CHICAGO — Who decided what prayers are said in the Mass? How were those updated to the vernacular after the Second Vatican Council? And what did Vatican II say about translating the prayers of the Mass?

Though people in the pews may have thought little about these questions, experts who translate the Latin and plan the liturgy in American churches have discussed and debated them for the past 40 years. There are two clear sides to the debate, and they were on display at a recent Chicago conference on liturgical language.

“The fault line lies between those who see changes in the liturgy as an implementation of Vatican II, or a reversal of it,” explained Msgr. Robert Dempsey, pastor of St. Philip the Apostle Church in Northfield, Ill., who participated in the conference.

“Authentic Liturgy: Translation and Interpretation of Liturgical Texts” was sponsored by the Archdiocese of Chicago's Liturgical Institute, based at the University of St. Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary, Oct. 27-29. Scholars and theologians deliberated over issues “in preparation for the publication of the English-language edition of the Roman Missal,” according to the conference program.

The new missal was issued in Latin in March 2002. It's still going through a long translation-and-review process by bishops from 11 English-speaking countries, and no one knows when it will be released. The only thing certain is that change is coming.

Cardinal Francis Arinze, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, signaled as much last year when he pronounced: “The do-it-yourself Mass has ended. Go in peace.”

Cardinal Arinze made the remark as the congregation was releasing the revised General Instruction of the Roman Missal, outlining the rules for celebration of Mass.

In Vatican II's first document, Sacrosanctum Concilium (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy), the council fathers called for “the reform and promotion of the liturgy,” undertaken “with great care” and depending “solely on the authority of the Church.” Latin was not dropped as a language of prayer, though it was no longer the only one.

But initial restrictions on vernacular translations rapidly gave way to rule-bending and widespread experimentation.

On the 40th anniversary of Sacrosanctum Concilium last December, Chicago's Cardinal Francis George addressed a Vatican conference as chairman of the U.S. bishops' Committee on the Liturgy. “My own belief is that liturgical renewal after the Council was treated as a program or movement for change, without enough thought being given to what happens in any community when its symbol system is disrupted,” he said. “A change in liturgy changes the context of the Church's life.”

Some believe the disruption is deep.

“There are many people out there who don't even know or remember that there ever was a Latin Mass,” said Kevin Haney, a Warrenville, Ill., historian active in liturgical affairs for two decades, and a participant in the liturgy conference. “We have lost so much, we don't even know what we lost.”

The Congregation for Divine Worship issued an instruction, Liturgiam authenticam (Authentic Liturgy), in May 2001 as an effort to restore liturgy with a new set of norms for translation. Some liturgists are still not ready to accept that.

“This is change, but not really an improvement,” said Father Paul Turner, pastor of St. Munchin Parish in Cameron, Mo. “Words have to click with ordinary people in the congregation,” he said in a talk on pastoral ramifications of translation. “Americans have a simple understanding of translations.” The 2001 instruction promotes language that is “not our vernacular,” he said.

“In its zeal to protect the past, Liturgiam authenticam threatens the future,” he continued. “Why are we having new translations? The only convincing pastoral reason will be the deepening of our prayer.”

That is the point of Liturgiam authenticam and the new missal, said Dennis McManus, associate director of the Secretariat for the Liturgy, which carries out the work of the U.S. bishops' Committee on the Liturgy. “Translating Scripture is a huge responsibility because it is divine revelation,” he said. “You can't be simply interpreting that. The liturgy takes text from Scripture in order to have Christological intent, and that has to be crystal clear to the worshipper.”

Inclusive Language

Experts like Father Turner are still promoting a translation theory known as dynamic equivalency — an approximation of the text's idea within a contemporary setting, used to make the message of a text more understandable to modern ears. But some experts believe this method is prone to translators' bias and ideological tampering. Gender words are a big issue here.

Father Turner contends that “the use of feminine pronouns for the Church narrows its use” and does not apply to the Body of Christ. “Contrast that with the use of dynamic equivalency, which better realizes the goals of faith and worship,” he added.

But dynamic equivalency takes away the authorship of God in sacred Scripture, McManus contended. He explained that the liturgy is the dialogue of the Church and Christ together, the bride and the bridegroom. “When God speaks to the Church, he speaks Christ, the Living Word. When the Church responds, she is speaking the liturgical word. Liturgical speech has to be understood as the bride answering back to the groom. That implies a whole set of understandings about translation. This liturgical speech is the most intimate possible, the speech of total surrender. It is a mystery that is huge.”

Turner wants to keep the focus on the assembly sharing the feast at the banquet table. He finds this “horizontal worship” desirable and fears that the new missal will change that.

Dempsey, among others, is hopeful that it will. “This will return to the original translation,” he said. “If the priests conscientiously try to learn their parts of the prayers and prefaces and deliver them well, the people will adjust well. The major change I see is that the way we pray in English is going to reflect more closely the way we pray in the Latin rite, with a strong vertical emphasis on God, not on ourselves.”

Cardinal Arinze stated it another way while in Chicago. “Even those who do Shakespeare say the words he wrote,” the cardinal said. “The liturgy is not the private property of anyone. It is the bride of Christ, and no one should put even one word in the bride of Christ that does not belong there.”

Sheila Gribben Liaugminas writes from Chicago.