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.