New translation of the Mass

On a Catholic note: For those unaware, the English translation of the Latin Missal has been undergoing a revision. This is a big thing and is the first significant change since Vatican II (when Masses were first celebrated in the vernacular). Catholicism is a liturgical faith. Catholics say the same Mass every day (the prayers, rites, etc), so when the wording of responses and prayers (well, the English translation of those prayers) are changed it makes for a pretty big change. And this is not just a question of the comfort level of Catholics, it also gets right to the heart of the faith. Catholics hold high the principle of “lex orandi, lex credendi” – the law of prayers is the law of belief. As we pray, so we believe. The words we use in worship shape our faith. So we should take our liturgy very seriously.

I am not a liturgist nor am I an expert in Latin. But it does not take an expert to see that the current English translation strays quite widely from the Latin text. The new translation is meant to have greater fidelity to the Latin. The big news is that the new translation has been approved and will take effect Nov 27, 2011 (the start of Advent). Almost every one of the prayers of the Mass will be different. I expect American Catholics to receive this with decidedly mixed reviews. Some are already upset. I am sympathetic with some complaints – it is discomforting to have our prayers altered. But I am less sympathetic with other worries. I expect the reaction to split pretty much down the presumed “conservative” and “liberal” lines, though I am increasingly suspect of those categories. I am a Roman Catholics, I don’t think of myself as a “conservative Catholic” or a “liberal Catholic”.

One common complaint is that the new translation is too technical. It is true, the new translation re-introduces some technical theological vocabulary. The current translation was meant to be more accessible. It is, but the increased accessibility of the text has hardly led to an increase in understanding among the laity of the faith. In fact, one could argue that quite the opposite has happened. I am of the opinion that people rise to your expectations of them. I find this teaching all the time – if you ask little of your students, you will receive little in return. If you ask a lot, you will get more.

The most widely noted example of this is seen in the Nicene Creed. The current translation translate “consubstantialem Patri” as “one in Being with the Father”. The new translation reads “consubstantial with the father”. Now do most lay Catholics know what “consubstantial” means? Of course not, that is pretty sophisticated philosophical vocabulary. But is there any more clarity around what “one in Being with” means? I don’t think so. I like the increased technical sophistication here, even though there is nothing technically wrong with “one in Being” (which actually seems like a pretty accurate, if less technical, way of turning the phrase). I like that parishioners will be forced to pause over this instead of glossing right past. The more plain language might have a tendency to mask the mysterious truth communicated by the phrase. The lack of familiarity with the technical language will hopefully prompt some reflection. It is is, as it were, one of those “teachable moment” opportunities.

Some of the current English translations are actually inaccurate. “He was born of the Virgin Mary” is the translation of “Et Incarnatus est … ex Maria Virgine”. The new translation is much better, “was incarnate of the Virgin Mary”. (This reminds me of a recent question put to Catholite Nancy Pelosi on when the Word became Incarnate).

In other cases, I suspect people will find the new translation more heavy handed. Take the Form A Penitential Act. In the current version, one confesses that “I have sinned through my own fault”. Now the Latin says “mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa”. The new translation has us say, “through my own fault, through my own fault, through my most grievous fault”. You don’t have to be a Latin expert to see that this has much greater fidelity to the original Latin.

Almost every prayer is changed, even the most basic greeting. The current translation has: Priest: “The Lord be with you.” People: “And also with you.” In the new translation, the people respond: “And with your spirit.” Again, much closer to the Latin “Et cum spirtu tuo”. But this is a big change – hearing “the Lord be with you” gets an immediate and now instinctual “and also with you” from Catholics.

You can see more changes here. And you can see the Latin (side by side with the old translation) here. I have not seen a side by side by side (latin, old translation, new translation) yet, but I am sure one will come up soon enough.

You can probably tell by my tone that I am happy with the changes. While I am sympathetic to the worry that this will feel somewhat alienating to some, I think it is important enough to deal with that. Many are already criticizing the translations as “slavishly literal”. And you get the general undercurrent of people complaining that this is a “conservative” translation. My opinion is that you typically hear that from Catho-lites who think this Pope (and the last) are out to undo the reforms of Vatican II. I disagree, I think that “progressive” constituency simply misunderstands what Vatican II meant. Michael Ryan complains that the liturgy is being used “as a weapon—to advance specific agendas”. I find that ridiculous. I am unmoved by almost every argument he makes in a recent article. It is my view that the more “progressive” interpretation of VII is what is largely responsible for the exodus of Catholics from the faith.

Anyway, the translation has been approved by the Holy See so it appears the matter is done.

About Kleiner

Associate Vice Provost and Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Utah State University. I teach across the curriculum, but am most interested in continental philosophy, ancient and medieval philosophy as well as Catholic thought, all of which might be summed up as an interest in the ressourcement tradition (returning in order to make progress). I also enjoy spending time thinking about liberal education and its ends.
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