The objections to the new English translation of the Missal fall apart upon close inspection, says liturgical publisher John Newton Some people are predicting riots in the pews when the new translation of the Mass is introduced.
For several years now experts have been preparing a revised English translation of the Roman Missal, which follows the Latin more closely. Following Vatican approval in 2008 the introduction of the new texts into parishes is on the horizon.Yet the project is not without its critics.
Vociferous objections were raised in some quarters of South Africa when it was accidently introduced last year and in America Fr Michael Ryan’s internet petition to halt the implementation of the new translations has attracted more than 10,000 signatures from around the world. But there’s no reason that changing the words of the Mass should cause any problems.
Perhaps time has dimmed our memories, but we seem to have forgotten that many of the people’s parts were changed in 1975, less than six years after the new form of the Mass was introduced. And, as many of the objections to the forthcoming changes focus on the use of more formal language, it is worth remembering that this is exactly the sort of language that was originally used in the new Mass.
A quick look at the Sanctus illustrates the point. The first line of the 1969 translation – “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of hosts” – is identical to the new version. And those who fear the coming changes should be heartened by the fact that the rest of the new Sanctus is exactly the same as it is at the moment.
For better or worse, we will not be going back to the 1969 text, which continued: “Thy glory fills all heaven and earth” – although I imagine there will be some who wish we were. Indeed, one distinctive feature of the 1969 translations was the use of hierarchic language when addressing God. So the Gloria ran: Glory be to God on high, And on earth peace to men who are God’s friends We praise thee. We bless thee. We adore thee. We glorify thee.
We give thee thanks for thy great glory. The reason the 1969 translations were replaced in 1975 was not a revolt against the thees and thous, nor because formal language had failed to serve the needs of the liturgy.
Rather it was because an ecumenical body, the International Consultation on English Texts (ICET), produced a version of the people’s parts of the liturgy that were adopted by the Catholic Church. Some opponents of the new English version have lamented the fact that, by abandoning the current texts, we will no longer be using common translations with other Christians.
This would be a fair point if it were true, but it is actually a base canard. Most Protestant communions stopped using these texts more than a decade ago. If they have found the ICET translations no longer meet the requirements of worship, there seems to me to be no good reason for us to keep them.
Indeed, given the Catholic Church seems to be leaning more and more towards the Orthodox, it is worth noting that when an English version of the Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom was published in 1995 it did not use the relevant ICET texts, but opted for a new translation employing more formal language.
Surprisingly, when the new English translations are introduced in the Mass the version of the Sanctus will be identical to that found in the Orthodox Liturgy. Many other parts have marked similarities – even the Creed, despite the inclusion of the filioque clause, is terribly close. It is hard to imagine that there was no consultation of the Orthodox texts when the new version of the Mass was being put together Yet, bizarrely, there are murmurings that in order to “save Vatican II” we need to resist the new translations. In high rhetorical fashion Fr Ryan has said they are contributing to “what seems like the systematic dismantling of the great vision of the council’s decree”.
He considers them “highly controversial” and asserts that “many highly respected liturgists and linguists” are unhappy with the “ungainly, awkward sentences”.
While it is fair to say that not all of new texts are perfect, a little judicious polishing will smooth out the odd problems where these occur. What is needed is occasional fine tuning, not root and branch change.
Perhaps the problem is that we forget that liturgy is designed to lift our hearts and minds to God (see Sacrosanctum Concilium 33). The natural language of liturgy leans towards the poetic, and when the new texts are approached as poetry then people will more readily be able to understand the riches they express.
Dignified and formal translations served the English-speaking Church well when the new Mass was first introduced in 1969, and they will do so again when the new texts arrive.
One hopes that, as the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops said, “the implementation of the revised Roman Missal [will] be a time of deepening, nurturing, and celebrating our faith through our worship and the celebration of the Sacred Liturgy”.
Amen to that.
Dr John Newton is editor-inchief of the traditional liturgical publisher Baronius Press