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Michael N. Kane

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. 

Michael N. Kane
Helping professionals, like social workers, psychologists, marriage and family counselors, have discipline-specific codes of conduct that offer guidance about confidentiality, conflicts of interest and boundary violations (e.g., dual relationships, sexual misconduct with clients, and the like). Thei