Loss in Translation

With the recent incomplete vote by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops on the translation of another part of the Mass, the Register considers the significance of the discussion.

WASHINGTON — Five proposed translations of liturgical texts failed to garner the votes required for approval during the U.S. bishops’ June meeting. But a poll of absent bishops may well produce the required two-thirds majority vote by late July.

Approval of the texts would mark the conclusion of a tumultuous eight-year episcopal debate over the adoption of more literal translations of the Roman Missal, along with other prayers and special Masses. The Vatican will review all the proposed translations and guidelines submitted by English-speaking nations and incorporate them into one text to be used throughout the world.

“The immediate need is for obtaining a two-thirds vote by mail, or the approval process will have to be deferred,” reported Archbishop George Niederauer of San Francisco, a member of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Divine Worship.

Like many other bishops and observers at the June meeting, Archbishop Niederauer was struck by the increasing momentum for approval as each proposed translation drew more support than the last. “My impression is they may very well achieve” the necessary votes, he said.

That assessment was shared by Helen Hull Hitchcock, editor of The Adoremus Bulletin, published by Adoremus, the Society for the Renewal of Sacred Liturgy, which was formed in 1995 “to promote authentic reform of the liturgy of the Roman rite.”

“The positive votes on the texts presented at the June meeting kept increasing after the first text failed to draw the requisite two-thirds of all the Latin-rite bishops. It is quite possible — even likely — that the necessary votes will come from the absentee ballot that is being sent to the approximately 55 eligible bishops who didn’t attend this meeting,” said Hitchcock.

Hitchcock suggested that the shift toward increased support for the translations was prompted by a series of statements from bishops who backed the new translations: the USCCB’s president, Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, Archbishop Alfred Hughes of New Orleans, Cardinal Justin Rigali of Philadelphia and Archbishop Oscar Lipscomb, retired archbishop of Mobile, Ala. All are members of Vox Clara, a committee of 12 bishops from English-speaking countries that was formed by the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments with the goal of overseeing the translation process.

The biggest hurdle will be approval of the first text that deals with Masses and prayers for needs and intentions: That text garnered 134 votes; a total of 163 is needed.

Liturgical experts like Hitchcock suggest that first vote partly reflected the impact of an impassioned intervention by Bishop Donald Trautman of Erie, Pa., who has been a determined critic of literal translations that introduce unfamiliar words and phrasing.

Daunting Challenge

The U.S. bishops’ prolonged debate regarding translations that hew more closely to the original Latin began in 2001, when the Holy See issued Liturgiam Authenticam (Authentic Liturgy), a strong new framework for liturgical translations that also marked a clear repudiation of gender-neutral language in North American texts.

Bishop Trautman acknowledged that his first intervention helped suppress approval for the first text. “I suggested that the bishops didn’t have sufficient time to review over 800 pages of text given to us during Holy Week. There was no time to submit amendments.”

His second intervention ad--dressed the proposed translations’ unfamiliar vocabulary and syntax. Bishop Trautman said he warned his fellow bishops that they would be criticized “by our people for a slavishly literal Latin translation that does not take into account contemporary English language.”

Indeed, even bishops and scholars who support the new translations agree that a daunting challenge lies ahead: helping ordinary Catholics grapple with unfamiliar liturgical texts, while fulfilling the intended goal of deepening their engagement with the vital origins of the Church.

“We must put together a catechetical process. And the first part will be a ‘remote catechesis’ — the training of the trainers: bishops, priests, deacons and parish liturgy committees,” explained Archbishop Niederauer. “Then we will begin the ‘proximate catechesis’ of people in the pews. Properly explained, this could be a very beautiful experience for our people, as the new translations will be more concrete in language and expression.”

The Adoremus Bulletin has offered one explanation for the struggle that ensued since Liturgiam Authenticam, though opponents of liturgical reform would challenge its assessment:

“The dispute over translation is about ideas in this case, the core teachings of the Catholic Church. Liturgiam Authenticam makes it clear that scriptural and liturgical translations affect the very heart of the Catholic faith itself; and that the words used to express that faith matter deeply. What underlies the conflict over liturgical translation is, finally, authentic vs. inauthentic belief.”

Father Douglas Martis, director of the Liturgical Institute at the University of St. Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, Ill., suggests it is time to move beyond that once intractable debate to address the catechetical concerns and opportunities posed by the new translations.

“Catholics today are more educated than ever before and quite able to understand a more elevated language and learn to engage a faith imbued with symbols,” said Father Martis.

“I ask my students to look at the prayer over the water at baptism, and they begin to see it’s a recitation of salvation history. The word ‘water’ is much more than H2O; it recalls the water flowing from the side of Christ. But if you don’t understand the Christian symbol, the language is irrelevant,” he observed.

‘Spiritual Riches’

Catholics will learn to embrace the spiritual riches contained in the new translations, predicted Father Martis. “During the Eucharistic Prayer 2, the priest calls down the Holy Spirit on the bread and wine and says: ‘Send the dew of your Holy Spirit.’ The ‘dew’ is a reference to the dew that lay on the ground after the people in the desert cried out for food. We’re reminded how God nourishes his people.”

Father Martis suggested that a majority of U.S. bishops shared his enthusiasm. But if he is wrong, those who continue to resist the reforms may soon regret their stance.

During the June meeting, Bishop Arthur Serratelli of Paterson, N.J., chairman of the bishops’ Committee on Divine Worship, warned the assembled bishops that if they failed to approve the texts by the Holy See’s late November 2009 deadline, the USCCB risked exclusion from the effort to incorporate all the translations from different countries into one English text.

Joan Frawley Desmond writes

from Chevy Chase, Maryland.

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