Bishop explains how new Mass translation 'reaches up to heaven'

Bishop explains how new Mass translation 'reaches up to heaven'

Bishop James Conley
Bishop James Conley


Denver's Auxiliary Bishop James D. Conley addressed a group of church musicians on Nov. 20 at Colorado's Queen of Vietnamese Martyrs Church, celebrating the feast of their patron St. Cecilia and discussing important changes in the forthcoming English translation of the Mass.

He expressed hopes that the new, more accurate translation of the Roman Missal would enhance the reverence and beauty of Catholic worship. The new translation will become standard next year, at the beginning of Advent in 2011.

Bishop Conley also acknowledged liturgical abuses and aesthetic misjudgments in parts of the Church, but said these problems were not due to the Second Vatican Council, or the practice of having Mass in the local language that it allowed.

Rather, he said, the problems had arisen from a misunderstanding of the council, and resulting misconceptions about Catholics worship. “The new liturgy that the Council gave us is beautiful,” the bishop affirmed. “The problem has been that even good people have misinterpreted the Council badly.”

To illustrate this misunderstanding of the Council's spirit and its liturgy, Bishop Conley recounted an occasion in the life of Dorothy Day, the respected co-foundress of the Catholic Worker movement. Known for her social activism and service to the poor, she also described herself as a Catholic “traditionalist,” and resisted attempts to use the liturgy as a political tool.

When one misguided priest offered Mass at a Catholic Worker house using a coffee cup as a chalice to consecrate the blood of Christ, Day was “scandalized by the sacrilege,” in Bishop Conley's words. She “dug a deep hole in the backyard … then she kissed the coffee cup, and buried it,” ensuring the impromptu “chalice” would never be used for mere beverages.

In this incident, Bishop Conley observed the contrast between the priest's clumsy attempt to acknowledge Christ's humanity –at the cost of dishonoring his divinity– and Day's understanding that “in the Mass, God stoops down to lift us up to his level.”

God “makes it possible for us, though we are but creatures, to sing and worship with the angels” – an awe-inspiring task for which household objects, popular music, and casual language are inappropriate. Bishop Conley indicated that many attempts to make worship feel more familiar, have instead made it less inspiring.

The new Mass translation reasserts “the continuity of the Novus Ordo (Mass) with the ancient liturgy of the Church” – where the apostles and the first Christians understood themselves to be “singing the song of angels,” participating in a heavenly ceremony while on earth.

Bishop Conley cited the words of Pope Benedict XVI, who said Catholic worship “presupposes … that the heavens have been opened,” and must reflect this reality. “This is the truth we need to recover,” the bishop taught. “Christ has rent the heavens and come down to us. Again he has been lifted up and carried into heaven to take his seat at the right hand of power.”

And although “the dividing walls between heaven and earth, the human and the divine … have been torn down,” this has occurred in order to raise up humanity –as authentic liturgy does– rather than to diminish God, he said. “In the holy Mass, heaven reaches down to earth, and earth reaches up to heaven.”

Bishop Conley specified a number of changes intended to recapture this sense of the sacred in the new translation, including the revival of the congregation's traditional response “and with your spirit,” the restored and “more faithfully translated” prayer of the priest before the Eucharistic rite, and the more exalted language in the “Gloria” hymn.

“Our new Mass translation replaces the mundane affirmation –'Happy are those who are called to (Christ's) supper'– with a confession of faith … 'Blessed are those called to the Supper of the Lamb'.” The bishop explained that these changes “get us closer to the theological richness and the poetry of the original Latin.”

He hoped that the new translation of the Eucharistic Rite would especially help Catholics “penetrate more deeply into the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass,” in which “we join our self-offering with the self-offering of Christ on the Cross.” While the Church has maintained its belief in a direct participation in Christ's sacrifice, many modern Catholics lack an understanding of this principle.

Near the end of this talk, Bishop Conley turned his attention to another sacrifice he hoped would not be forgotten: the massacre of more than 50 Iraqi Catholics during a Sunday Mass in Baghdad on Oct. 31.

“This tragedy,” he said, “puts our conversation today into some perspective,” particularly since the faithful were taken hostage and killed in the course of their worship. Islamic militants “broke into the Mass and destroyed icons and stained glass windows; they desecrated the tabernacle.”

While virtually all of the worshipers at Baghdad's Cathedral of Our Lady of Salvation either died or received serious wounds, Bishop Conley noted that “they made their final moments an eloquent testimony” to their sense of sacrifice, gratitude and love. By using their last strength to reach out to God in prayer, the worshipers “died as the must have lived – 'eucharistically',” he said.

“We may never be asked to make the ultimate sacrifice for our faith,” the bishop reflected. “But we are called each day to live by the Eucharist we receive, and to make our lives an acceptable sacrifice that is pleasing to the Lord.”

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