Wednesday, 12 October 2011

"It's a complete insult to half the population!" On the new translation of the Roman Missal

I knew that, sooner or later, I'd end up writing a post about the new translation of Mass. I hoped it wouldn't happen, but I've now reached the stage where I feel it's necessary because I'm hearing a lot of comments like the one in the title of this post.

Originally, this was going to be about one particular phrase in the Consecration, but from numerous...let's call them 'conversations', I've had with fellow Catholics who oppose the new translation, it's clear that they don't save their displeasure for one phrase only. As such, I thought it might be useful to pull together various explanations of the most prominent changes so that you can explain them to the (mostly old) people who make their opinions known to you, and then, as usual, look at some underlying principles which can guide our thinking on the subject.

"And with your spirit" - surely the most noticeable change at Mass for those of us in the pews. Friends have taken to 'keeping score' of how many they get right (I hit all 4 today, without using the card!). Fortunately, there is a very in-depth article about this phrase written by the late Fr Austin Milner OP, but to summarize - praying for the Lord to be with someone's spirit is entirely Biblical; St. Paul signs off his letters to the Galatians and Philippians, and to St. Timothy and Philemon in various ways, but always praying that the the Lord or His grace will be with their spirits. This greeting/prayer is unique in the ancient world to Christianity - "and with your spirit" is therefore one of the most Christian things you can say. So why "and with your spirit"? According to St. Albert the Great, St. John Chrysostom, and more ancient sources, the people of God are praying that the Holy Spirit, the Spirit which gives the graces of Christ's priesthood to mere men, may be with the priest's spirit (soul) as he performs the sacred actions. After all, receiving those priestly graces at ordination works no change in a man's body, but eternally changes his soul, so while he must perform the actions with his body, it is through his spirit that the Holy Spirit works. As Chrysostom puts it: "For he who is there is a man, it is God who works though him. Do not attend to the nature of the one you see, but understand the grace which is invisible. Nothing human takes place in this sacred sanctuary." Finally, in the majority of European translations of the Latin, they have kept this phrasing e.g. "et avec ton esprit" in French. We're all part of a universal i.e. catholic church, and as such, should all at least say the same prays, even if in different languages, right?

The Triumph of Orthodoxy
"Consubstantial" - perhaps the most controversial change to the Nicene Creed, at least for some people. Someone I love dearly told me this morning that this new translation has a lot of "exclusive language" in it, citing this as an example - "people don't understand what Consubstantial means". The implication here is that they did understand what "of one being with the Father" meant, but I wonder how many Catholic Christians, when asked, would be able to give a satisfactory answer regarding the susbstantial unity of Father and Son (and Holy Spirit). Further, it is incredibly patronising to suggest that some people are just too stupid to understand what 'consubstantial' means, and that by its use they are somehow excluded from the liturgy. When I pointed out to her that the problem isn't the word 'consubstantial', it's that we haven't been taught what it means - everyone would be able to understand it, if only someone would explain it to us, she agreed. As with all similar misunderstandings and reservations about this translation, where the Church has fallen short isn't in the translation, it's in the catechesis which should have accompanied it. The blame here lies, not with the Pope, or even most Bishops, who have published booklets and DVDs and all sorts in an attempt to explain what was going on - the blame lies with us in the parishes. When was the last time you heard a priest give a homily on the meaning of 'consubstantial'? Have there been any workshops in your parish to explain, not just what was changing, but why? I didn't think so. (For those of you in this diocese/parish, watch this space).

"Pray brethren" - the phrase which caused the outburst which is the title of this post: "It's a complete insult to half the population!" Undeniably, 'brethren' began as an alternative plural form of 'brother', and was used alongside 'sistren' in the middle ages, and even up to Shakespeare's time. From then on, 'brothers' began to take over as the plural form, and 'sistren' fell out of use completely. 'Brethren' became, by the start of 17th Century, an exclusively religious word, meaning "fellow members of a religious community" without distinction between the sexes e.g. the Plymouth Brethren, a non-denominational sect of 19th Century, comprised of both men and women. Therefore, when the priest says, "Pray brethren" he is undeniably talking to both men and women! What's more, a straw poll of a number of female friends, all under the age of 25, revealed that they were not in the least offended by the word. The man who raised the objection is well into his late 70's. Only the "spirit of Vatican II" generation cares about these things, while the "Second Vatican Council" generation (i.e. us) have a deeper understanding of the meaning, and more important things to worry about.

hunc praeclarum calicem
"this precious chalice" - after the first week of using the new translation, one of the elderly women at my parish asked me what I thought of it. I didn't wax lyrical, but made it clear that I was heartily in favour of it. She had a number of reservations, and this was the one she singled out. Her concerns about this phrasing betrayed a faulty understanding of the Eucharistic celebration, which a couple of priests have told me were all the rage in the 1970s. As such, it's not entirely her fault - this was what she was taught by those she trusted to teach her the truth. So what bothered her about this wording? "I think 'cup' is better because it reminds us that Jesus was sharing an ordinary meal with his friends." Have you ever heard that before? I'd be surprised if not. If one thing is clear from the Gospel accounts of the Last Supper, it's this - it was a highly ritualised, liturgical event. As we know from the Old Testament, there were symbolic foods, special psalms, and other customs which had developed by Our Lord's time (like the Five Questions) associated with celebrating the Passover, and it was participated in by all the people of Israel. It wasn't dinner at a stranger's house on a Thursday night!

"But what about those Gospel accounts?" some might say. "They clearly say 'cup' in 1 Corinthians, Matthew, Mark, and Luke." Well, they say that in most English translations, though not in all. However, an important principle in the liturgy comes into focus because of this logical objection - the liturgy interprets Scripture, and is its own source of theology and teaching. The Church is the preserver and giver of both liturgy and Scripture, and we must remember that the liturgy is the elder of the two (1 Corinthians having been written around 20 years after the institution of the Eucharist). As such, the Church may legitimately emphasise something in liturgy which is implicit, but not necessarily explicit, in the Bible, something Pope Benedict alludes to regarding this exact phrase in this homily from Maundy Thursday [paragraph 7 - "The Roman Canon interprets this psalm..."]. So why "this precious chalice"?

When we say this phrase, we tend to stress "precious chalice" - for us this undoubtedly recalls images of the gold, silver, enamelled chalices we're used to seeing at Mass. The real meaning, though, is found in the only other common Catholic phrase with the word 'precious' in it - the Precious Blood. It is not the material the chalice is made from which makes it precious, but rather it's being made for and coming into contact with "His Most Precious Blood", as the Divine Praises put it. If a coffee cup has to be used for Holy Mass because nothing more suitable is available, it becomes a 'precious chalice' and should be treated as such, as Servant of God Dorothy Day ably demonstrated [search for the word 'chalice']. The words "precious chalice", then, are bound up with our belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. "Cup" just doesn't do it justice.

Yet if we neglect the first word in the phrase i.e. "this", we're also missing a key point. The Church wishes to make clear to us an incredible fact - "The sacrifice of Christ [on the Cross] and the sacrifice of the Eucharist are one single sacrifice" [CCC 1367. Emphasis in original]. When the priest acts as Christ did, taking the chalice in his hands and saying His words, there is actually no difference between 'our' chalice and the Lord's chalice of nearly 2,000 years ago - both contain the same Precious Blood. In a very real way, we are 'transported' back to that upper room where Christ began the New Covenant at every Mass we go to. Or rather, that Passover with the Apostles is brought through time to us (the Catechism has a good explanation of the meaning of "memorial" as applied to the Mass in CCC 1362-1364].

When the promoters of the new translation claim that it has more spiritual and theological depth than the (soon-to-be) old translation, these few examples are what they are talking about. There'll be even more in the prayers said by the priest at various points in Mass as well. I hope this will help you to at least present these positive aspects of it to the understandably cautious and the downright recalcitrant alike!

1 comment:

  1. It is also the case that the new translation makes much more use of connecting the old testament to the new via highlighting typological connections. I never understood before how liturgy was supposed to work.....maybe till I heard the words "like the dewfall".......which reminds us of the manna that appeared with the dewfall, and helps connect the dots between manna from heaven and bread from heaven. (That's just one example, I've noticed dozens......and the imagery is MUCH more vivid.) I think it would be a pity if people got hung up on words like "consubstatial" and missed what's really on the attentive.