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Why liberal liturgists dislike the new translation

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Dec 01, 2011

From all available indications, the new English translation of the Mass has been received quietly. The faithful have not rebelled—much to the dismay of those who have spent months fighting a desperate rear-guard action against this translation, and those who saddled us for 40 years with banal language for the sacred liturgy.

Oh, I have no doubt that there was grumbling in some churches when the new translation was introduced on the First Sunday of Advent. In many parishes, liberal clerics and professional liturgists had prepared the congregations to be unhappy. But for the great majority of Catholics, who approached the new language without prejudice, the differences were not jarring.

As it happened, the Lawler family enjoyed an unexpected bonus last Sunday. For complicated reasons (mostly involving the travel schedules of children who were visiting for Thanksgiving weekend), we attended Mass at St. Paul’s cathedral in Worcester, where the celebrant was Msgr. James Moroney: the former executive director of the US bishops’ liturgy committee, the secretary of the Vox Clara committee, the single American most responsible for the new translation. Msgr. Moroney had been working for 15 years toward this day, and now that it had finally arrived, he had trouble containing his joy. So did we.

A further personal observation: At our regular parish, the pastor jumped the gun, and we have been using the new language for a month now. So I can testify that after a few weeks of stumbling, we are already growing accustomed to the new language. Old habits are hard to break, and it will be a while before all stop saying reflexively, “And also with you.” But by Christmas, I suspect, we will usually have it right.

How appropriate that the new translation was unveiled at the beginning of Advent! Not only is it the beginning of the liturgical year, but it is also a time of searching and discovery. As we stumble over the new responses, we can think of the Magi following the unpredictable movements of a star, or St. Joseph banging on doors looking for a place to stay. If we are forced to pay extra attention to the words, that won’t be a bad thing. And if we continue to blurt out the old responses from time to time, that might be a useful lesson in humility.

Somewhat to my surprise, most Catholic Americans had been prepared for the introduction of the new translation. In an informal survey on our Catholic Culture site, almost exactly half of our readers (49.6%) reported that their parishes had been gradually introducing the faithful to the new language over a period of months. Another 40% had been invited to special presentations on the new translation (26.1%), or issued reminders during the last few weeks before the new Missal was introduced. Only 3% of our readers had been given no advance warning of the changes. In other words—if Catholic Culture readers form a fair sample—American pastors had done a good job preparing their congregations for the change.

New Missal Survey Results
(Click image for larger view.)

Unfortunately, the opponents of the new translation had done a good job in their own quest to stir dissatisfaction with the new liturgical language. So by last Sunday, scores of newspaper columns and blog posts had appeared, informing us that the Catholic faithful would be unable to adjust to the word “consubstantial.”

Somehow the faithful endured the shock. Actually the laity, having been prepared for major changes, may have been surprised by how little changed in the responses of the congregation. The most important changes in the new translation appear in the words used by the priest-celebrant.

And here we come to the crux of the matter (pun intended), and the reason why resistance against the new translation has been far more common among priests than among lay people. The new, loftier language has the effect of drawing attention to the action of Jesus Christ the High Priest, and minimizing the role of the celebrant’s personality. Critics of the new translation say that it is difficult for a priest to “declaim” this liturgical language. Exactly.

Place the new translation of a Eucharistic Prayer side-by-side with the old, and notice how the new Missal reminds us that a prayer—a conversation with the Almighty—is not an equal exchange. In the old version we would “ask” God to accept our sacrifice; now it is our “humble prayer and petition.” And why do the faithful do this? For “the redemption of their souls,” so that they might be “delivered from eternal damnation.” The same ideas are contained in the old translation, it’s true. But here they are spelled out with refreshing clarity.

Then notice the constant references to the glory of God and our own humble estate: “Be pleased…venerate…oblation…holy and venerable…eyes raised to heaven…glorious majesty…humble prayer…divine majesty…graciously grant.” With a liberal sprinkling of “blessed” and “holy” and “sacred”—words that were often dropped from the Latin in the old English translation—this language steadily reminds us that the Eucharistic liturgy is much more than another community event. The language helps us to recognize that when God vouchsafes to accept our sacrifice, it is because of his inexhaustible mercy, not because of our rhetorical prowess.

At its worst, the old translation could sound like a business memo, addressed to God, giving the Almighty a to-do list: grant this, accept that, bless this. The new language avoids that trap. And in doing so, the new translation guards against the tendency to view the priest-celebrant as the central actor in the drama. Instead we are reminded that the Eucharist is the action of Christ. (Is it too much to hope that the next step in the liturgical renewal will be for priests to turn around and face in the same direction that the faithful are facing: ad orientem, driving home the truth that we are all praying together, priest and people?)

The new English liturgical texts are more faithful to the Latin originals. But that fidelity is not the only benefit of the new language. This new translation unlocks a treasury of Catholic liturgical heritage. There is the rich poetic language, with its parallel clauses and vivid imagery. There are the allusions to the prophets, the Psalms, and the history of Israel—helping us to recall the Hebrew roots of Christian faith, and to be mindful that apart from this holy Sacrifice, we would be like the ancient Patriarchs, feeling painfully unworthy to raise our eyes in the presence of the eternal I Am. It is sad to realize that an entire generation of Catholics has been raised with an impoverished liturgical language, but consoling to know that they will now discover the riches they have inherited.

The new language of the liturgy is instructive, enriching, yet not didactic. This is not the language of a memo, nor of a declamation. It is, unmistakably, the language of prayer.

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Show 15 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: jeffbell60 - Dec. 05, 2011 6:49 PM ET USA

    Phil, Thank you for your thoughtful article. As always, you went right to the heart of the issue. Though you alluded to the pride of those who resist the appropriate liturgy (it's not really NEW...just correct). The wonderful thing about our "corrected" liturgy is that it is more majestic, elegant and humble. It embraces what us Catholic Christians really know and feel... our Lord is more magnificent than we can ever imagine. Our Church fathers knew that when our liturgy was written.

  • Posted by: Alcuin - Dec. 04, 2011 7:05 PM ET USA

    I hope that the new translation will help young people growing up in the Church understand the mass in a way that those of us growing up in the 1980s never did. Incidentally, I was one of those who answered "What new translation?", but as I attend an FSSP parish and we are still using the 1962 missal, it was rather unfair of me to answer at all.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Dec. 03, 2011 10:23 PM ET USA

    Latin, the traditional language of the Mass, transcended the inevitable changes of the vernacular. The "dead" language offers the liturgy a certain beauty, mystery, and timelessness. The corrections have come none too soon. There is a crisis of faith in the Church; so many are unable to articulate the meaning of the Mass or how it affords us the unique opportunity to participate in the divine life of Our Savior in a profoundly personal way. Perhaps these changes will illuminate the darkness.

  • Posted by: GabrielAustin9013 - Dec. 02, 2011 5:37 PM ET USA

    Our savvy parish priest insists that the "new translation" is simply a corrected translation.

  • Posted by: GabrielAustin9013 - Dec. 02, 2011 5:35 PM ET USA

    Our savvy parish priest insists that the "new translation" is simply a corrected translation.

  • Posted by: AgnesDay - Dec. 02, 2011 5:10 PM ET USA

    JohnJPlick--it is possible both to be bold before the throne of Grace and to recognize our total dependence on its Occupant. Witness the prayer of the SyroPhonecian woman who persisted beyond all reason in the most humble prayer for her daughter. She's a great model for us all.

  • Posted by: John J Plick - Dec. 02, 2011 4:15 PM ET USA

    "Place the new translation of a Eucharistic Prayer side-by-side with the old, and notice how the new Missal reminds us that a prayer—a conversation with the Almighty—is not an equal exchange.' Then what happened to "I call you friends..." We do not come to God as beggars or slaves.., rather, we are called to "approach boldly the Throne of Grace..." Outrageous rebellion when it does occur should be dealt with in confession. A slavish approach to God is not my preference.

  • Posted by: jdieterich616502 - Dec. 02, 2011 2:01 PM ET USA

    My experience was a stunning one, and one of great joy. My little children were thrilled to learn something new, and follow along with the new words, and the parish itself was thrilled. I admittedly go to a very traditional parish, so most were ready long ago, but the expecation of a smooth transition still could not compare to the beauty of the new translation. I've loved every experience I've had with it this week!

  • Posted by: AgnesDay - Dec. 02, 2011 1:16 PM ET USA

    Even our accoompanist, who predicted a train wreck, had to admit to only a minor derailment. I gave a ten-minute preparation to the parish before our only Mass, telling them that what was changing for us was small in oomparison to what was changing for the priest. I didn't hear any complaints, other than mine for not getting started sooner on preparations.

  • Posted by: mamato085337 - Dec. 02, 2011 7:50 AM ET USA

    Unfortunately for me, Phil, my children (and now theirs also) will NOT discover the riches of the new words because they left the Church over the banality of that replacement we were given, along with joking priests. I attend Mass unsurrounded by any of my family, which makes me so sad. I had what has been restored when I was young; why do so many act like it's totally new? It's a restoration! Thanks be to God.

  • Posted by: BobJ70777069 - Dec. 01, 2011 9:22 PM ET USA

    As I said to the Pastor, "It's like coming home." I realize that many are not as comfortable in Latin as I am, but this (new?)language is a blessing for everyone.

  • Posted by: tonydecker513018861 - Dec. 01, 2011 7:51 PM ET USA

    I can hope for many changes; a return of some latin in the liturgy, ad orientem, the use of altar rails and receiving of communion on the tongue only. We have a long ways to go, but even this day is almost a dream come true to me.

  • Posted by: jjen009 - Dec. 01, 2011 7:15 PM ET USA

    I wish we had it! New Zealand actually got the "People's Parts" with the priests' corresponding bits at the start of Advent, 2010, were supposed to have the full thing at the start of this Advent - and then due to some printing cock-up, it's been delayed indefinitely. No one knows when, or even if, we will get the new translation. Article about it: http://www.nzcatholic.org.nz/2011/11/10/printing-error-delays-nzs-new-translation/ jj

  • Posted by: porcini - Dec. 01, 2011 7:09 PM ET USA

    Our parish had no warning, because the pastor said, "This is not a big change. It is the same Mass. People are making too much over it." And there was no big fuss on Sunday. One parishioner, however, asked, "Was that a Catholic Mass we just had?" I think he was joking.

  • Posted by: Exaudi nos - Dec. 01, 2011 6:31 PM ET USA

    Oh, woe to those narcissistic leaning priests. This does not bode well for them.

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