Or What Have They Done To The Missal?

For six months now, we have been struggling to become familiar with a new translation of the Roman Missal. Some may be wondering was it really necessary, is it what the bishops really wanted and English-speaking Catholics really needed? Only time will tell whether it was really worth all the trouble, but in coming to that judgement it must help to know something of the background.


Let's begin with Jesus himself. He didn't, of course, speak Latin. In the synagogue he would have heard some of the formal prayers in Hebrew, but most of the proceedings and his own personal prayer were in the local popular dialect, Aramaic. And he gave instructions, and an example, of how we are to pray: not to pile lip unnecessary words like the pagans, he said, but to use simple, direct speech in popular language - the Our Father.

And once the church of the apostles spread beyond Judaism - that is within twenty years - it adopted the world language of that time, popular Greek. That's what the New Testament is written in, and the language used for the liturgy throughout the early Church. It was over 300 years before the Church at Rome adopted Latin, precisely as the vernacular when the Latin speakers of that diocese became the majority. Outside Europe, the Church from earliest times used local languages in the liturgy: Coptic, Syriac, Armenian, Ge'ez, Malayalam and others. And when in subsequent centuries the Church moved out into parts of Europe that spoke neither Latin nor Greek, its policy seems to have been once more to adopt the vernacular where there was the possibility of a written language - and so we have the Slavonic liturgies of Eastern Europe. But in Ireland, Britain, Germany, there was no written language yet, and so we inherited a Latin liturgy, not because Latin was the original language of Jesus and the apostles, much less because it was somehow 'sacred', but because Gaelic and Anglo-Saxon had not developed sufficiently when Christianity arrived.

So the Roman Missal is in Latin, but we now have advanced vernacular languages, and popular English is now pretty well what popular Greek was in New Testament times, the world language. But let us be clear, the Missal is not, like the Bible, the revealed word of God. It's a human composition, the response of God's people in a particular time and place to God's word, his presence, his action. We can be confident from St Paul's words (Romans 8) that God's Spirit was speaking through them, but equally that he speaks through all of us, in every century, every country, every culture, every language. The particular time and place in which most of the Missal was generated was the 5th to 6th centuries in Middle Italy, added to somewhat in 8th century France, and subsequently at desks in the Vatican. It's a human composition that contains wonderful riches, but also some quite ordinary and pedestrian stuff, and certainly doesn't say all that can be said in response to God, or say it in a way that cannot be bettered or expressed differently. And though it has served Western Catholics and helped formed their faith and spirituality for many centuries, it is not a museum piece, nor set in stone, incapable of development.

Understanding that, at the 2nd Vatican Council 50 years ago, the bishops of the entire world agreed that it should allow for variations and adaptations to suit the different languages and cultures of the modern world. Before the reforms demanded by the Council, the Mass had been celebrated with identical rubrics, actions and words (Latin words) regardless of the context, the congregation, the culture, the circumstances. You might. say it worked like clockwork. But the Council demanded the "full, conscious and active participation" of everyone present as their right and duty by Baptism, and so the Missal now requires that each and every celebration of Mass be adapted as closely as possible to the needs, spiritual preparation, culture and aptitudes of those taking part. (Simply put, that means that a school Mass will be somewhat different from Mass in a convent chapel or a cathedral, and that a Sunday parish Mass at St Elizabeth's will be slightly different in atmosphere and celebration from a weekday Mass at St Peter's.)

And quite rightly, too, because all liturgy, and especially the Mass, is a dialogue, in Christ, between God and his People, God and his Church. That Church is the Body of Christ existing throughout time and space, but it takes flesh and blood and becomes actual and active wherever two or three gather in his name, in every local congregation. And so, the words in which it responds to the Lord, words empowered by the Spirit as St Paul tells us, while they are uttered "in the name of the entire holy People of God" are also the words of those here and now present.

In insisting on the people's right and duty of "full , conscious and active participation", the Council decreed that the liturgy should be "distinguished by a noble simplicity... short, clear, free of useless repetition ... It should be within the people's power of comprehension, and should not require much explanation". The vernacular was to be restored at the discretion of local bishops, whose task and judgement it would be to prepare and approve translations, which approval would then be endorsed or confirmed by Rome.

In 1969, Pope Paul issued guidelines for translators: "the translation becomes, like the Latin, the voice of the Church. It should strive therefore for a speech that is accessible to the greatest number, easily understood, even by the uneducated and children, but nevertheless noble and worthy, not common. So, it is not sufficient that a formula handed down from another time or region be translated verbatim, even if accurately and literally. The words used must become the genuine prayer of the particular congregation, and everyone present must be able to find and hear themselves in those words".

Accordingly, the bishops of every country in the world that uses English (over 800 of them even then) established a commission of bishops and experts , the International Commission for English in the Liturgy (ICEL). The revised Latin Missal was ready by 1970, and in 1973, in record time, ICEL produced its translation, the one we have used until now, in strict accordance with Pope Paul's guidelines. Popes, bishops, and every Catholic who speaks English have been using it ever since. But it was a fairly rushed job, people were impatient for it, and Catholics had no experience of liturgy in English, so it was released only on the understanding that it would be revised and improved thoroughly in the light of experience after ten or fifteen years.

So, in 1985, the bishops from the whole English-speaking world set up a project Under ICEL produce a revised and improved text. They brought together experts in theology, liturgy, biblical studies, ancient languages, Latin, English language and literature, music, contemporary culture and pastoral realities - over 100 individuals, men and women from every continent, worked on it for twelve years, consulting every diocese in the world, publishing regular reports and draft texts for comment and criticism, refining their texts over and over again. I know how thorough this was because I was privileged to serve on the steering committee carrying through this work for 15 years and to chair it for its last five years.

The end result, a completely revised translation, enrichment and expansion of the Missal was completed in 1997 and approved overwhelmingly by all the bishops of the English-speaking world, unanimously in England and Wales, Scotland and Ireland. It was sent to Rome for its formal endorsement. After three years of total silence, the Vatican rejected it out of hand, without any reference to the bishops, disbanded the commission which had conducted the work, set up its own commission to second-guess the bishops, issued new guidelines to replace those of Pope Paul. These demanded a new, literal translation, to be prepared in total secrecy, without any input from the People of God whose prayer it was to be. They forbade the use of gender-inclusive language and the use of any texts which we already shared with other churches (an extraordinarily mean-spirited rejection of lovingly developed ecumenical convergence). They demanded literal fidelity not just to the vocabulary but also to the grammar, syntax, punctuation and even capitalisation of the Latin, in order to achieve a 'sacred vernacular', even if catechesis would be necessary to interpret or explain it

Another ten years later, this new translation has now been approved by the bishops, I think one can fairly say, at Rome's insistence (since they had already approved something entirely different), and it came into effect on the 1st Sunday of Advent last. Obviously, we must do our very best to accept and implement this decision of the bishops and the Holy See, however it was arrived at, but as intelligent, committed, adult members of the People of God, the Body of Christ, to all of whom the Spirit is given, we're not required to suspend our critical faculties, or to admire the way this has been brought about, or to ignore the serious questions it raises about the exercise of power in the Church and about the very authority of the 2nd Vatican Council.
In time, perhaps sooner than intended, this translation too will have to be reviewed in the light of experience, and hopefully the views of all the People of God, whose prayer it is, will this time be respected and taken into account. For, as St Paul said "When we cannot find words to pray properly, the Spirit himself expresses our pleas...."

Reproduced with permission by the author from the Parish Magazine, May 2012

icon Of Missals, Old, New and Airbrushed (249.28 kB)

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