In just a few days, Catholics in this country will notice a rather significant change when they come to Mass. Commencing the first Sunday of Advent, the Church will be using a new translation of the Roman Missal. I would like to emphasize, at the outset, that this in no way represents a return to “the old Mass,” for the Latin texts that provide the basis for the new translation were all approved after Vatican II. So why the change? What had come increasingly to bother a number of bishops, priests, and liturgists over the years was that the translation of the liturgical texts, which was made in some haste in the late 60s of the last century, was not sufficiently faithful to the Latin and was, at least in some instances, informed by questionable theological assumptions. And so, over the course of many years, two groups in particular—ICEL (the International Commission on English in the Liturgy) and Vox Clara (a committee of bishops, liturgical experts, and linguists from around the English-speaking world)—labored over a new translation. This work was approved by the United States Bishops’ Conference and finally by the Vatican, and Advent 2011 was determined to be the time to begin use of the new Missal.
What marks these new texts? They are, I would argue, more courtly, more theologically rich, and more Scripturally poetic than the current prayers—and this is all to the good. An unmistakable feature of the Latin liturgical texts is their nobility and stately seriousness. They were composed by people who clearly knew that liturgical prayer is a manner of addressing Almighty God, the Lord of heaven and earth. Accordingly, they utilized not the language of the street or of the market or political forum, but instead, the speech appropriate at the court of a King to whom supplication is being made. Or to situate things more in the context of our culture: they employ the kind of speech one might use in addressing the president in a formal letter or the recipient of an honorary degree at a university commencement exercise. Now when these texts were rendered into English in the late 60s of the last century, they were translated in accord with certain definite cultural tendencies of that time. Starting in the 1960s, we began to prize speech that is blunt, clear, direct, casual and unadorned. And we developed a prejudice against language that seems fussy or overly ornamental. To see a vivid illustration of this shift, compare the sermons of John Henry Newman or Fulton J. Sheen to almost any sermon delivered today.
But what this gave us, many came to see, was a certain flattening out of the language of the liturgy, a rendering pedestrian of that which ought to be elevated. I will give just one example from hundreds that I could have chosen. Here is the prayer that we currently offer as the opening collect for Tuesday of the first week of Advent: “God of mercy and consolation, help us in our weakness and free us from sin. Hear our prayers that we may rejoice at the coming of your Son.” Pretty clear, direct, straightforward. Now here is the new translation of the same Latin prayer: “Look with favor, Lord God, on our petitions, and in our trials grant us your compassionate help that, consoled by the presence of your Son, whose coming we now await, we may be tainted no longer by the corruption of former ways.” We notice first that a great deal of the Latin original was simply not translated in the earlier version, but we also remark that the formality and courtly elegance of the Latin is preserved in the new version.
Next, let us consider the increased theological density of the new translations. It appears to have been a conviction of the translators in the 60s that overly theological language would turn people off and make the liturgy less immediately appealing. A particularly clear example of the application of this principle is the old translation of the post-Communion prayer for the thirtieth Sunday of the year: “Lord, bring to perfection within us the communion we share in this sacrament. May our celebration have an effect in our lives.” That prayer, I think you’ll agree, is rather bland and inelegant, landing, as one wag put it, “with a thud in heaven.” But it is also remarkably lacking in theological density and precision. Effect? What kind of effect? Good, bad, sacred, secular, psychological? Now listen to the new translation of the same Latin prayer: “May your sacraments, O Lord, we pray, perfect in us what lies within them, that what we now celebrate in signs we may one day possess in truth.” In a rather pithy formula, we find both a subtle theology of grace as well as a presentation of the eschatological dimension of the sacraments. Now we know fairly precisely what the “effect” is that we’re praying for.
Finally, let us look at the richly poetic and Scriptural quality of the new translations. Once more, it seems to have been a conscious decision of the earlier translators that much of the poetic imagery of the Bible—so evident in the Latin originals—should be trimmed from the English versions. I will give one example of dozens I could have chosen. The older translation of the opening collect for the first Sunday of Advent runs, in part, as follows: “All powerful God, increase our strength of will for doing good that Christ may find an eager welcome at his coming…” And here is the new version of the same prayer: “Grant your faithful, we pray, almighty God, the resolve to run forth to meet your Christ with righteous deeds at his coming, so that, gathered at his right hand, they may be worthy to possess the heavenly kingdom.” Our longing for Christ was pretty blandly communicated in the earlier version as “eager;” but in the new translation, it is given wonderfully rich expression as “running forth to meet” the Lord. If the new prayers sometimes won’t seem as immediately understandable as their predecessors, we should remember that poetry is generally harder to grasp than prose, but infinitely richer than prose in its evocative and descriptive power.
There has been, over the past several decades, an enormous debate concerning this process of translation. If you doubt me, dip into blogs written by liturgists—if you dare. But the Church has given us these new texts, and I think it is wise for us to accept them in a positive spirit. We will find in time, I believe, that they will deepen and enrich our prayer together.