective, except to try to put one over on the laity and perhaps also his brother priests?

Gino Dalpiaz
1 week 2 days ago

FROM POLITICALLY CORRECT TRANSLATORS, DELIVER US, O LORD

Fr. Ryan is revealing where he comes from ideologically when he writes: "For those of us who worked hard to get Roman Missal III road-tested before it ever got implemented—but who were ignored by the bishops—this is a happy day.” He seems to be giving an “apologia pro vita sua,” The 1998 ICEL translation was a literary and liturgical disaster. It was no translation. It was a paraphrase of the worst kind à la the “New Living Translation of the Bible.” It sanitized the original Latin text of all “sacral” words, left out entire phrases and sentences, disinfected the original text of “politically incorrect” words, and treated the English-speaking Catholics of the world to kindergarten English. Sometimes it it wasn’t even good “street English.”

Wasson Henry
1 week 2 days ago

Fr. Ryan,
Could you write an article where you present the 1998 Mass and the revised Mass of 2011
side by side and explain why your think the 1998 is so beautiful and thus must be forced upon the
"People of God".

Thank You

Marc Bell
1 week ago

"Can we now, at long last, begin to talk frankly and openly about the problems with the translation? Can we be big enough and honest enough to admit that mistakes were made?"

Fair enough - if we can begin to talk frankly and openly about the problems with the 1973 translation. (And the problems with the other ritual books from the 1970s.) Fair enough - if we can we be big enough and honest enough to admit that mistakes were made with many of the things that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s in the immediate aftermath of the Second Vatican Council.

That honesty and openness is missing - from the entrenched positions on both sides.

Tony Phillips
1 week ago

We suffered for 40+ years with deliberate mistranslations: 'We believe' for 'Credo', 'for all' for 'pro multis', and of course the infamous 'And also with you', a phrase that no native English speaker would ever utter.
But in any case, the translations we're talking about are of a defectice missal. The liturgical "reforms" of the 1960s-1970s have been a disaster--or hasn't anyone noticed those empty pews? Vernacular apart, Paul VI had absolutely no authority to change the Mass. The notion that a pope can do whatever he wants come straight out of Vatican One and is disgraceful.

James Haraldson
1 week ago

Yeah, it's a happy day for Catholic anti-Catholic bigots everywhere. Those who have no concept of and no willingness to consider the damage the sin of pride can do.

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