Monday, 13 June 2011

" no less a human construct than a Shakespeare play."

Anyone care to guess what the first part of this quote, the "....", is referring to? Well, as the First Sunday of Advent approaches, I'm sure you can expect to hear more comments like this one in reference to the new English translation of the Roman Missal.

Yep, the book which gives form to the main act of worship (the "source and summit", if you will) of the largest part of the church founded by Christ, is no more divinely inspired than a Shakespeare play. At least according to The Tablet (sometimes called 'the Bitter Pill' - I'm starting to see why). This is one of many troubling statements made in the inaugural piece of a series of articles about this new translation. It's common on blogs to find emphasis and analysis posts, wherein the blogger looks at someone else's writing under a microscope. I haven't done one before, so I thought I'd give it a try:

Pentecost is the birthday of the Church, the first time, after the Resurrection, that the apostolic function is exercised. Filled with the Spirit, Peter and the others leave their place of concealment and come out into the crowded, noisy city streets, to begin the work they have been given to do.

They start to preach, and so strong is the power of the Word within them that when it is uttered it heals Babel, and is heard by the cosmopolitan mass of people, gathered in the city, clearly in their own languages. ["heals Babel." I like that. Very good - onwards!...]
Thus the first functional effect of the Word of God being preached is to make itself understood by all, no matter what their origin, their background, their language. The first apostles did not expect their hearers to understand Latin or Greek, or any other lingua franca. They did not have to hear the Word in any special register or vocabulary set. The Word comes to them in the language or dialect that speaks to them most immediately. [And it was all going so well. This makes it sound like the Apostles had laid out a strategy for evangelisation while they were waiting in that room, and had decided not to bother the man in the street with incomprehensible languages like Greek and Latin. Thus the 'Sacred language-bad, vernacular-good' subtext of this whole article comes to the surface.]
By the way, if the Apostles did have any expectations (though the whole Pentecost episode seems rather...spontaneous, doesn't it?), I'm sure they expected the "strangers of Rome" to understand Latin, and the half dozen nationalities St. Luke records as present who spoke mainly Greek, to understand Greek. And St. Peter definitely speaks in a 'special register' and 'vocabulary set' - hence his lengthy quotes from the Prophets Joel and Isaiah, and two Psalms. If the "stranger from Rome" in the street wasn't familiar with the Scriptures? He'd have to ask someone to find out what St. Peter was talking about. See how evangelisation works?

The writer then describes the theory of 'topology of language', which deals with how translations may be changes of the original text, in order to convey the same main reference points ("subject, plot, characters, the message"). Which brings us to this:

We preserve faithfully the poetry of Shakespeare’s drama, but we change the settings, costume, time frame, scenography of the plays. We perform them to a wide audience, and we translate the words used into speech forms that are comprehensible to their listeners. For example, although we may use Shakespeare’s own words, the accents and voice patterns used to express them are certainly different from those an Elizabethan audience would have heard, and obviously the canon of the plays has now been translated into practically every language on the planet. [Who thinks that Shakespeare is better in modern English than in the original Renaissance English? No one? That's what I thought, so I'm not sure how this makes the writer's overall point - 'old language-bad, new language-good']

The liturgical action we call the Mass, the eucharistic sacrifice, is no less a human construct than is a Shakespearean play. The words and the texts we use today are very different from those used 500 years ago, and certainly from those used in the Early Church, the first century or so after the Resurrection. Thanks to modern liturgists, there are elements of similarity. Ancient forms of the eucharistic prayers have been revived and are used in our vernacular texts. [E.g. Eucharistic Prayer II, from around 3rd Century, I think] But the way in which these are rendered, put into forms with which contemporary minds and tongues can feel comfortable and understand, is crucial if the liturgy is to have the desired effect of raising hearts and minds to God.  [I have no Magisterial authority, thank God, so can't say how close that first statement comes to heresy. I do own a copy of the Catechism, however, which has multiple paragraphs concerning the divine, heavenly, cosmic reality of our earthly liturgy e.g. CCC 1084-1090 "In the earthly liturgy we share in a foretaste of that heavenly liturgy...", 1137-1139 "It is in this eternal liturgy that the Spirit and the Church enable us to participate...", 1326 "By the Eucharistic celebration we we already unite ourselves with the heavenly liturgy...".
The Missal isn't Scripture, to be sure, but it is part of our liturgy, which is a "constitutive element of the holy and living Tradition" [CCC 1124]. Tradition, of course, comes to us from Christ through the Apostles, just like Scripture. It seems the Church has a more elevated view of its liturgical books than The Tablet. Also, did you spot the assumption? Comfortable and understandable language "is crucial" to raising hearts and minds to God. Says who? Doesn't comfortable language make us feel, well, comfortable, rather than rousing our innermost beings to contemplate the divine and difficult things of God? Wouldn't "poetic and challenging" language be better suited to this purpose?
It is important to remember that, as with Steiner’s examples of classical texts, the topos of the Mass remains the same. The core of the liturgy, the eucharistic action of the gather­ing, remains consistently the work of God; his mysterious presence within the community is still a reality, no matter what the context for the celebration. [Some of this is true - the liturgy is God's work primarily, ours secondarily, though that seems to cut across the grain of what the writer is advocating here (note the emphasis on 'the gathering' and 'the community'). Now, The Catechism rightly asserts that liturgy is the worship of the whole community, but that has to include people AND priest because Christ will never be sacramentally present without a priest to say Mass. This is just an impression, but given that Christ's sacramental presence is never mentioned in this article about the Mass, I don't think the writer has that view in mind.]
We do not negate that by using modern language or contemporary music. Just as the action of the celebrant is valid no matter what his personal state of soul, the action of the whole Mass is valid no matter what the state of those present, whether they are attentive or asleep, resentful or eager for full, wholehearted participation in their celebration. [If validity is all we're aiming for in our liturgy, then the priest could wear shorts and flip-flops, with a barmcake and a bottle of plonk on the coffee table, and we've got ourselves a sacrament. Always look out for this talk of 'validity' - it's a smokescreen for liturgical (and spiritual) minimalism, as though the miracle of the sacrament we witness at every Mass didn't demand our most beautiful art, music, poetry, architecture, and haberdashery (for the vestments).]

The apostles and their immediate successors did not “say” Mass in Latin. [No, they sang it in Greek and Aramaic] The Pentecost story demonstrates the diversity of the society into which the Church was born. It was only with the dominance of Roman culture, centuries later, that Latin became the lingua franca of the Church, as well as of the higher professions, of learning and so on.
She then puts forward the case that because English is the new lingua franca, the English translation of the Roman Missal is of global importance, which is true, but includes this:
In other words, for a religion that, like Catholic Christianity, professes to be universal, a closed, initiate group, with its own language and secret rituals, is not conducive to the intended aim of spreading the Word of God to all. And trying to maintain or restore this sense of encrypted meaning within the liturgy, through the use of esoteric or historical language, sets obstacles (scandal) in the way. [Is it me, or is she talking about the Latin Mass Society? And the FSSP? And the Pope? And the Church as she worshiped from the time of St. Gregory the Great until the 1970's? This writer is a translator, not an historian, so I'll give her the benefit of the doubt, and assume that she's doesn't know which language the great missionaries used at Mass all over the world, throughout the centuries, from Augustine of Canterbury in Anglo Saxon England, to Francis Xavier in India, winning untold millions of souls for Christ. By the way, it was Latin. And even if she's talking about 'King James Bible' English, the point still stands - the British Empire exported that around the globe, and it has nourished the faith of countless generations of Christians, including my beloved Newman. Who also said Mass exclusively in Latin when he converted.] 
And that's pretty much it, apart from a sinister prophecy that "If obstacles are put in [the word of God's] way, those responsible [i.e. the translators] will be called to account."

Behind this whole piece is a whopping assumption - that Mass should be immediately intelligible, and a foreign language (like, say, Latin or Ye Olde Englishe) definitely prevents that from happening.  Even in English, though, you can't understand it all straightaway, because there are so many actions, and signs and symbols and prayers, that are rich in different layers of meaning. We need to be taught what these meanings are to participate actively in the liturgy, regardless of the language, which is why I can actively participate in a Mass said in Flemish without understanding a single word of what was said, sung, prayed, and preached (which was what I experienced in my recent trip to Bruges).

This attitude also reflects the mentality of a faithful which only encounters God, and His Church, at Mass on Sunday. They don't read spiritual books, go to Mass mid-week or say the Rosary, look at the Bible or Catechism, or go on courses. In short, it is a symptom of the appalling state of catechesis in the modern Church. If our bishops, priests and deacons would only teach us some stuff, instead of giving us the same sort of exhortational homily on the moral life each week, important as that is, we'd be in a better position to receive this new translation. And in a better position to understand it.

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