VATICAN CITY — In the 40 years since the Second Vatican Council, the English used in the liturgy of the Mass has grown ever more unpopular.
Criticisms have ranged from the relatively mild — that it's too conversational, flat or prosaic — to the more severe — that it's banal, dumbed down or downright abominable.
For many Catholics it has diminished the meaning of the Mass, leaving the celebration less than what the liturgy should be: both elevating and inspiring.
So in 2001 the Holy See issued the instruction Liturgiam Authenticam (The Authentic Liturgy), whose aim was to render the translations of the Mass more faithful to the Latin.
Consultations have since been taking place between English-speaking bishops’ conferences, scholars and the International Commission on English in the Liturgy, all of which have been working together to produce draft translations — primarily of the Order of the Mass but not, as yet, the entire Roman Missal.
The work will eventually be presented to the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, the Vatican department charged with eventually bringing the new translation into force.
So after three years of examination and discussion, what stage has been reached in achieving a new translation?
During his ad limina visit to Rome in late May, the U.S. representative on the liturgy commission, Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, told the Register that “everything is translated.”
So far, he added, in the new translation the commission has “slavishly, almost, followed Liturgicam Authenticam.”
“Furthermore,” he said, “the syntax of the Latin is much more respected and still with the idea that it will be pronounceable or be able to be prayed publicly, but with more preparation.”
One particular concern being addressed is the frequent use of so-called feminist inclusive language, common in contemporary language but which often fails to accurately communicate the meaning of a Latin word or phrase.
This has been “much diminished,” the cardinal explained, when “you translate the Latin very closely.”
He added that some who have read the draft consider it to be “more beautiful,” that “if you do it slowly and you say it aloud, it does hold together.”
But Cardinal George conceded that “real problems” exist with the draft translation.
“We knew that when we did it,” he explained. “So we welcome other corrections and then we'll see. After that we'll send it back to the bishops and they'll have to vote it up or vote it down and send it to Rome or not.”
The criticisms have been varied. The Australian bishops are said to be generally happy with the text, but some U.S. bishops consider it to be “too English,” taking issue with words such as “deign” in the translation.
Meanwhile, the English bishops’ conference is said to consider the current draft “antiquated” and so “clumsy” that some thought the translation had been rendered by Google's automated translation facility.
“I think that's a bit exaggerated,” Cardinal George said. “Parts of it are clumsy, but clumsy is rather subjective. Others will say it's more complex. It's not simple declarative statements like, ‘You see me, I see you.’”
The cardinal added that the new translation “presupposes” one can handle a dependent clause.
“If you get used to seeing Big Bird on television and that's the strength of your syntax, well then you're in some trouble here,” he said jokingly.
Some authoritative sources, taking into account that so far only the first draft stage has been reached, are nevertheless said to be very happy with the way the new translations are progressing.
“I think where we are now is very encouraging,” one source said. “If we continue in this same direction without turning back, I think we'll be fine. I'm the most optimistic I've been about it for years.”
But there are still many obstacles to be overcome, not least confronting the resistance of those who have become used to the conversational language after what one scholar described as “40 years of conditioning.”
“We've got used to a very folksy idiom,” Cardinal George said. “Now we have to go back and redo it and the idiom will sound strange, and people don't like change. In a way it's the liberals who are now being very conservative.”
But the cardinal is confident of the future. “I think [the liturgy commission] is doing good work,” he said. “There's more participation of the hierarchies around the world than there was, and what we have to do now is get the feedback from the bishops.”
Father Bruce Harbert, the general secretary of the International Commission on English in the Liturgy and an ex-Anglican from the Archdiocese of Birmingham, England, said he was “happy with the progress made so far.”
But he stressed that another revision will be made when all the liturgy commission's bishops meet in July, after which they “will have to send it out for consultation.”
Cardinal George predicted “much will be redone” during the meeting.
As for a date when the final translation of the Order of Mass will be published, Father Harbert said that is up to the bishops.
One estimate is for the entire Mass to be translated within two years, but one source called that timeline “very optimistic.” The provisional date of January 2005 for rendering the Order of the Mass is not considered likely, but Rome's approval is foreseen as speedy if progress continues in its present form.
Whatever changes are eventually made to the Mass translations, many in the English-speaking Church agree they are long overdue.
“Rome should have done this years ago,” said Father Ian Ker, a theologian at Campion Hall at Oxford University and a leading authority on Cardinal John Newman.
Father Ker added that the bad-translation problem will be much harder to remedy after having been allowed to persist for so long.
“Now,” he said, “there's a risk that a significant number of priests who have become conditioned to the current translation won't accept it.”
Edward Pentin writes from Rome.
- June 20-26, 2004